May 14, 2017

Hold It Not Against Them

Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, faithfully followed in Jesus’ steps even to the point of death.

The Book of Acts identifies Stephen as a servant leader in the early church. Set apart as one of seven deacons who oversaw what was, in essence, a “Meals on Wheels” type program for poor widows, Stephen also performed “great wonders and signs” and boldly preached the Gospel. When his preaching offended prevailing religious sensibilities, however, a crowd seized him and demanded from him a defense of his actions. He gave them, instead, his last sermon.

Standing before the high priest, Stephen began by repeating the great story of God’s relationship with God’s people, a story that everyone in the room knew very well. He spoke of God’s covenant with Abraham, of blessings bestowed on Joseph, and of the Exodus from slavery with Moses at the helm. He talked about kings and prophets and of the higher law on which was built the system of rituals and sacrifices in which Stephen, like the others, participated.

Again, the crowd and the religious leaders knew this story as well. In Stephen’s telling of it there was no offense. But when he said that, through Jesus, God had added a new chapter to the story, the common ground on which they were standing fell from beneath Stephen’s feet.

The preacher didn’t pull any punches when he reached his rhetorical crescendo.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.
Stephen’s words so enraged the crowd that they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
In death, however, Stephen’s influence continued to spread.

The first martyr in a generation of martyrs, the composure and strength with which he faced his end inspires persecuted disciples to this very generation.

Beyond his witness, Stephen’s confidence that death could not separate him from God’s love and that Jesus would receive his spirit also remains a source of hope for believers.

If you’ve ever found comfort at a graveside in the thought that nothing, not even death, can separate your departed loved one from God’s love, then you’ve been blessed by Stephen’s legacy, too.

For our purposes this morning, though, there’s a third element of Stephen’s story on which I’d like to focus. It’s the last thing he said, the words he prayed as his enemies took his life: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Last week, we heard the story of the Emmaus Road, the place where Jesus walked with two disciples who, in their minds, were already walking away from him.

If you know that story, or if you remember what took place in the Upper Room, the garden, or on the Cross, you know that it is not in God’s character to delay blessing fragile and broken people until they get their act together.

Jesus did not wait to lay down his life and take it up again until the world, or even his closest friends, understood what he was all about.

He did these things knowing well that the recipients had not—indeed, that they could not—earn his gracious gift, but he blessed and gave and loved them, nevertheless.

Saint Stephen’s prayer shows us what it looks like when we allow this quality of God’s character to flower in our own lives.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Disciples who know that their eternal hope is built on the foundation of a love divine that they did not earn understand that following Jesus empowers them to imitate, embody, and incarnate the same love by God’s grace.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Stephen could pray these words because he knew that when Jesus prayed a similar prayer on the cross it wasn’t just for the benefit of the Roman soldiers who crucified him, the community that rejected him, or the friends who abandoned him. It was for all of us—for Stephen, for you, for me, even for our enemies, and those whose hearts are blind to Christ in their midst.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

This is the prayer of a heart filled with God’s grace. It’s also the prayer of a heart that recognizes hatred and revenge are dead ends. It’s the prayer of someone who knows that to clench one’s fist in anger is to choke the life out of one’s own heart.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Inspired by grace, trusting in grace, this is the first intercession of Christ and his Church on behalf of a fallen world.

When we intercede—when we pray—for the poor and sick, for the brave and the fearful, for our enemies and the people who would deny God’s love, we’re not asking God to make them go away or to smite them with fire and brimstone. We’re following in Stephen’s steps, asking God to bless and meet them on whatever road they’re traveling.

Tempted as we are to reduce the work of worship, especially our prayer life, to obtaining and holding on to our own little piece of eternal life, Scripture and the Great Tradition invite us to see what we do here as fulfilling God’s promise that, through the community of faith, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

As Christians, we pray on behalf of others—we intercede for the world—because this is the world that God loves and blesses. This is the world for which Jesus lives.

In a lovely book about the connection between worship and spirituality, Philip Pfatteicher expands on this thought.

There is no finer example of the responsibility of the church than in…understanding the purpose and scope of the intercessions. The congregation, prompted by the Holy Spirit, prays not for itself only but for all—in need, in joy, in grief, in pain—and the congregation gives thanks not only for all that God has done for them but for the good things that God has done for and given to others…(p. 192)
With Bono we affirm that God’s blessings “aren’t just for the ones who kneel.”

With one of the church’s great hymns we declare that “Christ for the world we sing.”

With the whole creation, as Saint Paul tells us, we yearn “for the revealing of God’s children”, who, though weak, pray with the Spirit’s help, that the world will be set free from bondage and redeemed.

Speaking of interceding on the world’s behalf, of God’s gracious gift for sinners, and of Saint Paul’s perspective on these matters, there’s one more thing to say about Stephen’s legacy.

Paul, also known as Saul, was there, looking on with approval, when the mob overtook Stephen.

You see, before he became the great champion of ethnic, economic, and spiritual reconciliation in Christ’s name, Saint Paul was first and foremost a sinner on whose behalf Stephen did intercede.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

In a letter to a young minister, Paul reminds us that Stephen’s prayer was not in vain.

[Timothy], I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy…The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

And the Lord heard this prayer and redeemed “a man of violence.”

The Lord heard this prayer and shows us how to live.

The Lord heard this prayer and has grace yet to give.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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