for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us."
It may be that our eyes glaze over when we begin to listen to or read Stephen’s sermon upon his arrest (I admit it, mine do), after all, it is the longest sermon in the book of Acts. Our lectionary reading from Sunday actually skips over most of it, which sounds good, but we do miss the big point Stephen is trying to make.
It sounds as if Stephen is criticizing Judaism, and he is, but we have to understand exactly what his criticism is, so that this sermon doesn’t become theological fodder to anti-semitism or triumphalism (Christian beliefs are ‘right’ and Jewish ones ‘wrong’).
Stephen is having a go at the temple and all that it has come to symbolize as well as its ineffectual social engagement. Let’s remember that Jesus had a go at the Temple too. Stephen’s version of the gospel is radically open to all people and that is shocking and challenging to the religious elites. Remember, Stephen is a Hellenist Jew, so he is considered by Jerusalem Jews with suspicion. In more current language we might say that he is ‘tolerated,’ which reveals how weak and patronizing toleration is.
Stephen, being a member of a patronized class is therefore more sympathetic to others who are considered ‘lower’ class. While I do not have the space to explain in detail, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that what Stephen is doing in this sermon is advocating, not only for the acceptance of his own people but also of Samaritans (and you hopefully remember how hated and dehumanized Samaritans were in this time and place). Stephen is in effect telling the religious leaders and anyone who would listen that they believe in the wrong God, a God who favors only Israel and disregards all other peoples of the world. Stephen is saying that faith in God and religious practice at the temple has become more about Jewish National Identity and Jewish national superiority than about serving God. The temple has become an idol. God is not worshiped there, Israel is worshiped there.
Building on yesterday’s idea, The Holy Spirit, through Stephen is not only shaking the foundations of the apostles plans for the church, but also Israel’s understanding of Temple, God and themselves even, their identity. Stephen is reminding Israel of its call, chosen by God, not to be superior or authoritarian or patronizing, but to serve, welcome and guard all the peoples of the earth from violence and injustice. And this takes courage. To speak up for those considered outsiders and the unworthy takes courage. To challenge the theological underpinnings of demonic beliefs and practices takes courage. To allow God to pull us into this kind of passionate and risky life, takes courage.