Today’s text draws us more fully into the difficult question we introduced on Tuesday. How do we handle passages throughout the New Testament that are critical of first-century Jewish religious leaders? Stephen states this criticism as strongly as any of these passages in his speech before the council: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do….They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (vv. 51-52). There is a long history of such texts influencing anti-Jewish attitudes that fuel anti-Semitic violence, from the medieval pogroms to the Holocaust to the murder of eleven worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018.
What shall we do with what Stephen says here? It is significant that only a few decades later, the Christian community that had experienced persecution at the hands of their fellow Jews and the tragedy of the ultimate parting of ways between church and synagogue did not blame the Jewish authorities for the crucifixion of Jesus. In the second-century baptismal confessions of faith that later became what we now know as the Apostles’ Creed, the early church confessed that Christ was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”—not “crucified under Caiaphas” (the high priest at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion). It is the coercive power of empire that was responsible for Jesus’ death, and it is the coercive power of empire today, and the religious establishments that are complicit with it, that targets those like Stephen who dare to speak truth to power.
Who speaks truth to power in our context today in ways that threaten the powerful? What do they teach us about how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Gracious and Almighty God, grant us grace and power that, like Stephen, we may speak the truth to those who seek to maintain their power through violence and falsehood. Amen.