“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen’s dying words echoed those of Our Lord Jesus, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” It took great courage for Stephen to face this mob. He not only endured with courage, he actually blessed the crowd who stood with disdain on their face, stones in hand, and the intention of killing him because he was a disciple of Christ. Not many of us have ever had to face Stephen’s fate, however there are some Christians who confront the martyr’s lot each and every day. When we hear this story, we tend to focus on Stephen as the central character and rightfully so, but we can miss a nuance of truth in this narrative, if we do not at least consider that it is possible for us to find ourselves in the shoes of those who were standing in the crowd; the stone throwers.
Two young men in the local holiness church, were sitting in the assembly hall one Sunday morning after services, when one fellow with hand cautiously covering the side of his mouth, whispered to the other, “I guess you have heard the latest haven’t you?” “No, what,” replied the other. The one man shared the latest gossip about the long-term church member who had been caught in some notorious failure and the rumors were flying wildly. It was as if the crowd was forming again, the so-called sin was being brought forth for all to see, and the recipient of the accusations was living helplessly at the mercy of the rumor mill. The only thing that is missing in this story is the stones. It is in the innate human nature to succumb to the threat of fear, and to react with violence towards one another.
Like Stephen, some of us may be able to recall a time when we have been on our knees suffering as the target of some unfounded or untrue attack. When we hear the story of Stephen, we can easily identify with him. However, we may struggle with the notion that it could possibly be one of us, who might have been one of the folks in the crowd with stones in hand. The truth of the matter is, it is not far-fetched that any one of us has the potential to be in the group of stone throwers.
The crowd who stoned Stephen saw themselves as righteous and their actions to them, were justified because they felt they were defending their faith. They were doing what they thought was right by eliminating a threat to their religious system. The crowd’s threat however, was not one of power and violence. Stephen was merely the humble servant who was challenging the crowd to accept the life that God was calling them to live. The threat for the crowd was not even Stephen, but rather it was the fear and uncertainty associated with a heart change, called for by his message. The crowds fear placed them in defense mode and they were experiencing the discomfort and uncertainty of troubled hearts.
When our hearts are troubled, God promises us a place of peace, a place of rest, and a place of grace. God calls us into spaces of grace and out of the fear-laden defense mode. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” God prepares sacred space for us in which our troubled hearts can find peace.
I have a sacred space at home that has provided me with a place to experience God’s grace. In my study at home there is an L-shaped desk, a leather executive chair, a sleeper/sofa for guests who come down to visit, and shelves filled with theology, history, and ethics books I cherished throughout my three years of seminary education. This space is sacred to me because the furniture in it is deeply drenched with hours and hours of reading, with a multitude of late nights studying for exams, and what seemed like days of re-writes and corrections of research papers and class projects.
For me, sitting amongst those theology books and relaxing in that well-worn leather chair reminds me that God’s presence was very evident to me in some very difficult times. In this space, which we occupy today (The nave of our parish) many of us find a powerful space for grace. Look around at the stained glass, the beautiful hangings, and the wood of the pews, the Celtic cross, and other accoutrements. They all have a part in making this space sacred.
Sacred spaces are where we encounter God’s peace. Sacred spaces are respites from the chaos and uncertainties of life. Sacred spaces are havens of rest from our fears. Stephen found a sacred space of the heart, in the midst of the death and pain, which was forthcoming. Stephen was suffering at the hands of the mob. He was on the receiving end of public humiliation and a painfully excruciating death. Yet, even as he was about to succumb to the crowd’s wrath, he experienced God’s grace in the midst of his circumstance. Stephen, like Jesus, did not retaliate against the crowd; he forgave them. He recognized the glory of the resurrection of Christ, as he saw the “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From death to life, from persecution to peace, it was on that day Stephen recognized the sacred space of God’s presence found only in Christ.
Whether our sacred space is a special spot on the beach, a comfortable chair on the lanai, a leather chair in a study, our favorite pew in church, or merely the spiritual acknowledgement of the ongoing presence of God in our lives, we can find space for grace. From our fear, we are called out of anxiety and into peace. From our fear, we are called out of places of divisions and gossip and into spaces of grace, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. In Christ, we are moved to a life of peace and grace because Our Lord calls each of us to himself. Jesus gives us that peace and grace and we know it is true when we hear His words, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” It is that rest, which we can find, even when we are in times of transition, in times of uncertainty, and even in times of fear.