Acts 7.55-60, John 14.1-14
If you didn’t know the context of today’s first reading it might have been a bit baffling, like catching the tail end of a film, the bit where everything comes to a crashing climax, full of explosions and high drama. But if you haven’t watched it from the beginning it is very difficult to know who’s doing what to whom, and why?
It is the very end of the story of St Stephen, whose dubious claim to fame is that he is the first follower of Jesus to die for his faith. We don’t know where he came from or what he was doing before he joined the church. He might have been a follower of Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, or he might have been a new convert after the day of Pentecost. We aren’t told. He just seems to appear from nowhere.
What we do know about him, though, is what he does in his very brief ministry. The early church had seen huge growth in its first days. Thousands joined it. It united Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor. And, we are told, all these diverse followers pooled their resources, sharing out what they had to support those among them who were in need. That sounds great, but logistically it was a nightmare, because people being what they are it wasn’t long before bitter squabbles broke out. The Gentile widows complained that the Jewish widows were getting more food than they were, and no doubt the Jewish widows fought back. Peter and the other apostles were spending all their time sorting out disputes over sacks of flour and legs of lamb. Clearly something had to be done. “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on tables”, they said. But someone was going to have to “wait on tables” otherwise they would have perpetual disagreements to deal with. So they decided to appoint seven men to oversee the distribution of food. One of these was Stephen. This was his first and only job in the church, waiting on tables, doling out loaves, listening to complaints, trying to make it fair for those whose lives were probably crushingly difficult already.
I don’t know whether this was what he thought he’d be signing up for when he decided to follow Jesus, but I rather doubt it. It’s hardly glamorous or exciting or noble.
Still, you would have thought it would at least have been a bit safer than the life of one of the leaders of the church like Peter. How controversial can it be to chop vegetables? How much trouble can you get into stirring a pot of soup?
But Stephen manages to find that trouble. Someone denounces him to the Jewish authorities, accusing him of blasphemy.
He finds himself hauled before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and told to explain himself. Which, according to the book of Acts, he does, at length and pulling no punches.
He tells these religious experts their own story, the story of the relationship between God and Israel, the one recorded in their scriptures. He begins with Abraham, a surprising choice to be the founder of the nation, a childless man well on in years. Yet God promises that he will be the father of a multitude, and so it turns out to be. He moves on to Moses, the hero, the saviour, who rescues his people from slavery in Egypt. But he is an unlikely choice too. He was born to a Hebrew mother, but brought up in the Egyptian court, in an Egyptian culture – probably speaking Egyptian better than Hebrew. As he leads the people through the wilderness, they constantly doubt him and grumble at his leadership. They just don’t trust him – his face doesn’t fit.
The prophets too were never accepted either, says Stephen – it was only in hindsight that anyone saw any wisdom in their words.
Again and again, said Stephen, we have missed God at work, even worked against him, because he didn’t appear in a way we recognised.
The Sanhedrin and the crowds listened in silence. Frankly there was nothing they could argue with in this. It was all there in the scriptures, just as he said. But then he went on to Jesus – just as our ancestors got it wrong then, you are getting it wrong now, he says. Here was God, in your midst, the Righteous One, the Messiah, the one sent to do God’s work, and you didn’t see him. In fact you betrayed and killed him.
The crowd is furious. Criticising their ancestors is one thing; criticising them is quite another. They cover their ears and shout to drown out his voice, then they drag him out and stone him. And yet, as he dies he prays for God to forgive them, just as Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who killed him.
The thing that impresses me about Stephen is his confidence in his faith. He seems so sure that God is with him, so sure of his message. He sounds like a man who knows what he is talking about because he has experienced it, a man who has seen God at work and knows what it feels like when he is present. That’s why he doesn’t turn back from preaching this bold, disturbing message, even though it costs him his life.
I started to wonder as I pondered this where that confidence came from. What gave Stephen such certainty, such courage, and the love too to pray for those who killed him? Well, the only thing we know about him, the only thing we’ve been told, is that he waits on tables, that he works at the nitty-gritty of the church’s task, sorting out the practical problems of feeding the hungry and caring for the destitute. Waiting on tables in our culture – feeding people – isn’t usually regarded as a very high status occupation. It wasn’t in Stephen’s time either. It was something servants and women did. But dealing with this practical, basic stuff brings you into contact with the reality of people’s lives, their need, their hunger, their stories in a way that nothing else does. When you serve people in practical ways you start to see them as individuals; you start to feel their sorrows, and their joys. Stephen no longer just sees people as faces in a crowd, but as children of God, suffering and struggling in a world that denies them the dignity even of a secure income and adequate protection. Serving others in practical ways brings you into contact with the reality of your own life too, your own aching feet, your irritation, your tiredness, but also that growing sense that your life matters, your actions matter, you can make a difference, God can work through you. In other words, when you serve others you meet God in them and in yourself in a way you probably never can in high-flown theological conversation. You get used to the idea that God will show up, even if he doesn’t look quite as you imagined he might.
I am firmly convinced that it was waiting on tables which shaped Stephen’s faith, which gave him the strength to stick to his message. Waiting on tables has shown him why Jesus’ message of the infinite value of each person to God matters so much; he has seen God’s work of transformation close up in real human lives, as the hungry are fed and people discover that they are loved. He sees a vision of Jesus, at the right hand of his Father as he dies, but that’s no surprise, because his eyes are open to God day by day, in the people he helps.
In a sense I think Jesus was trying to make a similar point in our Gospel reading. It was the night before he died, and he was at supper with his friends, the last supper he would share with them. He knows they will feel abandoned and alone when he is gone, and he tries to prepare them. “I won’t be far away,” he says, “I am just going to prepare a place for you, but I will be back – and you know how to find me – you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas comes straight back at him, “No we don’t – we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” But Jesus answers, “I am the way”. What does that mean?
Earlier in the evening he had washed these disciples’ feet – another job, like waiting on tables, that you would expect a servant to do – and he’d told them to do the same. “This is how people will know that God is at work in you, that you follow me, when you do things like this,” he’d told them. As they live according to the pattern he has shown them, a pattern of love, of nitty-gritty, real practical service, they will find that he is there among them.
They won’t have to go searching for him in some distant heaven. They won’t have to undertake some mystical quest to find. They will find him in the sharing of their love. As the first letter of John says “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Today marks the end of Christian Aid week. This year the campaign has focused on a project Christian Aid are supporting in Nicaragua, a coffee co-operative, which has enabled local people to get a fair return for their labour, and to work in conditions which are safe and give them dignity and protection from harassment – something of a rarity there. This project, like all the work they do, is about far more than simple economic uplift. These people have discovered a pride in themselves, a dignity, a capacity to serve their community – the profits from the co-op have enabled them to build a school, for example. This is the work of God – the transformation of human spirits, the discovery of hope, of fullness of life. This is the coming of God’s kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven” as we pray so often.
If you have come here today looking for God, I hope you will find him in the prayers, in the music, in the sacrament of Communion, even in the sermon. But the best way to be sure you’ll meet him is to go out from here and find someone to help, someone to serve, someone to love – and to be open to the help, service and love of others too, because the one thing we can count on, as St Stephen did, is that where love is, there is God.