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  • Writer's picturePastor Elaine

May 7th, 2023 “Forgiveness"



“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”


In our reading today from the Book of Acts we heard the story of death by stoning of the first martyr of the Early Church, Stephen. Stephen was a deacon. One of seven that the apostles laid hands on after they had been chosen to serve widows and others in need. You would think this would make him a popular person. But the authorities had a different viewpoint.


What we did not hear is how it got to this point.


In the verses leading up to this Stephen was before the Sanhedrin in the temple. He had an opportunity to preach, perhaps even make a convert or two. But he did not. Instead he gave a biblical history and concluded it with insults and slurs. He also blamed the Sanhedrin for the murder of Jesus without specifically naming him.


The Sanhedrin were furious and drove him out of the temple. And this is where we joined the story. Stephen then has a vision of God in Glory and Jesus standing at his right hand. Was it the vision that was so offensive to the others that they covered their ears so as not to hear it? Or did they cover their ears to try to dehumanize and so be able to carry out what they planned to do?


They remove their coats - leaving them at the feet of Saul. This is a familiar name! Saul who would become Paul is present. He appears to be a passive bystander but in fact he is anything but. He approved of the murder of Stephen and in fact used this as a start to persecuting believers that in turn led to them fleeing Jerusalem. And ironically that led to the spread of the Gospel story - not the end of it.


Would it be fanciful of us to imagine that Saul might have been affected in some way by Stephen’s death? Could Stephen’s example have started something in Saul that would come to fruition with his conversion experience? Possibly. Why is Stephen revered as a martyr? He died for his faith. But it was his last act that gained him a special place in the history of the Church. He begs Jesus to accept his spirit and he asks forgiveness for those who stoned him. He forgives his murderers as they stone him to death.


Stephen’s act parallels Jesus’ act of forgiveness on the cross.


Forgiveness.


Could you forgive your murderers? Could you forgive someone who hurt you terribly? Could you forgive someone who stole from you? Who took away a loved one? What would you find unforgivable?


What could you forgive? And how do you do it?


Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness might take a lifetime. I doubt it comes as quickly as it did for Stephen.


Some people live lives that never forgive, let alone forget. My mother in law was like that. I used to say that she collected slights, both real and imagined like rosary beads that she would sift through.


Forgiveness is not easy. It cannot be forced and it would be horrific to suggest to someone that they need to forgive when they are living in and with pain. But forgiveness might be healthy and it might be a bigger gift to the one who forgives versus the one receiving the forgiveness.


Have you heard of the Forgiveness Project?


The purpose of the Forgiveness Project is to collect and share stories from both victims/survivors and perpetrators of crime and conflict who have rebuilt their lives following hurt and trauma.


The project was founded in 2004 by a British journalist, Marina Cantacuzino. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq she began collecting stories of people who had lived through trauma and violence and sought forgiveness rather than revenge. As a result the Forgiveness Project was born. The project operates from the belief that sharing narratives can transform lives. Not only the lives of those directly impacted but also building a climate of resilience, hope and empathy. The Forgiveness Project runs a website, offers educational programming, public conversations, an international F Word exhibit and a RESTORE prison program. The stories on the website show that forgiveness is a personal journey with no set rules or time limits.


The Forgiveness Project is secular and for people of all faiths or none.


However, as people of faith I think we can find the work that they do especially poignant and important. As Christians we try to follow Jesus’ commands to love one another, to forgive one another. But we acknowledge that this is often difficult to truly do.


Today we heard a story of forgiveness that parallels Jesus’ own at the time of his death. Stephen, first martyr of the Christian Church forgave his murderers as they stoned him. And so the Church remembers him each year on the 26th of December. Stephen was a transitional character in the life of the early Church and the author of Luke/Acts tells his story to show that the Church survived in times of conflict and persecution. To demonstrate that the act of an individual matters. After Stephen’s death the believers in Jerusalem fled persecution by the religious authorities. The time had come when the early followers of Jesus could no longer live and worship side by side in the temple with those who did not believe. They fled Jerusalem and took their experiences and stories of Jesus with them. And they made believers and converts wherever they went. The angry Sanhedrin who stoned Stephen could not stop the Gospel. They could not defeat the believers. At his death Stephen forgave them.


AMEN






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