Title: You killed Jesus
Date: May 22, 2011 (5th Sunday of Easter)
Texts: Acts 7
Author: Chris Gooding
It seems somehow appropriate that, on my last time appearing before this congregation to preach, I’m assigned Acts 7—the story of the stoning of Stephen. In the story, Stephen is arrested and made to appear before the Jerusalem Council, a group of Jewish jurists, on the accusation that “he never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” Stephen gives a rather lengthy defense that summarizes most of the history of Israel, makes Jesus the culmination of that narrative, and then is promptly put to death by stoning. I say that it is appropriate to make me preach this passage because I take it that this is pretty much what I have been about when speaking on this side of the podium—trying to convince people that in order to make sense of Jesus, you need to take the Torah and the Prophets seriously, and that if you accomplish that, you’ll likely get killed for it.
But before diving into the details of Stephen’s sermon, it might help to locate what he is doing here in the book of Acts as a whole. The book of Acts is a strange one. I know I say that about just about every book of the Bible, but it really is—we don’t have anything else like it genre-wise in the New Testament. It reads sort of like a Christian version of Homer’s Odyssey: full of shipwrecks, tense courtroom scenes, angry mobs, exorcisms—lots of adventure. Yet Acts also illuminates some of the earliest internal theological conflicts that the church faced, and it records numerous sermons given by various early church leaders, illustrating the central message of the early church.
In fact, it is an interesting exercise to go through these seven or so sermons and look at what the early church tends to focus on in its preaching. There are numerous Christian movements cropping up today to reclaim “the real gospel”: The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, etc. These groups claim that some central aspect of the gospel is being neglected in the preaching of American churches, such as a certain view of justification by faith or the need to have a certain view about gender roles, and therefore the church is not preaching the “real gospel.” So it’s always kind of interesting to peruse through the sermons in Acts and see how the apostles did. Were they preaching the “real gospel”? Or is it something we have to buy tickets to a conference to hear? Well, I read the all sermons in Acts, and curiously, nothing appears in them about “justification by faith” or which gender gets to stand on this side of the pulpit. But there is one theme that appears overwhelmingly in the sermons: “You killed Jesus.” The apostles really seem to want to bring that point home to their audiences.
Now, “you killed Jesus” can be a dangerous accusation, and it has a sordid history in Christian interpretation of Scripture. The most damaging version of this accusation has been turned against Jews. From at least the medieval period forward, passages such as Matthew 27:24-25 (where Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd symbolically proclaiming his innocence in Jesus’ crucifixion, while the crowds shout out “His blood be on us and on our children!”) have been used to bolster a form of Christian anti-Semitism. From this moment on, it is argued, the Jews as a group admit that they are guilty of killing Jesus, and that guilt stays with them to this day. This is, of course, simply a terrible read of the passage: it is not specified that all those in the crowd are Jewish. But deeper than this, it misunderstands the Torah: Levitically, to cover someone or something with blood results in a cleansing of sins, not in a transfer of guilt. Blood is life, not death—it is the detergent that cleanses sin, not the mark of guilt that makes it right for others to kill you. The crowds are ironically proclaiming Jesus to be the sacrifice that cleanses them and their children of their sins.
On the other end of things, it was somewhat popular in some of the Evangelical circles I was a part of in late high school/early college to try to drive “you killed Jesus” home in order to help people to try to “get serious” about their sins. I recall sitting around a campfire while one of my friends sang a song about how he shared in the blame of Jesus’ death, and found himself among the crowd that crucified him. In this sense, “you killed Jesus” is a condemnation on everyone who has sinned, because Jesus came to pay the price for the sins of the world on the cross. While there is something true about this, the problem with this interpretation is that it is difficult to see how focusing on this would make one “get serious” about their sins. No one can change what they’ve done in the past, and sinning less in the future isn’t going to have made Jesus’ sacrifice any less painful. Yet the New Testament as a whole, not just the book of Acts, finds this accusation of “you killed Jesus,” to be deeply meaningful and important. If it is not an accusation of guilt against the Jewish nation, and it is not a means for Christians to try to get “more serious” about their sins, what is it?
Let’s return to Stephen, and see what role it plays in his sermon. The first thing that is interesting about Stephen’s sermon is that it is “orthodox”: from a Jewish standpoint, there is nothing objectionable about his narration of the history of Israel. Moses features heavily in it, and Stephen is respectful of the Law, referring to it as full of “living oracles,” and “ordained by angels.” Similarly, he is respectful of the temple and the tabernacle, admitting that their specific dimensions were ordained by God, though he also quotes the prophet Isaiah, reminding the court that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.” But all of this is perfectly biblical, and perfectly respectful of both the Law and the Prophets. So why is Stephen being accused of rebellion against the Temple and against the Law, and why is he killed? The turn comes as soon as he accuses the council of killing Jesus. There is a cosmic play going on, Stephen announces, and though the actors change, the roles stay the same. In ancient Israel, it was the prophets who played the role of God’s chosen, and the rulers of Israel who played the persecutors. And now, Stephen says, playing the role of God’s anointed is Jesus Christ, and playing the role of the persecutors are the Jewish and Roman authorities. Stephen casts these authorities as the descendents of the Ahabs and Jezebels of the world. And just as Ahab and Jezebel stood against God in persecuting Elijah, these authorities stood against God in putting Jesus to death.
