Not Even in Death

Psalm 31:5, 15-16 Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving-kindness save me.


Part of our Easter theme is solidarity. Solidarity with each other because of our solidarity with God. We are joined to God by faith and liberation; knit together with God through new life; and we have solidarity with God in our love for God and God’s love for us. This is the axiomatic narrative thrust of the biblical witness. God does not leave the beloved (full stop). You cannot be so far removed to be outside of the long reach of God’s life-giving arm, loving embrace, and liberating hand. The prophets attest to this; the psalmists attest to this, the witness of our first parents attest to this…you are not so far gone to be beyond God. Not even being cast out of the garden created a distance between humanity and God; God has always been and always will be with, among, alongside God’s beloved: humanity, the cosmos, you and me.

But our Easter theme goes further than another reiteration of a much-needed message of God’s unyielding, never-stopping, never-giving up, always and forever love. The Easter story tells us that God even goes with us unto death. Not even death can separate you from the love of God. The images of hellfire and brimstone, of eternal torment, of punishment for sins is more the credit of John Milton’s and Dante’s imaginations than scriptural witness. God is so for you that God is for you even when you don’t want God to be. God is so for you that when you think that the most final thing about our existence—death—is the last word forever separating you from God, God says: NOPE. As Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things at hand, nor things about to be, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor what other things in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] You do not enter death alone but with God, thus with life, love, and liberation. The God of Jesus Christ is not only the God of the living but also those who have gone on before us into death, into God; therefore, we can say that we are blessed by God even in death just as we are in life because God is with us, in deep solidarity with us and our human condition.

Acts 7:55-60

 Now being full of the holy spirit [Stephan] was gazing into heaven and he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing from the right hand of God and [Stephan] said, ‘Behold! I see the heavens being opened up completely and the son of humanity standing from the right hand of God.’…and while they were stoning Stephan he was appealing and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And after placing down the knees, he cried out in a great voice, ‘Lord, hold not this sin to them.’

Acts 7:55-56, 59-60b

There’s a tendency to focus on Stephan’s death. And by that statement I mean the fact he is killed by stoning, which was approved by the local religious authority. Let me take a moment to refresh memories about why Stephan is in the spot. First, he’s one of the seven chosen to table-service so that the apostles could maintain time and space for teaching and preaching. Table-service is *not* setting the table; table-service is a robust ministry to care for the least of these, the very apple of God’s eye, the ones who provoked the words of God born into the world by the prophets, the very people Jesus came to serve. So, Stephan is one of these chosen ones. Now, because the Spirit really doesn’t care whose title is what, the Spirit graces Stephan with the power to perform signs and wonders for and among the people. Also, the Spirit blessed Stephan with profound wisdom and boldness to preach the Goodnews to the captives. Now, Stephan, as one chosen to table-service, became the target of human jealousy. This jealousy led to lies and falsification about Stephan and ultimately thrusts him before the Sanhedrin (the council).

So, standing before the Sanhedrin, Stephan is asked by the high priest, “‘Have these things to be thus?’” (7:1). And instead of Stephan being like: “No way!” Or “Uh sure!” Stephan launches into what I like to think of as a premodern, religious, theologically and biblically sound “Well….akshually…” And proceeds to school the entire Sanhedrin in their history while accusing them of pursuing the same death-dealing course that those before them pursued contrary to God’s will. The last thing he says—before being dragged outside of the city—is,

‘You stiff -necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you, you are unceasingly striving against the Holy Spirit, you [are] just as your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not pursue? They killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, and now you, you have become betrayers and murderers. Whosoever received the law as an ordinance of angels, and yet you have not kept it.’ Now, when they heard these things, they were cut to the quick in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at [Stephan].

Acts 7:51-54

And the very next passage is the one we read this morning. This speech ending in Spirit filled accusation lands Stephan facing death, a death Saul fully agrees with (v. 58).[2] This is not about the glorification of martyrdom; this isn’t even about villainous religious leaders getting bent out of shape when someone beneath them in rank speaks out against them. Rather this is about God demonstrating solidarity with humanity in death, once again. Here we see as we did on Good Friday into Holy Saturday and in the bursting forth of Easter Sunday Morning, God stepping into the deep plight of humanity finding themselves sentenced to death. Jesus shows up and joins Stephan, suffering with Stephan as he suffered before with others so caught and held captive by death. In this moment, unlike Saul,[3] God does not side with power and prestige, but with humility and vulnerability. As the Spirit graced Stephan with great power in this moment, so too especially in this moment is God’s grace and power demonstrated for all to see; and nothing, positively nothing can separate the beloved from God, not even death.[4]


The collision here is very obvious: the old order v. the new order. But this collision isn’t between one group and another as much as it is between the Reign of God and the kingdom of humanity. We, too, are thrust into this collision: those of us who dare to follow Jesus out of the tomb, must leave behind the rags of the old order and don the clothes of the new one. As we’ve been given life, so we advocate for life; as we’ve been loved, so we love; as we’ve been liberated, so we liberate.

God does not threaten people with condemnation and death to get them to believe in God or to follow God or to listen to God; that’s what humans do. Rather, God steps into death, under condemnation to protect the beloved from both.  God woos with love, with identification with your plight, with promise, and with liberation, solidarity, and life. Humanity threatens with violence, isolation, ostracization, captivity, and death. All those messages crafted to cause you to bend the knee out of fear are not and never have been of God; those have been crafted by human beings desperate to keep their power and control over other people, to get them to be compliant and obedient to their selfish advantage. God doesn’t need that type of response from you to be God; and if God did, wouldn’t you wonder about the insecurity of such a God?* The God that we worship here, the Creator, the parent of Jesus Christ, the source of the Holy Spirit, the substance of love is so secure that God can even still exist even when you deny God.

More than that, God is so secure in God’s self that God goes with you into your suffering, into your pain, into your anger, into your frustration, and even with you into death because God knows nothing else than God’s deep desire to be with the beloved in all things—dirty or clean, pure or impure, sinner and saint. And, as Paul eventually learned, nothing…absolutely nothing can or will ever separate you from the love of God.

*A thought influenced by Dorothee Sölle

[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 79. “By it, Luke portrays Paul agreeing with the Sanhedrin members that Stephen’s activities and words could not be tolerated and agreeing with them that death by stoning was the way to put an end to them.”

[3] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 73-74. “For Saul, this is a righteous righteous act. Killing in the name o. God be approved. But this approval is of the old order, not the new. Now its absurdity can be exposed. There were no doubt evil people in Israel worthy or death, but there was no one, without doubt, who was innocent enough to kill them. It is in this tension between the new order and the old that the old will assert its power in and among the faithful. Stephen has been seen as the first Christian martyr, but we must see more than a faithful witness unto death. We must also see the way faithful people can yield to the old order and kill if they believe they or God are threatened by a different witness. Stephen was executed, and his execution was approved. How often have Christians given their approval of executions, religious and political, but how often have we seen this as giving into the old order and resisting the Holy Spirit?”

[4] Jennings, Acts,72-73. “Something else, however, is happening that could easily be missed in the rushed judgment to death and the silence engendered by closed ears and grinding teeth. Stephen is being joined to God. Luke has flashed forward to a future that waits for those who follow the prophets, the apostles, and finally Jesus. God, the Holy Spirit, fills Stephen and will face death with him. This will always be the case for believers. No matter how hard they are thrown, the stones cannot separate Stephen from God. Nor can any stone, no matter its velocity, its surprising angle, or its accuracy in hitting our vulnerable places, ever separate those who know the savior from God.”

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