Virginia-Highland Baptist Church, Atlanta, Ga.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, Psalm 15-16, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in writing today’s sermon was in choosing a proper introduction, finding ways to be witty and humorous while seeking to garner your rapt attention and your totally engaged and engrossed focus as you listen to and ponder these homiletically charged words. I mean, how does one make light of death and dying, of mayhem, martyrdom, and murder, of burnings, and stonings, and crucifixions? For, it is the very disconcertedness of such subjects that illicits nervous laughter and the very real need for a light moment. Well, there’s not going to be one!
I decided that the only proper introduction to this sermon, a sermon textually rooted in Luke’s recounting of Stephen’s stoning and contextually centered on our congregation’s present situation, that is our relationship to the Georgia Baptist Convention, would be a panoramic survey of persecution and martyrdom down through the ages, both from within and outside of the church. For those of you who are not aware, our congregation has been charged with improper ministry to homosexual persons, folk not referred to in the official notification letter as persons of gay and lesbian orientation. More about that later!
Do you know how long it would take to even provide a glimpse of the numbers of faithful folk killed because of their Christian belief, or killed because of an accusation of heresy leveled against them? Trust me, more time than you or I care to give it. Heresy, merely a belief, a view, or interpretation, be it doctrinal or theological, deemed contrary to the accepted orthodox restraints of the Church at particular times and places. We could start with the Roman emperor Nero, who according to the historian Tacitus, blamed Christians for the burning of Rome and had many of them put to death. The charge, hating humanity. Incredible! Some of those convicted were torn by dogs, others were crucified, and some were burned to provide light for the evening circus performances.
We could speak about many early leaders in the church. We could talk about the Inquisitions, in which Christians killed persons of other faiths, particularly Muslims, in the name of religious conformity. We might talk about the heroes of the reformation, many of whom were killed for espousing new thoughts and ideas, radical notions that threatened systems and traditions long stagnated from institutional inflexibility, inhospitality, and inbreeding. Of John Huss, a disciple of John Wycliffe, who audaciously espoused that Christ and not the Pope was the true head of the church, and that the New Testament was the guiding law for Christians. What heresy! Summoned to the Council of Constance in 1415 to discuss his views, he was promised safe conduct if he would attend. As church historian Robert Baker notes, the Roman bishop violated the promise, however, remarking that the church did not need to keep its word with heretics.
Something to remember as we interact with the Georgia Baptist Convention. Huss was condemned by the Council and was burned at the stake . . . A follower, Jerome of Prague, suffered the same fate months later. These killings led to open revolt known as the Hussite wars, a political and religious conflict which lasted until about 1435. Oppression often leads to revolution and the human quest for freedom and liberty of conscience. Something else to remember as we interact with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Or, how about the incredibly inclusive and totally tolerant practices of the great reformer John Calvin, who galvanized power in Geneva Switzerland and sought to create the ultimate theocracy by making the city a model of a perfected Christian community. All of Genevan life was micro-managed by Calvin who, as Williston Walker notes, maintained constant and minute supervision. Despite frequent challenges, Calvin withstood opposition, even to the point of participating in the trial, condemnation and burning at the stake of Miguel Servetus, found guilty in several publications of untold theological indiscretions which dared to question or possibly even doubt the inerrant, infallible Institutes on the Christian Religion, Calvin’s very own theological treatise and a blue print for joyous living in Geneva. Walker says that it was a great victory for Calvin who settled once and for all by his inestimable standards the centuries old debate surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity, thus securing his power and status, and protecting Geneva once and for all from the ever-festering boil of heresy and the ever present and dangerous threat of theological inquiry, discourse, and dialogue. Nothing is more deadly to dictatorships, religious or political, than an environment which encourages and fosters free thinking and the nurture of divergent ideas and philosophies. Aside from his writings, which have added much to the Church’s theology and doctrine, part of Calvin’s legacy along with countless others, has been to assist in perpetuating and solidifying that famous mantra of the church, it’s my way or the highway. Frightening is the thought indeed that a large segment of Southern Baptists are trying to return the church to the reformed tradition rooted in Calvin’s theology and Calvin’s Geneva. An American theocracy, an American Geneva, that is their goal. God save us if this far flung enterprise is ever achieved.
