Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10

Stephen’s martyrdom is the first of many stories like it in the early church. His dying vision, of Jesus sitting at God’s right hand, echoes a common theme in death stories, ancient an modern: just before someone pierces the veil, they’re able to see through it. A similar theme is the weight given to people’s dying words. Stephen’s were, “Lord, forgive them.” This opens up a great theme in Christian martyrdoms: death as union with Christ. Stephen becomes one with Christ in his dying words: “Receive my spirit, and don’t remember this sin against them.”

That’s how simple Christianity is: with trust in God, forgive others. That’s what we do at the beginning of worship, when I get the privilege of sharing some words of grace with you. Whatever else we end up doing, these words are true: in Christ, we’re loved, forgiven, made whole, and freed to live and serve. Peter calls this “spiritual milk,” the basic nutrition for Christian life. It gets more interesting than this, but never so much more interesting as to obscure this Good News. At the very least, at the very first, in Christ you are loved and forgiven. Nothing, not even death, can separate you from Christ’s love. That’s enough.

But it’s not all. We’re called to hear and experience the Good News, and then we’re called to live and proclaim it (with words, if necessary). Peter says great things about our Christian calling – “you are a chosen race, the King’s priests, a holy nation, God’s own people” – as if we’re something special. But we’re not chosen to be anything more special than others, we’re set apart to proclaim God’s wonderful, forgiving, life-giving grace. We proclaim it by telling our own story (honestly and respectfully); by praying for others; by building our lives toward reconciliation.

There is something deeply mysterious in this. God sets us apart to reconcile the world with Christ. God invites us to do something God’s already doing, with or without us. And it seems like an awfully bad idea, to give something so important to humans who can’t do it perfectly, but it is our job to forgive and reconcile others. That’s the clear message of this biblical passage, but it’s also been the history of the church (in success and failure), and it’s been the story of so many of our relationships. That’s how it is in the story of Jesus: God submits to human power, without being bound by our human capacity for evil or incapacity for good.

And it’s brilliant, as you might expect from God. By doing the hard work of forgiving and making peace, we learn what God’s grace is for us. By offering grace (as best we’re able), we become more gracious. This role works out what God’s already up to and blesses us as we do it. We can’t truly say how it works, as you know, but we can do it. We can discern God’s way for the church, we can lift the world intentionally before God, and we can orient our lives (through time and money) toward God’s purposes. That is to say, the second half of our worship service is far more important than anything I just said.

So as we go into “doing grace,” let’s claim it again. Let’s remember how Paul described what we receive, affirm, and proclaim:

It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns?

No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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