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Courage: where does it come from?

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Third Sunday of Easter (April 30, 2017)
Acts 6:1-15, 7:51-60 – “Courage: where does it come from?”

About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve [apostles] called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you… We will put them in charge of this concern…

They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith… who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose from some who belonged to the so-called Synagogue of Former Slaves…

They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts. They caught Stephen, dragged him away, and brought him before the Jerusalem Council. Before the council, they presented false witnesses who testified, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the Law. In fact, we heard him say that this man Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and alter the customary practices Moses gave us.” Everyone seated in the council stared at Stephen, and they saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.

The high priest asked, “Are these accusations true?”

[Stephen then made a fairly lengthy speech about Joseph, Moses, how God can’t be confined within the walls of the temple; 50 verses worth. But here’s the speech’s dramatic ending…]

“You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”

Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!”

At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul [known later as the Apostle Paul]. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.

Depending on how you look at it, Stephen is either courageous, foolish, or filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s probably a combination of all three!

I don’t mean to sound irreverent here. The man was among the first people to be ordained as a Deacon. According to tradition, he was the first martyr for the Christian faith. He’s a saint in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. He’s the patron saint of Deacons, those who suffer from headaches, and stone masons (Isn’t that a little off-putting? Think about it.). He’s uplifted as an example of what it means to live boldly for one’s faith to the point of paying the ultimate price.

So, like I said, no disrespect. And of course violence like that is never justified. But honestly you don’t call your entire people to the carpet in front of the Sanhedrin, using such inflammatory rhetoric, accusing people of murdering innocent prophets and God’s messiah, as Stephen did, and not expect to face some consequences!

What leads to that sort of boldness?

When we were putting the bulletin together, I asked our Church Administrator, Sue Collins, “What do you think gives people courage?” In her ever-practical, to-the-point sort of way, she replied, “Well, with some people it’s stupidity.”

Sue is onto something if our models of courage are people like Evel Knievel. You remember him? He died about ten years ago (due to complications with diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, by the way) but he was known for his daredevil stunts. Dressed in patriotic jumpsuits, Evel Knievel would ride his motorcycle over cars, rivers, rattlesnakes, fire pits, and such. Was that because of courage? Or a damaged amygdala?

No, the sort of courage demonstrated by people like Stephen is moral courage. The inner strength to witness to what is just, even when taking a stand controversial. To have the integrity to let one’s words and actions match one’s convictions. The determination to do the right thing.

But where does courage like that come from?

Take Stephen, for instance. There he was in front of the high council of elders, a council that, by the way, had no real authority because the Roman empire occupied Judea at the time. Stephen had the gall to stand up in front of the powers at be, in front of the general public, and tell the truth that God’s Spirit could not be tamed by their institutions, as sacred as they may seem. And as the angry mob began to heat up, he even reminded them how mobs such as those had dealt with the prophets.

And if that wasn’t agitating enough, Stephen had the guts to claim that the Jesus whom they had crucified was now Lord. Remember, there were likely Roman soldiers and officials within earshot of all this and the title of “Lord” was reserved for one person and one person only: the Emperor of Rome. Where does someone get the courage to talk like that?

And that’s not even the most extraordinary part. As they drug him out to the city gates and began stoning him to death, he has the presence of mind and the strength of heart to ask Jesus to forgive them. Stephen releases his spirit to the One whose Spirit lit the fire within him. For many people, there’s a fair amount of ego entangled with our courage. We’re human beings with mixed motives—fame, self-righteousness, the desire to be right all of that can fuel courage.

But not with Stephen. It was the presence of God’s Spirit within him. It was the vision of the risen Jesus that compelled him to do what he had to do.

Do you remember Daniel Berrigan of the Berrigan brothers? He was a priest and activist who was renown for his work with the anti-war movement (or I should say peace movement) in the 1960s. Father Berrigan died a year ago today. He’s probably most famous for being a part of the Catonsville Nine. What this group did, in May of 1968, was to march into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, haul out 378 draft files, toss them onto a pile, cover the pile with napalm (which was used in the Vietnam War), and light the draft records on fire. [1]

They were put on trial later that year. A play was written about the trial. In the play, the defense attorney asks Berrigan to read from the statement he prepared before the action. He said:

All of us who act against the law, turn to the poor of the world, to the Vietnamese, to the victims, to the soldiers who kill and die for the wrong reasons, for no reason at all, because they were so ordered by the authorities of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder. We say: killing is disorder; life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize…

Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. And yet — and yet — the times are inexhaustibly good, solaced by the courage and hope of many. The truth rules… Christ is not forsaken. In a time of death… some men, the resisters, those who work hardily for social change, preach and embrace the truth. In the jaws of death they proclaim their love of the brethren.

The defense contended that they were acting on their religious beliefs. The judge later said:

I am going to have to instruct the jury that, under the law which is binding on me, and therefore on the jury as well, the fact that he may be following his religious principles is not a defense, if it is found that a crime has indeed been committed.

To that, Berrigan replied:

May I say, Your Honor, that if my religious belief is not accepted as a substantial part of my action, then the action is eviscerated of all meaning, and I should be committed for insanity.

Courageous, foolish, or filled with the Holy Spirit? Maybe a combination of all three.

Unlike Stephen or Daniel Berrigan, few of us will put on trial (I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t speak so soon!). The stands we take are usually less dramatic than that. But they do happen, and they need a holy courage:

  • When we call our elected officials a demand that they take into account the impact of legislation on the least among us;
  • When we dare tell the truth to a relative or friend—a truth that is hard to hear and will probably make them “rattle and strike,” but they still need to hear it;
  • When we are afraid of the world disappointments or of the scripts in our own minds, yet still choose to get out of bed in the morning;

That kind of courage is a Spirit-breathed courage, it doesn’t come from a surplus of ego. Might it get us into trouble? Yes. But that’s why it comes to us by faith. It’s a courage born of the confidence in the risen Christ and God’s victory over the powers of death.

[1] I’m indebted to Dr. Tom Long for this illustration, who shared it with me in a conversation about this text at a retreat of the pastors of the Presbytery de Cristo in Green Valley, AZ, April 28-29.