All of that brings us to the story of Stephen and what it means to stand firm in the faith while enduring life in the midst of intolerance, injustice, and inquisition, persecution and condemnation. The story of Stephen is the Church’s story. It is the story of countless individuals whose unwavering faith in Christ and whose courageous living of the Gospel placed them in harm’s way, even to the point of torture and death. Stephen was neither the Christ, nor an apostle. He was chosen as one of the first deacons of the young church. Stephen was anyone and everyone whose lives have been transformed by the risen Christ, and the humble and beautiful life lived by Jesus of Nazareth. Stephen is you and me.
Stephen’s story proves to be a watershed event in the book of Acts, a pivot point as one commentator calls it. Stephen’s stoning signals a dramatic shift between those solely committed to their religious tradition, and those who had embraced the Christ event as a continuing part of their heritage, another component of their faith pilgrimmage and process. Memories still lingered of the days when Jews and Jewish Christians worshipped together in the temple. But, the temple was now history, lying in ruins, destroyed in 70 c.e. by the Roman emperor Titus, Jewish Christians long having been expelled.
As a deacon, Stephen was far more than a table waiter, he went well beyond the required distribution of food to widows and orphans. Described as full of grace and power,he was a second-generation preacher who carried out great wonders and signs among the people, much like the first-generation apostles from whom he had been taught. He is charged with slandering Moses, the standard bearer for the law, the Torah, and with blaspheming God in his pronouncement that Jesus would destroy the temple, the house of Yahweh, and would forever alter the cultic practices therein. Oh, the dangers with tampering with the worship service!
As one commentator has noted, the charge against Stephen is religious innovation. It was a charge that could not be substantiated, and was even refuted by Stephen as he preached his heart out, painstakingly describing the continuity between the tradition of old and the new thing taking place within their midst. His sermon is meticulously detailed, beginning with Abraham and telling the salvation history of Israel, of Isaac and Jacob, the twelve patriarchs and Joseph, of Moses and Aaron and the Exodus from Egypt into the land promised by God. Perhaps Stephen sealed his fate, when at the climax of his message he prophetically concluded,
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.
No surprise that it was about that same time that the rocks started flying and Stephen was stoned to death.
William H. Willimon notes that the story of Stephen reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, mentally balanced religion (I am just not going there) that once there were Christians who quite joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself in order to remain faithful. He adds that,
Luke does not demean the sacrifice of Stephen by reducing his death to psychological or sociological factors, the way that our media” (would do). Rather, Luke sees Stephen as a hero of the faith, a quite rational person who died for the same faith by which he lived. Indeed not to die for what you hold most dear would seem, to the church of Acts, to be the essence of irrationality, even insanity. So many Christians (and Jesus) died at the hands of the Empire because it was impossible to reconcile the Christian claim — that is, that God, not nations, rules the world — with those of a progressive world empire….
The results of inquisition and persecution are far less drastic and noteworthy, not to mention costly, than in the days of Stephen, yet the stakes are no less high, the witness no less important, the faith no less in the balance. As Paul articulated so clearly in his letter to the Ephesians, our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places. The King James’ Version refers to powers and principalities. Paul then instructs, “therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. I believe today’s translation would be, strap it on …. “. Like Stephen, who bravely faced the rocks that carved pieces from his flesh as they struck him, we are confronted by those who are forever opposing the Holy Spirit. The issue before us is no different, will we follow tradition and the law, or will we follow Jesus and his Gospel?
