Acts 7:54 - 8:3
The Stoning of Stephen
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
And Saul approved of their killing him.
Saul Persecutes the Church
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As we begin our series on Paul that will, over the next few weeks, take us into some of Paul's missionary journeys, his relationships with Christian communities along the way and stories of all that God was able to accomplish through Paul, we take a step back today to consider who Paul was before God made a claim on his life.
And we discover Saul, on the edge of the crowd, holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen.
Stephen had been appointed as a leader in the early church.
And his preaching the gospel upset the authorities.
In fact, so incensed were they by his preaching that they accused him of blasphemy and incited the crowd to stone him.
The authorities, the religious authorities of the day, put their spin on the good news that Stephen preached and convinced those who heard him that he threatened their whole way of life.
Instead of hearing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the crowd was encouraged to hear the shaking of the foundations.
They were encouraged to put a stop to Stephen's preaching.
And they did.
The crowd listened to the authorities of the day, to the spin doctors of the time.
And Stephen became the first known Christian martyr.
That day, as Stephen was killed, there was a young man on the edge of the crowd, looking on, a man named Saul.
To all intents and purposes a bystander - Until we read those chilling words:
And Saul approved of their killing him.
Perhaps he didn't actually pick up a stone that day.
Perhaps he didn't actively participate in ensuring Stephen's death.
But, from the edge of the crowd, Saul stood and watched, held the coats and approved of Stephens killing.
No innocent bystander.
This week, we've watched, as crowds of migrants have gathered in Calais, desperate to find a way across the Channel to seek refuge in the UK.
And, while we have been successfully distracted by the plight of those refugees and the protests of those on both sides of the Channel, whether supporting or opposing asylum, there are other groups of migrants also making treacherous journeys, seeking freedom from oppressive regimes.
Many of them are being drowned in the Med while our government refuses to make their passage safer or consider the oppressive conditions from which they need to flee.
And, being able to focus on the situation in Calais, being able to use incendiary language, speaking of "swarms of migrants", building up fear and hatred in the UK, allows our government to take our attention away from all the other terrible things that are happening.
And, in all this, we are the bystanders.
Perhaps not casting stones.
Not even holding the coats.
But, by our silence, signaling approval.
We, who should know from history that failure of good people to act simply allows evil to triumph.
We won't all agree on how this crisis should be resolved.
We won't all agree on how our government should act.
But we do all have the capacity to see those who have found their way to Calais, or those desperate enough to take to the seas in overcrowded and poorly equipped boats in the hope of securing a better way of life for themselves and their families as children of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is no easy solution to the kind of scenes we've witnessed this week, or, indeed, to the migrant crisis that has been escalating for some time now.
But what is important is that we do not stand idly by.
That we do not allow governments to put their spin on the clear evidence of a crisis, distracting us from a much bigger picture.
It is important that we see the humanity in each of these crowds, that we hear stories of individuals desperate enough to take the chances they have taken.
And that, somehow, we apply the principles of our faith to how we view our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we have celebrated this morning the grace of God in baptism, Good's love given to us unconditionally, may we extend that love and grace to all whom we meet on the road.
Over the next few weeks, as we journey with Paul, we will encounter a man freed from his hatred by an encounter with God.
Completely turned around - from persecuting Christians, to preaching and living out the gospel.
Turned from a bystander into a follower of Christ.
Moved from hatred to love.
But, as we go into this week, let's ask ourselves.
In our faith and in our living, are we content to be the bystanders, not casting stones but not offering help either?
Or are we prepared to speak and act out of the love and the zeal that God gives?
Are we prepared to see, in the crowds we encounter daily, on our TV screens or on the High Street, brothers and sisters in Christ?
How does the God that we encounter here and in our everyday life affect how we love one another?
May we answer that with a commitment to act in love.
For the glory of God. Amen