(A long story for the weekend from Acts 6-8:1)
Stephen was living in Jerusalem not long after Jesus died, rose, and ascended to heaven.
We don’t have many facts about his life, but there are several things we can figure out.
Although he was Jewish, he probably wasn’t from Jerusalem. The name “Stephen” is Greek, not Hebrew. He was likely born somewhere outside Israel to a family who had been driven away from Jerusalem in one of the many scatterings.
In other words, his family became religious refugees from the middle east. They settled somewhere, learned Greek, lived in the culture but never took on the local religion.
Somehow, Stephen came back to Jerusalem. It may have been because he came on a pilgrimage and never went back home. But although this was his religious home, it wasn’t where he grew up. He didn’t speak like a native. He didn’t know the local stories. He would have been an outsider in Jerusalem, too.
Somehow, Stephen learned the story of Jesus. Because Jesus had a habit of talking with people on the edges of society, offering them hope and identity and community, Stephen may have connected. He became a follower of Jesus and, as the church began, he belonged.
There were challenges in this early church. One of these challenges was in widow care. Because widows were often left with no means of support, the Jewish tradition was to distribute food for them. The new church picked up that responsibility. But there was some discrimination happening, with widows originally from Jerusalem getting better service than immigrant widows.
It’s not unusual. It’s always easier to notice the people who speak your language, who know your culture. But it’s also not how Jesus worked. And so the leaders said, “Find seven men who are full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit.”
Stephen was the first name on the list. Stephen was the kind of person that you trusted to take care of the people on the edges of society, maybe because he spoke the language, maybe because he understood what it was like to be on the edges, maybe because he was the kind of person that everyone wanted to take care of their mother. Because this team wasn’t responsible for just the immigrant widows, they were responsible for all the widows.
So Stephen started his practical work of making sure that the food distribution was fair. And soon there were stories about his work.
In writing about him, Luke says that he was doing signs and wonders. To understand, we probably have to look at the works that Jesus did, of healing people in miraculous ways, of speaking truth with clarity and freedom, of providing food in ways that were natural and supernatural.
This didn’t sit well with the traditional religious leaders, so they started debating with him. And they lost every time. Because Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.
And so Stephen was brought to court, falsely accused. He defended himself with great spiritual insight. And then, as we read this earlier, he was killed. And as he died, he repeated the words of Jesus. “Forgive them.”
As we walk through his story, we see that he started on the edges, like Jesus. He faithfully and miraculously cared for the people Jesus cared for. He was known for wisdom, like Jesus. He answered accusations with incredible wisdom, like Jesus. And he died, like Jesus, with forgiveness on his lips, like Jesus.
In our culture, in our generations, we often say, “I want to do amazing things.”
What if we recast that a bit. What if we said, “I want to live like Jesus did. I want to do what Jesus did.” Which may be even more amazing.
As we listen to those no one else will. As we touch those no one else will touch. As we risk and give our lives for others that no one else cares for. And as we ask God to forgive those who are killing us.
It’s what Stephen did.