If you can, try to drum up a mental image of what's going on in the story we just sang together from the book of Acts. We’re almost eight chapters into the Acts of the Apostles, and things are getting a bit hairy for the newborn Jesus movement. Stephen, a Jew and promising new disciple, has just finished lecturing the temple priests for their continuation of what he describes as Israel's historic and chronic disobedience to God—a lecture the priests did not appreciate, to say the least. Enraged by this rabble-rousing radical and irritated by his annoyingly demanding path to redemption, they create a riot amongst the people. There's Stephan fallen on his knees in the dirt of the city as an angry mob slowly moves in on him, led by an irate pack of high priests, determined to make an example of him—this man is challenging their entire way of life and he must be silenced. With the frenzied recklessness of a lynching mob, the crowd drags Stephan out into the hills beyond the city to stone him for his revolutionary message. With his last, dying breath, Stephen cries out in a loud voice “Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit!”
No, no sorry hold on a second. My apologies, Jesus was the one who cried out in a loud voice, "I commend my spirit.” Stephen uses his loud voice to cry, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” see the difference?
Yeah, me neither. Ok, I think I see where this is going. The Acts of the Apostles was written by the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, so some similar material isn’t too out of the ordinary. And seeing as this is Luke’s second bestseller, it’s safe to assume he knows what he's doing. He’s far too brilliant to accidentally echo the greatest literary trope of all time. So, if my calculations are correct we must be jumping right in the middle of the classic Good Friday fake-out. An innocent victim sentenced to a cruel and unusual punishment, selflessly begging for the forgiveness of his killers just before breathing his last? Check. Senseless, misguided, mob? Check. Proud, powerful and bloodthirsty temple elites? Check. So no need to panic if we learned anything the first time, good is about to defeat evil and usher in a reign of peace and prosperity for all those who believe. All’s well that ends well, and things should be pretty much on the up-swing if this crucifixion story is anything like the original. And as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been any significant re-writes yet.
But keep reading. Things don't get better, things actually get far worse for a while. In the next verse we read, "That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the country side." Stephan's murder sets the ball rolling for the imprisonments and murders of countless more innocent believers. Ok, we get it. We’ve picked up on the Good Friday foreshadowing—how could we not—now where's Easter? Don't leave us hanging so brutally now. The terror and carnage is only supposed to last for like three days. We’ve been set up for a resurrection and it’s time that we get one. Where’s our resurrection?
As Luke tells us, the day Stephan died marked the beginning of severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem. And whom do we meet on that very day? Right smack in the center of the slaughter? Paul. Paul, coiner of such timeless Christian words as “love is patient, love is kind” and “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.” Paul, the first evangelist. Paul, the writer of all those New Testament letters—yes, that Paul. And what is he doing? Watching the Stephen die with pleasure. Enjoying the show. “And he approved of their killing him,” Luke tells us.
To be clear, he's not Paul yet. He’s introduced to us as the man named Saul, then a well-known Christian slayer and general agent of pain and persecution. In other words, a really, really bad guy. In contrast the crowds and even the high priests to a certain extent, come off as more passive, inevitable, almost dismiss-able kinds of sinners. Their faults look even more forgivable in Saul's dark shadow—compared to him. They look like sinners in the uninformed voter, litter bug, white-liar, idol gossiper, "just following orders" kind of way—the all-around know-not-what-they-do-ers. Jesus calls for their forgiveness, we can see why—everybody makes mistakes, we're all human. Saul is the mortal sinner here—he's the one ravaging the church, dragging innocents out of their homes, killing people for loving God. He’s kind of a bad guy that examples are made of and children are warned about—you know, like the corporate embezzler, or the drug addict, or the hit-and-run driver—the armed robber, excessive gambler, deserter, home wrecker, wife-beater, sex offender—you get the idea—the bigoted, in-your-face, clear-cut, kind of evil-doer. The kind of evil that good is out to destroy if somehow it manages not to self-destruct first. The kind of evil so repugnant that we not only hope, but expect it to be killed by its own sword, if there is a God. So helloooo, Luuuke, when is the resurrection?? It’s time for the wicked to be cut down and the righteous raised up. Let’s go.
But Stephan, our pseudo-Jesus and the flagship martyr of the Church, is not resurrected, and Saul is not buried in a watery grave. Instead, right after all this, God struck Saul blind for three days. Saul was struck blind for three days, not eating or drinking, after three days, filled with the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us, he regained his sight. He was transfigured into Paul. Paul, lover of The Lord. Paul, spreader of the gospel and benevolent father of little churches all over the Roman Empire. Paul, teacher of Timothy and Pricilla, Paul the preacher of equality and justice, Paul, advocate for peace and love and community. Paul, prisoner of Christ and father of the Church, yes that Paul. That Paul that was—that we met as—the murdering, terrorizing Saul. Paul is the resurrection story here. Paul is the one raised on the third day.
In the Gospels, Jesus, the perfect son of God, is raised from the dead and proves good and life conquers evil and death, but does that surprise you? Sure, God incarnate can rise from the dead, but who among us is the Jesus kind of good? There is resurrection for the righteous true, but here we see that there is redemption for the wicked, too. Saul/Paul is living proof—murderers are redeemable. Resurrection is not just for the innocent, but also for the guilty. Resurrection is not just for the Son of God, but for the sinful humans too. Luke says so, right there he says so. He says that if you wake up every morning hung over and you can't remember the last time you fell asleep sober, resurrection is for you. That if every time your spouse picks up your phone you’re terrified he'll see that guilty text you forgot to delete and find you out, resurrection is for you. That if every time your boss calls you into her office, your first impulse is to quit rather than face your fraud, resurrection is for you. That is, if you wake up every day hating yourself for the things you’ve done or the way you live, there is resurrection for you. Resurrection is not just for the son of God, resurrection is for you and me, too. Amen.