Stephen in Cultural Context


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A recent Bible study article published by Mennonite World Review sheds some interesting light on Stephen and his speech/sermon as documented in the book of Acts. You can read the full article here but I would like to pull out a quote from the author’s conclusion for some reaction and additional commentary.

If you had risked everything to move to this sacred site, or were responsible for protecting it, could you have heard this speech without fierce anger? By charging his opponents with rebellion against God, Stephen pays with his life. He witnesses to and parallels Jesus’ martyrdom for similar actions. Today, Stephens — from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Christian Peacemakers Teams — speak truth to power in similar ways.

Stephen’s sermon also underlines the Spirit’s movement away from the temple and into households and the wider world (8:1). Christian Zionists who support Israelis’ claim to Palestinian land as scriptural are not listening to Stephen, who challenges the entire premise of “holy land.” Troubling as well, the platforms of both major U.S. political parties support moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem.

Firstly, concerning the political commentary in this quote, while I have some issues with Zionism on the extreme ends (establish Israel in the land of promise, Israel must be protected at all costs, etc), the complexity of what is going on in the land of Palestine/Israel is extremely complex. While fingers can be pointed all over the place concerning who did what to whom’s ancestor and so on, the way things are is how they are. Continued recriminations and accusations are not going to bring peace to the region. The European/American West is not helping matters with trying to assuage the German guilt of the holocaust by defending Israel unconditionally (again, another extreme view that does not necessarily hold true across the board). As things stand, treaties have been signed, international law has been set, and things are the way they are. Reversing such things will not solve the complex issues, nor will keeping things as they are. There is too much history involved in what’s been happening, too many wrongs done by all sides, to just simply establish a policy and be done with it. Israelis have done horribly unjust things to Palestinians…and Palestinians have done horribly unjust things to Israelis. I do not know which way is right in regards to the nation of Israel, all I know is that things are not going to change any time soon and certainly no political platform of a US political party, no matter what it states, will resolve these issues.

That said, I think, beyond the more earthly political considerations, there is something important to be brought out of this article concerning where God’s people dwell. In Christianity, traditionally, for hundreds (perhaps a thousand years or more), the proper location for God’s work and Christian worship has been in “temples” and other central structures and institutions. For that matter, especially since the time of Constantine, there is almost a sense of victory that the church is now established and we have “won back” our position of power in culture. Our churches, our church institutions, our rituals and ceremonies are something to be treasured because we have “earned” it. Even in our interdenominational struggles, we stand strong on positions and traditions because of the hard struggle to gain them. Consider the Mennonite church which has, really, only been for about 200 years a major denominational consideration (prior to that, we were fringe, outsiders, radicals, etc). To have Evangelicals, Catholics, etc., to come in and tell us what to do and how to do it is met with resistance by some, doubt by others.

But Stephen’s sermon speaks to the church today as much as it spoke to the Freedman’s Synagogue back then. To be told that our institutions, our ceremonies, our traditions that we have earned, to be told that our privileged place of prominance in society and culture, to be told that our “majority” voice…all of this is not only threatened but, perhaps not in God’s plan, raises up feelings of anger. What we have won and earned is being told is actually rebellion against God.

Now, don’t get me wrong, traditional institutional church has its place, its role…but as the culture around us shifts and changes, it is possible that such a role, such a place is no longer necessary or even desirable. So we need to make sure we listen to what God is telling us. We need to make sure we’re not holding so tight to our treasured things here that we lose sight of where God is taking us. We need to remember, as stated above, that God’s people are a sent people into the world, not a people centered on a building our a country. As stated yesterday, God now dwells among his people without need for a temple. Go and be God’s people, wherever you are.

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