Heroes and Villains: Stephen

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Acts 7:51-60.

When I watch a movie or read a book, I always give great care and attention to the final words. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are solemn. Sometimes there are no words, just sighs too big for words. Sometimes the words are an appropriate summary for all that has transpired. Sometimes the words are a red-herring, a thought completely disparate and from whatever is beyond left field.

Words are powerful. Words matter. They shape those that read them, hear them, and live  in response to or in effect of them.

This week in our Heroes and Villains sermon series we turn our focus to Stephen – the first Christian martyr. Luke – the writer of both the gospel by that name and Acts of the Apostles takes great care in having Stephen’s final words resonate with the final words of our Lord for whom he dies.

As Jesus hangs on the cross – battered, broken, bleeding – he cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

As stones are hurled at Stephen – stones intent not to maim but to ultimately silence – he cries, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

In their last moments both Jesus and Stephen have their final words on the theme of forgiveness. And they bring these words on the theme of forgiveness not out of bitterness or spite for the persons ending their lives, but out of love – out of God’s victorious love.

God’s love tells us that life has the last word, not death. God’s love tells us that pain, suffering, and sickness will be no more. God’s love tells us that sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

One of the many ways that we can be stewards of God’s love is through the act of forgiveness. It is a challenge to practice forgiveness because (1) it is not always easy to forgive and (2) it is something we are called to do again…and again…and again.

“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:21-22).

Practicing forgiveness is at times heroic, but if practicing forgiveness makes us or made us heroes, then we would misplace the focus and importance of forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness invites us to participate in a mighty act of God. Practicing forgiveness should not point to us; rather, it should point to the one who taught us – who gifted us – this practice.

When I think about my last words – which I truthfully hope will be shared sometime from now! – I hope they will be words that communicate God’s love. I hope they will be words that acknowledge my seeing Christ in someone else. I hope they will be words that build up someone rather than tear down someone. And because of this hope, I make it a practice to not miss opportunities to communicate God’s love, to acknowledge my seeing Christ in someone else, to build up someone.

If you consider your final words, what would you hope them to be? What would you hope that you say? And how can you begin to say those words today?

Prayer: “Lead on, O King eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”* Amen.

*”Lead On, O King Eternal,” The United Methodist Hymnal 580.