Read Acts 7:55-60
A mother can certainly relate to the scene presented in today’s reading [today is Mother’s Day] – a group of people having a temper tantrum! The problem is, these are supposed to be adults, supposedly the wise religious leaders even. Yet, during their angry resistance to his Word Stephen is not intimidated by them. He is not even afraid of his imminent martyrdom. This infuriated them even more.
Anger is one of five primary emotions (Mad, Sad, Glad, Fear and Disgust). Surprise is often seen as a 6th primary emotion. Apart from Glad (and Surprise), the other primary emotions are primitive threat detectors the job of which is to alert us to the presence of a threat that could “kill” us and to prepare our bodies to deal with the threat. Anger, as an emotion, tells us that we perceive a threat that we believe we can eliminate if we throw enough power at it. Anger elicits the release of Adrenalin (and other neurotransmitters) which prepares us to go to battle. (http://psychologydictionary.org/primary-emotion)
Today’s bible reading demonstrates the quintessential emotional-psychological threat response. The religious leaders are responding to Stephen’s words in the same way an animal responds to what seems like a precursor to being eaten by an aggressor. However, Stephen is a confident, Spirit-filled preacher whose purpose is to teach them. He is filled with the grace of God, that is love for those to whom he speaks. So, why are they afraid of his words? Why are his hearers reacting as if they will die if Stephen is not silenced?
The Disease of Comfort
Religion, by its very nature, is a system designed to give comfort. It contains rights, rituals, and spaces that can make us feel safe. In a world wherein change is a constant threat to our sense of well-being as governments change hands, where happiness is subjective, and where technologies present new challenges daily there is a great deal of comfort gained from traditions and beliefs that never change. Religion is a means of maintaining these comforting systems. Therefore, religion is often the least adaptable institution in society. It’s understandable and it’s tragic. Religion becomes a refuge, even an island.
Recently, I heard a great leader of a local service agency say that she and her team would not allow their institution to become a silo. Her use of the word “silo” seemed novel to me since I had never heard it in that context before. I gave it a great deal of thought. Using my imagination and a plethora of visual aids in this farming community I easily grasped her meaning. A silo is typically tall and narrow. Like a skyscraper in the city, silos stand tall but are not very wide. Thus, they maximize containment in one small space. This concept seems to fit religion of those persons who silenced Stephen. To them, it was as though Stephen intended to break open the bin to let the precious contents spill out.
Silos give comfort since they are signs of security. A full grain bin represents wealth and provision for the future. However, as Jesus said, “The ground of a certain rich man produced an abundance. So, he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, since I have nowhere to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and will build bigger ones, and there I will store up all my grain and my goods. Then I will say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. Then who will own what you have accumulated?’ This is how it will be for anyone who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
Comfort results from a sense of security and security is a result of effective defenses. When Stephen’s words threatened their defenses the religious leaders reacted violently because they had spent their lives investing in the defense systems of their ancestors. They knew their political status was precarious since they had been oppressed countless times, by rulers from within and without the nation. The religious defenses were designed to withstand this political oppression from the world, but they couldn’t stand up to the force of the Spirit.
Knowing When to Defend and When to Surrender
Stephen’s audience, which included a man who would become the Apostle Paul, felt justified for defending the faith against this new heresy. As far as we know, Paul was the only person in the crowd who eventually repented and surrender to the Lord. (Acts 9:1-19) When Paul became convinced that he’d been fighting for the wrong reason he surrendered. Sadly, most of those persons who killed Stephen would suffer horribly at the hands of the Romans at the siege and destruction of Jerusalem just a few years later. They fought Stephen and other Christians to protect what the thought was sacred and eventually lost everything, even hope.
When we feel threatened it is tempting to put our fingers in our ears and proclaim, “I can’t hear you!” However, it is far better to take the time to listen, pray, and reason with others. Eventually, we can know whether to defend or surrender. There are times when resistance is called for – times when, like last week’s example suggests, the flock must be guarded against weeds and bitter water. At other times, because of prayer, patience, and thoughtfulness surrender opens vast possibilities. Perhaps the silos can afford a little risk from time to time. Wise investors often maintain what they would call, “risk capital.” What if some of the religious leaders who heard Stephen that day had been willing to risk having their minds changed? It’s not unprecedented; consider Nicodemus (John 3) and Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-42), or Ananias (who received Paul despite his reputation – Acts 9:10-19).
This message comes on Mother’s Day, so it should probably connect to moms in some way or another. I will risk it by suggesting that mothers are often the best example of this concept. In the wild there is nothing so dangerous as a mother defending her young. The mere suggestion of a threat can cost a hapless wanderer dearly. In our homes, there is a similar commitment to the safety of our precious little ones. Yet, as they grow older we are forced to let them go. We risk letting them out of our silo as they go wide into the world. Our children challenge us with new ideas to which we sometimes respond with the fullest of our defenses and at others we relent. Our love for our children is the key ingredient. Love causes us to listen thoughtfully and to pray.
I am convinced that the religious leaders in Stephen’s case had no love for God or they would not have been able to respond the way they did. Love for God causes us to respond to others with love. Sometimes with tough-love and sometimes with tender grace. It is the way in which the Lord has dealt with us. It is the love that saves us from God’s justifiable wrath. If this love is within us then we would be reluctant to turn to wrath with each other. Rather, we would take direction when needed and, at other times, stand courageously when needed.