5/14/2017 Fifth Sunday of Easter The text is Acts 7:55-60.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
On this Mother’s Day, I probably chose the most un-motherly of Bible passages to preach on – for I have chosen the passage from Acts which describes the stoning of Stephen. There are no warm fuzzies here. There is no motherly woman crying out because of the injustice of it all. There is no one standing by weeping. There is only Stephen, the first martyr of the church, and those executing him.
Today, we use more “humane” methods. We don’t crucify, behead, or stone people in this country. But that doesn’t take away the death penalty. Those who have committed heinous crimes are still executed. But, what had Stephen done that warranted such treatment? In our country of religious freedom, we would say he did nothing. For, what got him in trouble was that he had dared to put his faith in Christ Jesus and let the world know about it. That made him a blasphemer and someone deserving death by Jewish law. There would be no crucifixion here. No Roman law had been broken. He would be stoned for his faith.
Now if you’ve never been to a stoning (and I don’t believe any of you have), you might think it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to someone who’s committed a terrible crime, but it’s more than that, otherwise the person being stoned would just be held down while someone dropped a massive stone on the head and ended it in one fell swoop. But that isn’t how stoning took place.
To begin, the person being stone was immobilized as it’s much too hard for people to be precise when they’re throwing at a moving target. So, ideally, the person would be entrapped in a small gully or ravine, so escape would be cut off. The first few rocks were thrown at the lower body, going for the knees or hips, and they were thrown often and hard enough to knock the person to the ground. Once the person was unable to move, stones could be hurled at the torso, inflicting as much nonfatal damage as possible.
It was a slow process because the people doing the stoning wanted the person to plead for mercy and confess the sin which brought him or her to this point of inevitable death. Sometimes, if the person was hurt too badly, it was just a simple, pleading, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes, if things had been done with some finesse and care, a more eloquent confession might be made. Either way, the object was to get an admission of wrongdoing, more than just death. (the description of stoning taken from Stories/illustrations by Keith Hewitt and Keith Wagner from StoryShare based on Luke 14:1-14, Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10)
And this is where the stoning of Stephen goes so wrong. As the crowd looked at Stephen’s eyes, his expression, the way he knelt on the ground and tried to cradle his broken bone, they could tell he had reached the moment of accepting the inevitability of his death. But from him lips came no cry in pain, begging for mercy. From his lips came no confession of sin. From his lips came no repentance, no recanting what he had proclaimed in public. Instead, what the crowd heard was a prayer…a prayer similar to the one spoken by Jesus from the cross as he handed his spirit over to his Father in heaven.
In the agony of the moment, realizing the inevitability of death, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He gave himself over to his Lord and ours, his God and ours as he placed his life firmly in the hands of Jesus. And then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen’s final words mirrored those of Jesus who from the cross said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” As Jesus words were words of forgiveness, Stephen’s final words were a plea for forgiveness for those executing him. Would forgiveness save him from the inevitability of death? No. Would forgiveness bring justice? No – not from our perspective. But, that didn’t matter. He plead for forgiveness on behalf of those who were hurting him, those who were killing him, those who did not share his faith in Christ Jesus.
Now, my friends, in case you haven’t found it out, forgiveness does have a duel benefit. It benefits the receiver, even if the person doesn’t acknowledge a need for it, confess the wrong, or change his or her ways. It leaves justice in the hands of God. By leaving judgment in God’s hands, the giver benefits, too. It relieves him or her from the burden of holding onto a feeling of being wronged, a feeling that over the course of time can well up into hatred of the perpetrator rather than what the person did that caused pain. Forgiveness is trust in God. Forgiveness is handing over the pain and injustice to the Lord, acknowledging that Jesus knows how bad you hurt.
Of course, this letting go and handing it over to God isn’t an easy thing to do. That’s why we shake our heads in disbelief when parents forgive a person who has killed or molested their child. That’s why we shake our heads in disbelief when someone who was kidnapped and held captive forgives the one who committed the crime. It isn’t that these people don’t want the person to pay for what he or she has done. Forgiveness does not release the wrongdoer from the consequences of sin. But, it brings peace to the life of the one who was wronged.
I have seen lives trapped by inability or unwillingness to forgive. I have seen people’s lives crippled by being handcuffed by past pain and injustice. I have seen congregations and entire communities unable to enjoy the present and the future because of holding onto wrongs and not releasing them to God.
As he was dying, with his final words, Stephen sought peace…peace with God and peace with those who were stoning him to death. So, he released himself and he released those stoning him into the hands of his Lord, knowing that Jesus knew his pain and that Jesus came not to condemn, but to save – and to forgive even from the cross.
On this Mother’s day, if you are harboring past wrongs or present hurts your parents may have caused you over your lifetime, hand them over to God. Forgive and find peace. Forgive and let God be judge. Forgive and move on without the burden of carrying those hurts to your grave. For, forgiveness is just as much for you as it is for those who have hurt you. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.