“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51)
Stephen was talking to the cultural “majority” of his day; he was talking to the religious leaders, the movers and shakers, the scholars and thinkers of his society. He was talking to those who viewed themselves as the “Chosen People of God,” people who knew the law, tried to follow it, and believed that others should be trying to follow it, too. They were not too keen on the followers of the Nazarene, nor were they too happy with the role and position that the Greek speaking Hellenistic Jews were gaining in this up-start movement. Oh, to be sure the Hellenists were welcome in the synagogue, but they really should remain quiet and let the true Hebrew leadership run things; after all, these Hellenists were not entirely “kosher” … they had backgrounds and practices that were “incompatible with Mosaic teaching.”
No wonder Stephen’s words cut to the bone! Here he was, an outspoken Hellenistic Jew, a Deacon in a cult that followed what they thought of as a dead Messiah, pointing out their moral hypocrisies and theological deficiencies! “How dare he call us stiff necked and uncircumcised in the heart and ear! We’re Abraham’s offspring! We have heard, know, and keep the law! We are God’s chosen few! Who does this Stephen think he is!? He’s lucky to even be here at all!”
These are the words of a stiff-necked leadership, unwilling to hear the voice of God speaking words of truth and conviction. These are the words of a leadership that may be circumcised in the flesh, but in spiritual reality is uncircumcised in the heart. Totally enamored with the letter of the law, they refuse to listen to both the inner voice of the Holy Spirit and the good news of the “Holy One,” the “Righteous One,” the one whom they had put to death with their self-serving agenda.
Sadly, this is not just a circumstance which confronted the First Century Church. Those who are spiritually stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart and ear are still with us in the church. Those who do not wish to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s life saving, life transforming grace, are never far from us. They would rather apply the letter of the law, with a judgmental heart and an uncompromising, graceless spirit, than be open to what God is doing in the lives of those sisters and brothers who differ from the “norm.” They would rather look at “the bottom line” the rules and regulations of our Discipline than be open to what God is doing in the lives and ministries of the St. Stephens in our midst. They would rather cover their ears, cry “na-na-na-na-na-na,” gnash their teeth, and then stone or, at least, toss out of the ministry those who don’t measure up to the traditional expectations.
This is where the United Methodist Church stands as we face yet another General Conference. Some of our sisters and brothers are calling for openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, while others are calling for the letter of the law. Some are praying for “holy conferencing,” while others are looking to exclude from the conference (at least metaphorically) those with whom they disagree. We have St. Stephens looking to God in heaven, and we have some covering their ears and crying “na-na-na-na-na” while gnashing their teeth and trying to ignore the miracles of God’s grace in the lives of their sisters and brothers in the Church.
Yes, we have both St. Stephens and we have stiff-necked people in our midst … and, if we’re painfully honest with ourselves, when we look into the mirror we will see the faces of both. Yes, we are the St. Stephens of the church, serving and speaking of the grace of God with love and conviction. And, yes, we are sometimes among those stiff-necked red-necks. Yes, even being the good, loving, accepting, liberal, progressives that we are … we are, so very often, uncompromising in our own forms of orthodoxy, unwilling to see God at work and unwilling to accept the direction that God may be leading.
How open are we to the movement of the Holy Spirit? How open are we to being changed by God? We are often quick to criticize our more conservative siblings in the faith for being closed to the grace of God, but are we truly open to God’s grace? Or, are we stiff-necked, unwilling to turn and see the needs of those around us? Are our hearts uncircumcised? Are we closed to God’s amazing grace? Do we really want our church to be relevant to the needs of this broken and hurting world? Do we truly believe that God still works miracles and that we are called to be a part of those miracles? Or, are we so lost in our demythologized philosophies that we’ve lost touch with the mystical, spiritual, and yet real presence of Jesus?
St. Stephen’s indictment rings down through the centuries to us, too. In our rush to judgment of our sisters and brothers, in our unwillingness to listen to their perspective, in our clinging to preconceived notions and agenda, we need to hear the cry of the first martyr for the faith. And, with Stephen, we need to be looking toward Jesus and submitting all that we do, and all whom we serve, to God’s unfailing, gracious care. If we, as a denomination, are committed to “Making Disciples for Jesus Christ,” how can we do anything less?
Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.
© 2008, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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