A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter — Based on Acts 7:55-60
Stephen, who takes center stage this morning, led a life full of faith. The apostles chose him to be one of the first deacons. The deacons were men selected to care for the Helenistic Jewish widows who had been getting overlooked during the daily food distribution—remember they held everything in common and gave as you had need—while the Hebrew Jewish widows got their share. Stephen shone brightly, his countenance actually described in scripture like an angel’s.
But his good works and the miraculous signs he did led a few of the Jews who did not follow the way of Jesus to get angry. So they lied about him, telling the religious authorities that he had spoken blasphemy against God. They worked the crowd, found some false witnesses, and brought him before the religious court, the Sanhedrin. Stephen went on trial.
So he told the story of salvation history from Abraham to Moses, and explained to them that often the Israelites had not accepted God’s prophets. In fact, they chose to disobey God rather than hear God’s words. And it happened again and again, from Joseph’s brothers to the Israelites in the wilderness and more.
All this was merely a warm up for Stephen. He then looked at the Sanhedrin and the ones accusing him and told them quite forcefully that they too had done the same thing. God had sent Jesus, the righteous one whom the prophets longed to come, and they had refused to hear him. In fact they had been the ones who silenced him.
Well, that pushed the court over the top. They became furious and couldn’t believe what he had said. So they rushed on him and took him outside the city walls and stoned him to death.
We are only 7 chapters into the Acts of the Apostles when this occurs, and while we don’t know the actual timing, it’s probably no more than a few years since Jesus’ own death. The fledgling group who have chosen to follow Jesus and have given of themselves to each other now face direct persecution. In fact, it’s only going to get worse for them. Saul, at whose feet the bystanders laid their coats, is paying attention. He sees how the court and the people nearby get so worked into a frenzy over Stephen’s testimony—why else would the bystanders be taking off their coats? They seemed to want a piece of him too—and he approves of this killing.
The very next verses say this, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3) It became an awful, awful time for the church. But God takes the awful and uses it for God’s good. The next verse after these is this: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:4) While Saul and the religious authorities had wanted to completely squash the movement of those walking in the Way of Jesus, they just spread it more. God took something horrific and God redeemed it. The ones running for their lives shared the good news about Jesus.
During the Storyline small group I participated in with other parishioners this spring, we looked at both positive and negative experiences in our lives. We plotted them on a timeline, reflecting on the impact they had both at that time and into the current day. After sharing our stories, we next asked how God had redeemed the negative points; if something positive had come out of them. Our workbook states, “In every tragedy we have the ability to find something good. This can be something we’ve learned, empathy we’ve gained, or some greater pain somebody else has been spared because of our suffering. [This] doesn’t mean to say tragedy is actually positive. The negative [experiences] in our lives remain negative [experiences]. But if we are going to heal, we must find something meaningful that came to us because of our tragedies.”
This might not seem possible given some of the circumstances you’ve experienced in life; I know I certainly felt that way. However, once I learned that the psychologist who promoted this line of reasoning, a man named Viktor Frankl, proposed it after he had come out of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, well, I had nothing to compare to him. In his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes his three years of imprisonment that are filled with unimaginable horrors. He then looked at his own suffering and that of others, and concluded that unlike Freud’s focus on pleasure and Adler’s focus on power what really drives human beings is to find a meaning in life. He writes, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” And this, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Two years ago, following the death of my father, I discovered late one evening as I lay in bed reading my Kindle that something had happened to my eyesight. A portion of the words at the center of my vision simply disappeared. I closed both eyelids one at a time trying to determine whether it was both eyes or just one; only my right eye was affected. I immediately got out of bed and went online to see what it might be, and discovered that I needed to call a doctor immediately since it might possibly be a retinal tear.
After hearing my symptoms, the doctor on call told me it wasn’t a tear, but that I needed to come in the very next morning. In the course of a week, I had a couple of eye exams, including one with a retinologist who diagnosed me with Central Serous Retinopathy—an idiopathic eye disease causing fluid to build up under my retina forming a blister of sorts and significantly distorting vision.
While having no known cause, the doctor suggested that this condition usually impacted males in my age demographic who are dealing with significant stress. Usually the body heals itself after a couple of months so I just needed to hang in there and try to reduce my stress, and, by the way, eat more leafy greens. In other words, my body had had enough of the pressure I was experiencing and was taking it out on me. I couldn’t keep it bottled up inside, but had to seek some help to process it and release it.
Two things came up for me right away. First, as someone who makes his living by interacting with sacred texts and reading prayers and writing sermons, not having an eye working properly is really horrible. Second, I had to find a therapist to speak with about my father’s death and other issues that I thought I could handle on my own.
It took more than six months for my eye to begin healing. I actually almost had laser surgery on it that, while bringing healing, could potentially leave a permanent blind spot. The pre-op testing an hour or so before the procedure showed enough improvement to give my doctor pause to see if it could continue to heal. It did in the months that followed. And while I have some permanent localized distortion, my eyesight has returned almost back to its previous state. My meetings with a therapist helped me to make some meaning out of some really hard times in my life, and to recognize that I don’t need to go it alone. I have good friends and family who want to walk with me and a deep faith.
As I looked at my timeline I had to ask has God redeemed this situation? In my mind, yes, a great deal. It has especially helped me to recognize the amount of stress we often place on ourselves and to help others seek ways to alleviate their own stress: taking care of themselves when they hit a difficult patch, finding a counselor to talk over things with and, most importantly, looking for spiritual practices to connect us with God in the midst of these times.
After the stoning of Stephen, the church exploded. Nothing could be done to contain it. God took something meant for evil, and God redeemed it. And I know that can happen in your life too.
Whatever negative experience you have encountered that is still weighing you down or that you are currently experiencing, God can eventually use it to God’s good purpose. God never causes us pain, ever, and those Christians who suggest so are preaching a false gospel. But God takes the pain of our lives and eventually heals it in order that we too may share the story of God’s goodness. So if you are struggling with depression or have experienced your hopes dashed recently by something you counted on that didn’t come through, or if you are staring down an estrangement with a spouse or the loss of a loved one, don’t give up. Don’t think that God doesn’t care or that your loss is too great to overcome. God walks with you. And know that God has in the past and continues to this day to take our pain and eventually bring healing. It may not happen on our time table, but God does ultimately transform the pain of our lives into a source of life, both for ourselves and especially for others. Know that it is only the spiritual forces that work against God who long for us to think it is all meaningless, that the pain will not end and that we will never see light again. We have been given the resurrection joy of Easter through Christ’s triumph at the grave, and it is a message of hope that never ever ends.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
 Donald Miller. Storyline 2.0. Pg 42.
 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) Pg. 113.
 Frankl, 66.