Now, we might think that we have here already an understandable reason why this council would want to put Stephen to death. Faced with such typecasting, we might think that the council wishes to defend itself against charges of putting an innocent man to death, and they kill Stephen as a way of covering up their sin. But this read would force us to say that the public was simply wrong about Stephen when they said of him, “he never stops saying things against this holy place and the law.” What if there were at least some grounds for this accusation, even if it represents a misunderstanding of what Stephen is all about?
One of the most interesting themes that pervade the New Testament is the idea that Jesus, though innocent, had to be counted among criminals. In the Gospel of Luke, the companion volume to Acts, Jesus expresses it this way: “For I tell you, this Scripture is being fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless,’ and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled” (Luke 22:37). It couldn’t have happened any other way. Jesus’ criminality isn’t accidental. It was inevitable that Jesus’ every action would be perceived as a threat to the governing authorities. Luke does not say, for example, that if only the Democrats or the Republicans had been in power, Rome wouldn’t have killed Jesus. He does not lie the fault at the feet of a particular ruler or party—“if only so-and-so weren’t in power, Rome wouldn’t have killed Jesus.” Instead, Luke often comes off as pro-Greek or pro-Roman, so much so that only a few generations ago, biblical scholarship was almost unanimously convinced that Luke was a politically conservative apologist, who wrote his Gospel to convince the Roman authorities that Christians weren’t a threat to their way of life. The consensus has since shifted to thinking that Luke is one of the more revolutionary, pro-disenfranchised Gospels (which has always seemed obvious to some—Luke contains the Magnificat, and contains frequent admonitions to sell your possessions and give them to the poor).
But there is a sense in which this is an understandable mistake— Luke recognizes Rome as a respectable government. Sure, Rome, Luke says, you run a well-ordered house. You built roads, revolutionizing travel in your empire. You brought peace, conquering every barbarian threat around you. Your slaves obey their masters, your wives obey their husbands, your children obey their parents (don’t forget—the orderly Roman household is the building block of all Roman politics—families are political units). And there is a sense in which Luke recognizes the Jewish authorities as wise. Sure, Sanhedrin, you administer the Law. And the Law is the path to righteousness. You run the temple. And the temple is ordained of God. You carry on the traditions of the ancestors. Together, you and the Romans made the trains run on time. You are efficient. Orderly. Controlled. Natural. Strong. Practical. And then God showed up, became human and entered into your system. And you killed him. Think about that for a second.
To come at it from another angle, there are Christians out there who wish to convince you that the Christian life is all about obedience—obedience to various “natural orders.” And these natural orders have their own operating logics. They will tell you that Christianity is about social control. They will read passages like the ones in 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 (the parts that we skipped over as we’ve been reading through 1 Peter in the lectionary this season), and tell you that citizens should obey the government, wives should obey husbands, children should obey parents, and… well, they usually stop at that point, nowadays, but the rest says that slaves should obey masters. Anyway, their point is that submission isn’t mutual (it runs in one direction) and you should always pay your taxes no matter what the government does with them. And with these Christians, we can agree that the life of a Christian involves obedience. But as my teacher Willie Jennings puts it, “What is it that makes obedience Christian?” How is the Christian’s obedience unique from the obedience of the world to its “natural” and political orders? Simply put, it must be the obedience of Jesus. 1 Peter essentially affirms this. It says that slaves should obey masters and wives should obey husbands the way that Christ obeyed the authorities. Now, we usually get that this means suffering unjustly without retaliating, but we often overlook the full effect of what this is asking us to do. It is asking us obey the way an enemy of the state obeyed the government that executed him. To obey in such a way that our obedience cannot be interpreted as anything but disobedience all the way down. Up until Jesus’ crucifixion, he is an agitator—constantly in conflict with the authorities. The obedience of Christ, simply cannot be a matter of “doing as you are told,” as is often suggested. People who do what they’re told don’t get crucified as insurrectionists. They aren’t perceived as people who are constantly trying to overturn the order of things. So, if we are to be obedient as Christ was obedient, this means that obedience to government must be the obedience of the one who purged the Temple, and who was crucified on a Roman cross as a criminal. Obedience to husbands, parents, and masters must be the obedience of the one who taught his disciples to practice mutual admonition and discipline, and who taught that “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way: Christ has inserted himself in between the believer and all those she is related to (siblings, spouses, parents, governments), such that there is no immediate access to those things except through Christ. There is no obedience to those things but the obedience of Christ.
