The Stoning of Stephen
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of their killing him. - Acts 7:54-8:1 (NIV)
Whoa. Jumping back into these devotionals with a pretty heavy story, eh? Stephen is assumed to have been young when he died ("fell asleep" was a common term for the time, to indicate dying). Madly in love with Jesus and His Gospel, he rapidly became an evangelist for the message of salvation. Stephen didn't care who got upset with him. In fact, even as he's being brutally murdered (and 'brutal' doesn't do justice to dying by people throwing large stones at you), he worships God and does what Jesus said to do: love and forgive your enemies. Too often, this story is simply a jumping off point to the story of the apostle Paul (Saul became known as Paul after his conversion), to the point we don't always think about the example Stephen is giving us, or the why of his death.
He said things that people didn't want to hear. His words meant change, a break in the status quo which said God is shaped like this, and this, but not that. He wasn't making any claims about the Gospel which were outside Jesus' own words. Quite simply, the religious leaders hated Jesus, Stephen loved Jesus, so they hated Stephen (some mathematician drew a mathematical formula for this in his/her head just now). Stephen died not because he told people they were going to hell or their lifestyle was sinful; he died because he praised Jesus, and these folks didn't like what Jesus had said during his ministry.
That sounds confusing but consider this: me claiming love for Jesus today, even with this devotional page, will make some people angry because they have their own preconceived notions of what His followers are like. This might be because in their past, people of faith or pretending to have faith, hurt them. Or it might be because it's OK to be hurtful to Christians because we've already been demonized by certain sections of society. Let's be honest, some people out there only need a target for their own hurt and rage. The men who stoned Stephen, did they all hate him because he loved Jesus and claimed him as Messiah? No. I'm certain some merely took advantage of the fact that society said it was OK to hurt this young man, so they did. Whatever was wrong in their own, personal world, caused hurt. In return they needed to hurt someone else. Stephen was an offering laid before them, so they took it.
Look onto Facebook. If someone accuses someone else of being a terrible human being for something they said ten years ago, about some people-group, others will emerge from the woodwork to damn this person as well, shouting, "Burn them!" and yet have no idea what the person actually said, or in what context. They are simply hurting, and rally around any cry to hurt someone else. All of it, under the guise of righteous indignation. I think Stephen knew this, and asked God to forgive them even as he was murdered by them. Maybe one or two of his killers thought about this later. Maybe their actions, sanctioned by society, ended up turning them around to repentance before God all because the one they killed forgave them.
Today, there are so many people in pain because they've lost people, or been hurt by them, or are stir-crazy after two years of pandemic living. Some might lash out at us. Hopefully not murderously, but we as Christians might become the target of another's anger. More than any other moment in our walk with God, these are ones Jesus called us into; to love them back, forgive them, and in doing so we better understand the pain these people are feeling. That's the first step towards healing. All of this is easy to write, hard to live. But in those moments if we remember what Stephen had to suffer to love those around him, maybe it'll make it easier.
Let's pray: Lord, thank you for seeing us as your broken but beautiful creations. Let us to see others in this way, and to see Stephen as the epitome of loving and forgiving others. Help us heal the hurt and broken. Amen.