I’m back after a couple of Sundays away. With a small adjustment, we’ll resume our progress through Acts where I meant for us to be at this point. We’ll read 1 John 3:16-24 and Acts 7:54-8:3.

Where are we?

After the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the early church shared all their possessions with each other, healed the sick, and boldly proclaimed the good news of Christ. Their unique message and way of life attracted many followers and quite a bit of opposition. In this reading from Acts, Stephen, one of the first deacons, has been falsely accused of blaspheming the Jewish religion. He has just given his (lengthy) defense, in which he retells the story of Jesus and argues that his accusers are the ones who have been unfaithful to God’s covenant.

We are about halfway through 1 John. The author has been talking about Christians’ new life in the light of truth, enabled by the love of God. This love is foreign to the ways of the world.

What’s going on here?

1 John, like James, makes the claim that our love for other people is the surest indication of our love for God. Neither epistle quite makes the claim that there’s something in particular we have to do to earn God’s grace, but they clearly argue that we must respond to the reality of that grace.

“If our conscience condemns us… [God] knows everything” (1 John 3:20) could go either of two directions. It could mean that we fall even more short of God’s standards than our own consciences can recognize, or it could mean that even though our consciences may be guilty, God is more gracious than our consciences. I think the latter is more true to 1 John, but either way (even both simultaneously) could be argued.

There’s a mysticism to verse 24, where human love is a way of participating directly in God’s life. This idea will come up again later in 1 John.

Stephen was a deacon, appointed to care for widows in the church so that the apostles could focus on the ministry of preaching. As it turns out, almost his entire diaconal career consists of a sermon.

Stephen’s bold words against his accusers fit a theme in the Acts sermons. The believers are accused of denying the old traditions; they argue the whole story of Jesus; they accuse their accusers of denying God’s work in Jesus; they are beaten or killed. There is perhaps something problematic with this rhetorical strategy.

As he’s about to be killed, Stephen has a vision of Jesus standing beside God in heaven. This kind of vision would become a prominent theme in Christian martyrdom stories.

“The Council members covered their ears,” presumably because Stephen’s apparent blasphemy was so egregious it was unsafe to hear.

The young Saul, who served as coat-check boy for the stoning party, will return next week with a dramatic story of his own.

When Stephen commits his spirit to the Lord and begs forgiveness for his killers, he echoes Jesus’ final words on the cross (Luke 23:34, 46).

So what?

Following Jesus means becoming like him, either in 1 John’s sense of deep union or in Acts’ portrayal of Stephen’s imitation of Christ’s own death. We can miss the point when we talk about having a relationship with Jesus as if we’re talking about a simple friendship. I can like my friends without becoming more like them, but I can’t follow Jesus without finding ways to imitate the way he lived (lives!) in the world. It’s not that we’re minimizing the difference between humanity and God, but in a big sense, the whole point of the incarnation in Jesus is to bring God’s reality into human life.

There’s nothing abstract about this business of imitating Christ. It’s all about how we live as people, with stuff, in a world where there are other people.