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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is the senior pastor of a nondenominational congregation in Washington, DC.

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Young Leaders Series IV: Better Than Hippo Testimony

Acts 7:55-60

5th Sunday of Easter -year A

May 22, 2011

Poet T.S. Eliot wrote:

 

The broad-baked hippopotamus

Rests on his belly in the mud;

Although he seems so firm to us

He is merely flesh and blood.

 

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,

Susceptible to nervous shock;

While the True Church can never fail

For it is based upon a rock.[1]

 

This text, Acts 7:55-60, makes it plain that in fact flesh and blood is weak and frail. We don't exactly know if Stephen was murdered by mob violence or government sanction, but we do know that he didn't simply lose his life. No, it was stolen. Evidently, after a squabble broke out between Greek-speaking Jewish Christians and Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, a leadership council was formed within the community consisting of seven men.[2] Described as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,"[3] Stephen was chosen. However, after not too long, false charges were made against him from a few disgruntled factions. Destined to make him the first Christian martyr, antiquity tells us that they went so far as to arrange false witnesses to testify against Stephen. Yet, he was not dismayed, issuing a scathing retort. He recited Israel's history, but in doing so also pointed to their collective and habitual disobedience, particularly in the form of idolatry. He went so far as to call them "stiff-necked,"[4] meaning hardheaded or stubborn.

Stephen was a bold witness[5] who lost his life for the Lord's sake only to find it.[6] He paid the ultimate price and his testimony lives on even today, as in persecution the Church has spread across the world. There are others, too, however, who have testimonies in this story. The hands of those who participated in the murder and who stood by doing nothing are stained with the crimson blood of an innocent man. It is the German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle who wrote, "In the face of suffering you are either with the victim or the executioner--there is no other option."[7] Whether for good or evil, love or late, health or dysfunction, protection or exploitation, we all have a testimony.

While Scripture doesn't say that he hurled any stones, if you peek over to chapter eight, you will discover that Saul approved of Stephen's murder. And the deceitful witnesses were so brash that they laid their coats down at Saul's feet, as if to improve the range of motion of their throwing arm like a pitcher warming up in the bullpen. It is easy to look at these nondescript characters with disdain, but to do so from a distance. We like to divorce ourselves from the idea of this immoral, sinful melodrama, yet in the end the rooster is crowing on the front lawn of our soul. Check the echoes of history. In 1525 Anabaptist Christians in Zurich, Switzerland were drowned, burned, and beheaded on account that they didn't believe in infant baptism.[8] In the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, those fighting for equality were spit on, sprayed with fire hoses, beaten with billy clubs, and murdered. Check the echoes of culture. There you will find the likes of Mister from Alice Walker's classic novel-turned-film The Color Purple. And who can forget Pino, the bigoted son, in Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing? Check the echoes of your life. Who have you stoned to death with hollow point rhetorical bullets to destroy the possibility of religious and political maturation, to snuff out shalom? Perhaps you have participated in your own stoning through some debilitating sense of perfectionism or self-hate. In the courtroom of your own life, maybe you have testified on behalf of the prosecuting attorney.

Be that as it may, my friends, I am happy to report that despite our shortcomings we have a star witness in Jesus Christ who has come to our defense. "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."[9] It is critical, still, that we come to understand testimony[10] as more than a mere solitary moment in time when Christ was made real to us. Testimony also entails the choice to live a godly lifestyle sustained through grace and obedience. I fear that many of us only want Jesus as a smiling plastic figurine that expects nothing of us instead of Jesus as the very Bread of Life who offers the grace of forgiveness in him, and then calls us to go sin no more.[11] We can do better than hippo testimony.

Hippos stay cool during the day by submerging themselves in water or mud, only coming out at dusk to graze. Like Saul and the witnesses, we, too, tend to testify like hippos, only coming out in the cool evenings of life once we feel safe and comfortable. Yet, while we are called to speak the truth in love, we also must love the truth enough to act on its behalf, to become godly agents of change. As a child, I remember playing Hungry Hungry Hippos, a tabletop game popular in the 1980s. With a four-player capacity, the objective--with the lever that controlled your hippo--was to eat the most plastic marbles from the center of the board. The game was rather flimsy, though, so it didn't take much once the competition heated up for the board to begin lifting off of whatever surface it was on, which made it easy to cheat. When we see affronts to God, whether as a bystander or the aggressor, we need to stand firm for God. Just ask Saul, who after seeking to extinguish Christianity, God used to become one of his greatest leaders and changed his name to Paul. T.S. Eliot is correct that flesh and blood is weak and frail. Still, whether you find yourself in the sub-Saharan suburbs, the cold, concrete jungle, or some agrarian sect of rural America, know that God's power is made perfect in our weaknesses.[12] We can, and must do better than hippo testimony.

Let us pray. Dear gracious and loving God, we thank you for new mercies each day. Through your precious spirit, may we keep the faith indeed, even as Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, keeps us. And the people of God said, "Amen."

 


[1] Harold Bloom, ed., American Religious Poems: An Anthology (New York: The Library of America, 2006), 217.

[2] Brian K. Blount, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 224-225.

[3] Acts 6:5.

[4] Acts 7:51-53.

[5] Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 1218.

[6] Matthew 16:24-28.

[7] Dorothee Sölle, Suffering (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1984), 32.

[8] Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1985), 95-105.

[9] John 3:17.

[10] For further reading about testimony, see Lillian Daniel, Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2005), Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2004), and Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007).

[11] John 8:11.

[12] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.

 


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