Not long ago, I received an email from a colleague that seemed to hint that I had done something wrong. I hadn’t. In fact, just the opposite: I had been diligent to do things the right way. I was hurt and offended.
I thought long and hard about how to frame my response. I measured out my words carefully, detailing how I had done everything by the book. Then I let the person know how hurtful their email message had been.
The result? My colleague was taken aback. No accusation had been meant; no malice had been intended. I had overreacted. I had been polite and civilized about it, but it was an overreaction just the same.
It seems I have a thing about being falsely accused. My defenses go up quickly and I’m ready to fight, to justify myself, to show the other person how wrong they are.
All of which makes me marvel at the story of Stephen.
As we’ve seen, with his bold witness for Jesus, Stephen had made enemies. When they couldn’t stand up to him in head-to-head debate, they trumped up charges against him, accusations of blasphemy and subversion. He was dragged before the Sanhedrin to answer for his supposed crimes.
As Luke describes the scene, the council members stared at Stephen because “his face was radiant, just like an angel’s” (Acts 6:15, CEB). It’s as if Luke wants to turn the story on its head. On the one hand, Stephen is the one on trial. On the other, it’s clear to everyone in the room that he is imbued with a divine presence — thus, they are to be judged by how they respond to what he says.
It’s been said that anyone who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client. Whoever coined that adage probably didn’t know about Stephen.
Admittedly, though, Stephen’s “defense” is a strange one. He doesn’t present evidence of his innocence. He doesn’t try to discredit the false witnesses who have spoken against him. Rather, he does what basketball coaches would call turning defense into offense: he takes advantage of the situation by using it as an opportunity to go on the offensive and witness for Jesus.
He does so by retelling the story of Israel, ending with an unexpected twist. Stephen begins his story politely enough. “Brothers and fathers,” he says, “listen to me” (Acts 7:2).
By the time he reaches the end of his defense, the finger of blame will be pointed clearly in the opposite direction: the accusers will become the accused. But that doesn’t mean that Stephen speaks only in anger. Here, at the beginning, he is connecting with his audience, making common cause with them. This is our story, he seems to say. Please listen; it’s important.
And of course, as we will see, if one is to tell the story of the people of Israel, one must begin with Abraham.