Every week I am presented with a challenge, the lectionary readings. The stoning of
Stephen kept going through my head. We only get a small part of the story of Stephen in our reading. We get the tragic end of the narrative. I kept wondering how I can make this pertinent to today’s world. Honestly, it didn’t take that much effort. However, putting it into coherent sentences and paragraphs was a challenge.
Today, I intend to continue from last weeks homily that referenced the differences
between the practice of religion and the growth of inner spirituality. I will also touch on what occurs to a society in crisis, when long standing structures are breaking down and dysfunctional. The overall theme will ask what happens to our morals and ethics in the midst of breakdown and new vision for the future. Boy, does that sound heavy?
A short recap is necessary here: religion deals with the exterior questions of 1. what do I believe, 2. how should I behave, and 3. who am I. Spirituality deals with the interior questions of 1. how do I believe, 2. what should I do with my life and 3. whose am I.
The reading from Acts 7:55-60 is a succinct narrative with a number of complex themes. It also shows what happens to morals and ethics under stress, it shows the difference between religion and spirituality.
Stephen had been with the Council of the Sanhedrin which was the Jewish supreme
council and court of justice in Jerusalem. The council consisted of both priests and laymen. The laymen were Sadducees and Pharisees. The priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees knew the law of Moses. They knew the ten commandments and surly the Book of Leviticus which tells them how they should behave. They were the very essence of morality and ethical being. But, something happens to humans when there is a breakdown of legitimacy, when the culture becomes dysfunctional, when the prevailing order has failed. It seems that people who live mostly from the external religious stance, who know in their head what is right but do not live by the internal reality and experience of their faith lose their grounding.
Stephen is a man who is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Sprit gives Stephen authority to speak and to witness to whom he belongs. Stephen challenged these men with his vision of Jesus as the “Son of Man.” What angered these men was placing the crucified Jesus in close relation to God. It did not matter that Stephen was able to use the words of the prophets and Moses to back up his case. He gives a lengthy retelling of Israel’s history. He connects Israel’s rejections of their leaders, especially Moses, with his audience’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. He used really strong language.
What did the men in the council do when Stephen pointed out their failings? The
narrative says they covered their ears and with loud shouts all rushed together against him.
They covered their ears and shouted over him so they might not hear. That rather reminds me of what children at a certain age do when they don’t want to hear what mom or dad are saying. I have a confession. I do something similar when I just do not want to hear what political pundits are saying. I just change channels. I’m just not going to listen.
Morality can be seen as a set of answers or rules about how to behave. The Book of
Leviticus is dedicated to ritual and moral holiness. It is very precise in how one should behave and how one should believe. But what happened to “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Leviticus 19 11-18 says do not render unjust judgments, do not profit by violence against your neighbor, do not hate your kinfolk, do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. Rage and anger can erase all our head knowledge. Murder happened. The stoning of Stephen could also be seen as just; Exodus 21:12-26 gives reasons for capital punishment. The one outstanding reason it cannot be seen as just is the killing was done out of rage. Stephen’s humanity was ignored.
We live in an era of rage, of lax morals and situational ethics. Now, I am not against situational ethics.
The situational ethics theory was first postulated during the 1960’s by Joseph Fletcher. It was intended to be a middle ground position in the Christian world of ethics between legalism and a stance that says there is no law—everything is relative to the moment and should be decided in a spontaneous fashion with man’s will as the source of truth. Legalism has a set of predetermined and different laws for every decision-making situation. Fletcher’s ethical theory is based on only one absolute law, which when applied properly, handles every situation. Fletcher’s stated we must enter every situation with only one moral weapon—the law of agape love. ( internet source)
What we witness in the stoning is the ethic of legalism turned into no law at all that turned into a legal persecution of the early Christians. Humans have a way of justifying their actions. Christians did this when they burned heretics who held “unorthodox views”. Stephen’s views were also unorthodox to the Jewish leaders.
Almost every day we are confronted with dilemmas that challenge our heart, our mind
and our soul. Fletcher urges those who are concerned about their ethics to use agape love as the test of action. In the sermon on the mount Jesus said that we are to love God, love neighbor and to pray for our enemies. Jesus constantly used agape love as the yard stick for our actions.
How will we live out our Spiritual life as we continue to move into the future with all its dilemmas, with all the different situations we will be confronted with? Stephen prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven in the manner of Jesus.
When we are confronted with difficult decisions it is good to have a community of
people to whom we belong and a God to whom we belong that we can go to for help. Our
Spiritual life helps us to know what to do with our life, our practice, intentionality and purpose. Working together in a relational community with intentional practice and experiential belief, we can continue the process of ushering in God’s Kingdom. Faith can transform the world only when love, peace, and tolerance are given more than lip service.