Now, this is the point at which I’m supposed to put on the brakes. I’m supposed to say, “Christianity is not always a force for order, but neither is it always a force for chaos. In reality, we must balance the revolutionary nature of Christ’s life against the desire to maintain order in 1 Peter. Sometimes Christianity plays one role, other times it plays its opposite. After all, some social control is necessary for human flourishing.” This is precisely what we must not say. Yes, it is true, the desire for revolution can become in itself a play for social control. Yes, some early Christians (and early Anabaptists) took the urge to rebel against social control too far, killing those that controlled them, and forcing those who were once in control now to submit to their will. Such Christians needed voices like Peter’s to check their desire for revenge. But the reason for checking this revolutionary urge is not that some social control is always necessary, it is that vengeance is incompatible with the peace and enemy love found in Christ. These are always the terms in which the Epistles couch obedience—in the character of Christ, not in terms of the need for control. In Christ, orders based on social control have been judged, and are passing away. This is why 1 Peter couches its discussion of obedience in the context of judgment. We quite often hear the word “judgment” and think that the Bible is talking about following the rules or else facing negative consequences in the next life. But what if judgment was about God taking the world apart and setting the pieces at the feet of Christ? If this is the case, judgment begins with the coming of Christ. Judgment begins when the Son of God enters into a well-ordered, socially controlled, docile cosmos, and it kills him to preserve order. It continues when God makes all things new through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In such a context, trying to preserve strong governments and patriarchal households is actually a profound form of disobedience to Christ.
That is what is so offensive about the turn in Stephen’s speech. Stephen claims that Christ has hollowed out the structures by which the council wishes to order life, and has pulled the Law out from under them. It is not so much that Jesus and those who follow him are going to beat them in the game of social control they are playing. It is rather that Christ has taken the game board and pieces away from them entirely. The Law has ceased to be the means by which they can control and order their world. Jesus has restored it to what it always was supposed to be: turning “the Law” back into the Torah, the Path, the Walk, the Way. The word “Torah” is a walking metaphor, it has none of the connotations that the English word “law” does—it doesn’t suggest social control or coercion. Torah is the Way by which the people of God walk without violence or control into the Wilderness so that they might worship their God, rather than the way by which they build new empires of control, new Egypts, new Babylons.
And so Stephen accepts his punishment. He does not retaliate. He dies with kindness, gentleness, and serenity. With quiet grace, he loves and forgives his enemies. And upon his death, he sees Christ, sitting at the right hand of God. Stephen was a good man. A kind man. An innocent man. But he was not a docile man. He refused to cooperate with the Jerusalem Council. He looked them in the eyes and said, “The Way is not yours. It belongs to Jesus, whom you killed. ”
Various Christian theologians have developed detailed systems that try to regain the position of the Jerusalem Council. The first step is to try to take the Way away from you. They will tell you that Christ came to put an end to the Way. The Way could not be followed, they will argue, and therefore Jesus did not come to open the Way for you. Jesus came only to take the guilt of your sin away, nothing more. Second, they will try to push Jesus out of his mediating position between you and the powers of this world, turn “the Way” into “the Law,” and put it back in the hands of natural orders. “We need to build orderly governments, houses, and families,” they will say. And to these Christians you must answer, “But they killed Jesus.”
 An interesting exercise along these lines can be found in the first chapter of John Howard Yoder’s Preface to Theology.
 Other common themes include: (1) God raised Jesus from the dead, (2) the God who raised Jesus is the same God worshipped by Abraham and the patriarchs, (3) this all occurred according to the plan of God, (4) this all occurred as a fulfillment of Scripture, (5) Jesus was accredited by signs and mighty deeds/these mighty deeds continue through the ministry of the apostles, (6) Jesus brought/is bringing judgment/forgiveness/salvation, (6) Jesus is seated on the right hand of God/is the Messiah, (7) repent.
 Famously, this is why Yoder used Luke as the “test case” for his argument in The Politics of Jesus: Luke was thought to be the gospel in which non-conservative politics would be the hardest to justify in the 1960s (Politics of Jesus, p. 11-12).
 This reading has become particularly prominent, for example, in Latin American Liberation Theology.
 The Quakers were particularly astute in picking up on this. Their belief that God was immediately accessible by every member of the community, combined with their practice of mutual admonition and discipline (where wives and slaves were expected to hold husbands and masters accountable for wrongs committed—they were no less a part of the process than anyone else) yielded two conclusions. First, Quakers came to believe that slavery was wrong (it simply made no sense to own slaves in the context of such mutual admonition). Second, Quakers quickly determined that having women preach was not only acceptable, but a necessary part of their common life. Non-Christological reads of the household codes, however, have often impeded both of these insights in other Christian groups.
 For a deepening of this theme, see Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, chapter 5.