The writer of First Peter says that it is a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall, an obvious allusion to Jesus the living stone, the corner stone. My take on that is that any element of the Gospel can have that same affect, can cause one to stumble and fall if it is denied or dismissed. It is the same as denying Christ. As Virginia-Highland faces these coming days and wrestles with its response to the Georgia Baptist Convention, the cause of peace and justice, as it relates to any of the least of these in our world, hangs in the balance. We are called to speak a word for them, because whenever and wherever any of God’s children, our brothers and sisters, are oppressed or rendered as second-class, the body of Christ suffers and Jesus is crucified once more. This action by the Georgia Baptist Convention, this cleansing of the temple, this ethnic cleansing if you will pardon that image, of interpreting and regarding as sinful a mystery of God’s creative power and purpose, is but another stone hurled by the church and against the church for which Christ died. One death, his death, is more than a plenty.
Stones have an interesting role in today’s texts. They can kill when hurled, they can serve as a refuge, a strong fortress, a place of shelter, they can be a cornerstone, the walls of a house, an impediment that makes one stumble and fall. We can identify the stones being hurled our way from the Georgia Baptist Convention. We probably cannot control or change that. We can stand tall while they strike us, or we can duck, but the stones will keep coming. We can, however, determine what kind of stones we will be. Figuratively speaking, we know that we are going to be killed, it is simply a matter of choosing how we will die, the kind of death we will experience. That it is a very Jesus thing to do! First Peter tells us that we
…are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that (we) may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called (us) out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once (we) were not a people, but now (we) are God’s people; once (we) had not received mercy, but now (we) have received mercy.
Choose to be that kind of stone. Don’t let the Georgia Baptist Convention or anyone take that away from you. Don’t allow anyone or any entity to play God with your faith, your beliefs, your experience. Don’t let anyone tell you that your spiritual journey, your relationship with God, your walk with the Christ of the Gospels, is invalid. Rest assured that the promise of a home with God has been prepared for you, and that it cannot and will not be taken away from you. There is a place for you, and that image should be as strong for us as it was for the disciples, those Jewish Christians who felt cut off, who perceived that their ancestral land and heritage was being taken away from them as they were kicked out of the temple. John’s words are words of assurance for any who feel displaced, disenfranchised. No one can take that place or this place from us. A place has been prepared for all of us. Thanks be to God.
Recently, Bill Moyers interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu regarding the difficult years of oppression in South Africa. Responding to a question about the seemingly endless sense of hopelessness surrounding those dire circumstances, Tutu stated that no situation is beyond transformation; no situation is beyond hope.
As we enter into this process of response, an unknown journey leading to a known conclusion, perhaps our witness will one day bring about transformation. We know the outcome. Like, Jesus, we set our face toward Jerusalem where a cross awaits. We cannot look back. Perhaps our message can be like that of the angel at the empty tomb, come and see. Maybe we can even find real joy in getting stoned.
As we face the 1990s version of the Inquisition, may we find the courage to have faith like Peter’s, as solid as a rock, and resolve like the martyrs of old. Perhaps our mantra will echo those famous words of the great reformer, Martin Luther, who came close on several occasions, but who was never martyred for his cause, the cause of making the Church accountable to Christ and his Gospel instead of the authority of human dictated decrees, doctrines, and dogmas, while all the while living with the very real and present threat found in the narrowly created traditions of institutional religion. Responding to his inquisitor, Eck, John of Trier by name, at the Diet of Worms, and facing charges of heresy, being castigated that his plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Hus, Luther humbly replied that,
Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
For once, and only once, allow me the honor of speaking for Virginia-Highland Baptist Church to the charges brought against us by the Georgia Baptist Convention, Here we stand. We can do no other. Amen.
Rev. Timothy Shirley served as senior pastor of Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., in 1999 when the Georgia Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly to expel his church and Oakhurst Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., for not condemning homosexuality. It marked the first such expulsions in the convention’s 177-year history and followed moves by the convention to alter its constitution to prohibit and exclude congregations that “affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”