This story of the first martyr of the church holds a firm footing in the Christian imagination. There are hundreds of icons and paintings and frescos devoted the memory of Stephen. And while his memory looms large, how much do we know about Stephen, his life and his ministry before death? If we look back in Acts we may discover something about him that surprises us.
Last week we heard the story of the church right after Pentecost, how the church grew very quickly, by 3,000. It was a lot to organize this new body of believers.
This becomes a problem when a ministry to feed the poor starts to falter. In the early church, significant cultural and social diversity made shared life difficult. The disciples discover this when they find that the Greek Jewish widow aren’t getting enough to eat because of these divisions. And nobody is paying attention to the distribution.
So the disciples get together. “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables,” they scoff. “Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”
In other words, “we are too busy with praying and serving (the real work of the church) to take care of widows (so we’ll get someone else to do it).”
And guess who they choose.
Stephen is the one who is chosen to wait on tables. You know who he is. He’s the one cleaning up Oak City Outreach Center after everyone else has packed up. He’s the one putting away chairs after worship. He’s the one on nursery duty for the millionth Sunday in a row.
Stephen does the work of mercy, the work of showing up when no one else wants to. He’s not one of the twelve disciples, the inner circle, out preaching in front of everyone and going up against the Temple leaders. He was picked for “waiting on tables” when the work of preaching goes to someone else. Because Stephen has a penchant for mercy.
But an interesting thing happens. The other disciples, the ones supposedly doing the important work, they drop out of the narrative after Stephen is anointed. The next chapters are about Stephen, and no one else. He begins to perform miracles and signs, full of God’s grace and power. Since he’s also supposed to oversee food distribution to the widows, I’ve always thought these acts of power had to happen there, miracles and signs in the soup kitchen. God shows up in power here, through mercy.
Not long after Stephen gets in trouble, he infuriates an angry crowd. And they kill him, kill him for his testimony. But Stephen’s death by stoning ends in a remarkable way. He prays for God to forgive those who are killing him. It’s meant to be an echo of Jesus’ death, as this whole scene is meant to be. Jesus imprints his own body on the life of the church. What happened to him will happen to them.
There’s a lot of power in being a martyr, a lot of power in getting the last word before death. But maybe Stephen’s impulse here at the end isn’t to name himself as righteous, to position himself as even more virtuous than we could imagine. Maybe he asks for forgiveness because his whole life is oriented towards mercy. These aren’t pious words, the words you’re supposed to say. Stephen looks around and does what he has always done, what’s deep inside, the thing that makes him like Jesus. He sees people at their worst, and he offers them mercy.
While the disciples scoff at waiting tables, they miss out on this kind of reorientation, the power of putting yourself alongside people who depend on mercy. Stephen spends his days navigating the cultural barriers between widows, the poorest, most pitiful people in the land. They have no rights, no family, no citizenship, no ability to work, no hope for improving their situation. Stephen hangs around these people—people who live their whole lives off the mercy of others, people who know nothing else, only mercy.
This week Zinith sent me a sermon he preached at one of Love Wins’ Wednesday services. This line stuck with me. “Telling one’s story differs from sharing one’s story.” There’s so much truth there, in Zinith’s words. Anyone can hear a story from another person, but something entirely different happens when you look at that story and say, “Oh, that story about you is also a story about me.” Something reaches out through distance, something connects. And that’s where mercy is born.
As I was thinking about this kind of reaching across distance, I kept thinking about Rosene and David—something I’ve noticed about them. The Rohrers are always eating with other people. They eat with people in times that are tense and in times that are joyful, to say goodbye and to share difficult news. It has been my experience that their first intuition, in almost any situation, is to find a time to eat with others.
Maybe it’s because I was paying attention to this that I got this sense that we should have Communion today, a sort of Holy Spirit nudge. But I didn’t really like the nudge. I worry about making Communion into a balm to clear up all our problems, a declaration of oneness that covers up our differences. Our differences are real, and they have consequences for people’s lives. I don’t want to make Communion something to diminish the reality of the difficult things between us.
I also know Communion has a depth of meanings. What I learned from David and Rosene this week is that Communion doesn’t have to mean eradicating our difference. It can be a sign of mercy. It can a sign that the distance between you and me lets us see just how far mercy can stretch. As 1 Peter reminds us, once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.
Communion, taking mercy into our bodies – this may help us understand Ledell Lee’s final meal. Three weeks ago Lee was the first death row inmate to be executed in Arkansas in over a decade. He maintained his innocence to the end. Important evidential questions about blood and DNA have been raised, and a new defense was planned. But the drugs used for capital punishment were near expiration and Arkansas needed to use them up. The state quickly needed to kill ten men.
The day after Ledell was killed, I saw a detail in the news report, one that might have slipped by. Lee’s last meal was Communion. He received the meal silently, twice asked if he wanted to make a statement. I suppose that he knew all the words had been used up, that words were useless now. There was nothing left to say. All that was left was to receive mercy in his body, to ingest mercy, to make his body mercy against the mercilessness of the world around him.
We’ll take the same mercy into our bodies today, the same meal eaten by Ledell Lee, the same meal that spreads across the Rohrer’s table, the meal we offer to one another because we can see ourselves in this story, see that the one needing mercy is here—is you, is me. We need mercy.
When Jesus gathers his disciples for this final meal, they don’t know it yet, but they are about to disperse, about the be betray him, about to face their future with fear, a bleak future. And for the journey he gives them a little bread, something of himself inside of them, something that cannot be stripped away because it becomes a part of them. That mercy sustains them for a life of uncertainty, of questions, of fault lines they never could have anticipated. Stephen shows them how to live this life, one where we are finding ourselves brought alongside those who know mercy, who live by the mercy of others.
Friends, what else are we doing here if not to find ways to offer up mercy to others, to offer a little bit of bread that will be a morsel of mercy, one we do not deserve, that we can never earn, to let that grow as a seed inside us in the hope that one day we can hear someone asking for mercy and then, in spite of all our fears, give the mercy we have received to another?
What else are we doing here if not to offer mercy?