This weekend, at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the Bishop will make his annual visitation. Not to brag too much, but it is exciting to have 1 adult baptism/confirmation, 1 confirmation, 1 reception, and 1 reaffirmation at 8 am and 7 confirmations and 3 receptions at 10 am. What is really exciting, however, is that I won’t have to preach this week. Of particular note will be how the Bishop will handle the story of stoning of Stephen with this good group of wide-eyed new Episcopalians.
Being a person of faith in 21st century America is a whole lot easier than President Trump would have us believe. While an increasing number of people might look at us and wonder why we would believe that Jesus rose from the grave, and more people every day shake their heads at what is presented as the sacrificial love of God, we are free to exercise our faith on a day to day basis. No one is telling us what we can and can’t believe. No one is telling us that we can’t raise funds for charitable uses. No one is telling us that we can’t gather to read scripture, sing praise, and offer prayers. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the life of the average Christian American from that of the average None.
How then do we read this story of the Church’s first martyr? What does it mean for those who are “singing up” on the day in which Stephen’s testimony leads him to be dragged into the street and stoned? What should the life of the average 21st century American look like? Is there anything we can really learn from the story of Stephen?
The answer is most certainly a yes, but maybe not from the 6 verses appointed for Easter 5, Year A. If we look at the entirety of the story of Stephen, beginning with the despite between the Hellenists and the Hebrews at the beginning of chapter 6 and running through the end of chapter 7, there is plenty to learn from the story of Stephen. It is a story about how the Church cares for those on the margins – especially those who are likely to fall through the cracks within the Church. It is a story about discernment and how the Church calls people to ministry. It is a story in which the apostles aren’t afraid to name gifts and talents that are required for the fulfillment of an office, which is a lesson the modern Episcopal Church could probably stand to have reiterated.
Most importantly for a service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation: The story of Stephen is a story about how expansive ministry can become when we invite the Holy Spirit to be the source of our work. The Bishop will lay hands on and pray over each of our candidates, inviting the Holy Spirit who has already begun a good work in them to renew their ministry, to grow their faith, and to propel them out in service. It is a story that we all could stand hear with some regularity, reminding us that each member of Christ’s Body has a ministry, and that the Spirit equips all of us for service.