My given name is Stephen. My mother was the first person to settle on that name in my family history, as far as we know. She liked the name, though I could not push her into giving any more of an explanation for her choice. Since discovering my namesake in Acts 6 and 7, and finding that the Greek means ‘crowned one,’ I have become fond of alluding to this when introducing myself. One of my more unique features, I think. “Getting my crown slightly early”, I sometimes quip. If more modesty is called for, I might well add, “But my halo is still small enough to strangle me.”
Stephen is first mentioned by name in a list in Acts 6:5, a little like the genealogies that pepper the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis. Teachers were behind this phenomenon, I am sure, as we love registers, or at least, we cannot escape them. Where there are schools, there should be dinner duties, which is where Stephen first comes in. I’ve done my share of wiping tables and stacking chairs, and enjoy the physical interlude it can provide in a day’s work. Serried rows of stacked chairs and the glistening reflection of afternoon sunlight on freshly wiped table tops can send a shiver of satisfaction down my spine.
There is a powerful dynamic in moving from dining hall to classroom. Children- students- young people: what exactly should we call them? They treat you differently, respond differently, listen differently when you have made contact in a contrasting setting. It makes for more of a community feeling, because you have done some life together, attending first to the body here and then to the mind there. I repeat: they listen differently, without realising it. Jesus demonstrated this reality when he fed 5000 men and uncounted women and children. He then challenged these people to decide if they persisted in following him because they had been fed on bread or God’s word. No answer was given. Perhaps none is called for. Every day, we hunger for both.
Stephen was certainly listened to. What he’d said in conversation through the serving hatch was repeated around the refectory; then it got onto social media and it was all round the city. What had he said that caused such excitement? Something about Moses and God, apparently. Well, that’s everything then. The folk at the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’ didn’t like that Stephen’s teaching was shaking up their fusty traditions about God in His heaven and old man Moses the lawgiver who led Israel to their promised land, leaving them to take charge of their land of milk and honey. A new relationship between God and people – all people mind you, not just the descendants of Moses and Abraham. The future is no longer just found in the synagogue of freedmen, but rather in the Church of all the Free, empowered by the resurrected Christ!
If Stephen had been a slower talker, Acts chapter 7 would have been a lot shorter, but fortunately he had both the gift of the gab and plenty to say. We are treated to an extended re-presenting of the history and theology of the people of God. Despite the fact that his hearers are already angry, they seem riveted to their places until the lesson is done. “I don’t care if the bell has gone- you are not moving from those seats until I am good and finished. Sit still and keep writing!” As it turned out, that was the end of both the lesson and the teacher. But the teaching was not lost- we can read it still as recorded here at length. The life of Stephen’s message is testified to in two ways: the powerful works he did while alive, and the vision of his translation to glory even as he was being stoned, observed by the helpless witnesses in the crowd, reminiscent of Elisha straining upwards to see Elijah rising before him on the chariot of God.
So Stephen and his fellow deacons were not merely table waiters. They were teachers of the Way just as much as the Apostles, who perhaps did not anticipate just how much of an impact their new deacons would have on the future. ‘Deacon’ is not a commonly used category in most ecclesial circles these days, and ‘theologian’ isn’t very popular either. Stephen’s example, at such a pivotal moment in the history of the new church, shows that the call to towel and bowl should not be disjointed from the call to consider what it is we are to proclaim and so how we are to live. What kind of people shall we be? To what in our day do God and Moses point?
No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.R C Sproul. Knowing Scripture. 1
I think that many Christians consider theologians to be some kind of elite, and not in a particularly good way. But if we are to be proper Christians, which is to say, proper people of God, with bodies that sleep and eat and work and sing, but also with minds and brains producing rationally coherent thoughts, then to be a common Christian is also to be a common theologian. R C Sproul has it right. What kind of people shall we be? Common is not merely ‘average’ or ‘bathroom standard’; it is whole, functioning and complete. ‘Fit for common use’ means you can use it for all sorts of things, and all these tasks can be done properly. Everyday tasks are the tasks on which our survival depends, but the priority they should have held was diverted in favour of dispensable luxuries, the leadership of elites who serve only themselves and have proved tone deaf to our collective disaster, while celebrities and ‘influencers’ have been all-too-suddenly forgotten – exposed as having nothing to say of real value. Look around you. Common is not so common after all. Common is being applauded, and not before time. Behold the judgement of the common people.
‘Garden variety’ is also easily underestimated. The exotic variety needs special care and tending; a special place in the greenhouse or conservatory before it will blossom and bloom. Some can be planted out in the garden beds for show, but to survive the winter after spectacular summer flowering, they must be lifted again and cared for rather unceremoniously in a plain pot under frost-proofing sacking. Not so for our native plants. These plants are ‘garden variety’ because they belong here, and that means they are hardy. Whatever the local conditions- whatever changes– they cope. After initial germination and nurture, the garden variety will thrive in all variations of climate; more or less rain, dull autumn days and bright sunbathed summer days, through late frost and passing gales. Yet without much thought or tending, they bloom perennially, set seed and spread out across all borders into neighbouring territories. Garden flowers beautify wherever they find a niche, and common crops could provide a harvest which will be plentiful enough to feed us through the year. The world is changed by our gardening, and it should be changed for the better by theology that has been hardened by all the tests our culture has to throw at it.
(c) Stephen Thompson 2020