May 10, 2017
By Paul Bryant-Smith.
Scripture: Acts 7:55-60 (NRSV)
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
The Prosperity Gospel preacher tells the television audience that, if they only name the blessing that they want, God will give it to them. It’s a popular message that goes right along with the internet meme about God having a beautiful and wonderful plan for your life. Some folks, even some of those sitting in our churches’ pews on Sunday morning, have bought into it, believing that religion – or “faith” or “God” – is a magical protection against trouble and hardship. The only problem is that it just isn’t so.
As a hospital chaplain, I regularly encounter people who hold strongly to this skewed theology. When faced with illness or death, they are unable to make sense of it, thinking that their belief in God should have shielded them from trouble. Often, these are the patients and their families who insist on doing “everything,” even when attempts at treatment are futile, increase suffering, and only prolong the dying process – all in the hope of buying God time to perform a miracle.
Stephen’s story teaches us something different. This account of the first Christian martyr is a story of courage and grace, of faithfulness and strength. Rather than dreaming of a miraculous rescue, he accepted the reality of his situation, found God’s presence in it, commended his soul into God’s care, and was even able to offer a prayer of grace for his murderers.
The young Saul of Tarsus, standing by and witnessing the stoning of Stephen, was one of those affected by Stephen’s courage and his prayer. As the apostle Paul, he endured hardship and persecution as he helped to nurture the infant church. Years later, as he faced his own execution in Rome, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to think that Paul’s courage was modeled on the example that he had seen on that day when he looked after the mob’s coats.
In this season of high school and college graduations, many of our young people will hear commencement speakers talk about the importance of perseverance and of following their dreams. Many of these addresses will be the secular equivalents of the Prosperity Gospel preacher’s sermons, telling graduates that, if they only believe in themselves enough, they will be able to accomplish anything. While that is an uplifting message, those of us who have been around the block a couple of times know that life is also full of hardship, sorrow, rejection, and loss. We know that acceptance and resilience bear better fruit than magical thinking and denial. While none of us is likely to be an actual martyr, Stephen’s example helps us to face our inevitable defeats with grace and composure. Perhaps that’s not as exciting as the materialism that masks as religion these days, but it’s a whole lot more realistic.
Grant us strength, Holy One, to see your presence, even in times of trouble. Enable us to live as people of integrity, courage, and peace. Amen.
Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith is Director of Spiritual Care at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, NY. He also serves as pastor of the King Street United Church of Christ in Danbury, CT.
May 10, 2017