Acts 6:1-7:2a, 44-60
(sermon note: 04-18 sermon note)
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these things so?’ And Stephen replied:
‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,
‘Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, who found favour with God and asked that he might find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?”
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
Our reading for this morning reminds me of the one about an elderly lady who was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout, “PRAISE THE LORD!” Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout, “There ain’t no Lord!!” Hard times set in on the elderly lady, and she prayed for God to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted, “PRAISE THE LORD. GOD I NEED FOOD!! I AM HAVING A HARD TIME. PLEASE LORD, SEND ME SOME GROCERIES!!” The next morning the lady went out on her porch and noted a large bag of groceries and shouted, “PRAISE THE LORD.” The neighbor jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no God. I bought those groceries, God didn’t.”
The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and said, “PRAISE THE LORD!! He not only sent me groceries, but He made the devil pay for them. Praise the Lord!”
I don’t imagine Stephen was all that different than that joyful elderly woman. Not once but twice we heard in our reading of how he was filled with the joy of God. Stephen was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power,” both statements conveying just how full of joy he was. He loved God and loved serving God. He was gracious and filled with the love of God. It’s no wonder he was one of the seven chosen to go out and share that love with the widows of his community. He was committed to serving our God and the leaders in his community entrusted him to serve the community well. Indeed, he was not unlike that elderly lady who stood out on her porch shouting, “Praise the Lord!” Both Stephen and the elderly lady shared their witness of God’s love and grace in their lives and those around them were transformed by it. Even those who didn’t want to hear it were transformed by it. Of course, the reactions to hearing it were distinctly different. The atheist neighbor bought the lady some groceries if only to prove her wrong. The elders and scribes, on the other hand, found a way to have Stephen killed for what he had shared about and for God. Two drastically different reactions to receiving the love of God!
So how are we to regard this difficult passage on the stoning of Stephen, particularly as it comes up in this season of Easter? Sure, it’s interesting to hear Stephen using very similar words as Jesus did when he was dying on the cross. Stephen’s,“Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” is eerily similar to Jesus’, “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Both men ask for compassion on those that had destroyed them, certainly an uncommon response to such pain and suffering. But where’s the good news in that similarity? Are we to mimic such selflessness and compassion if we find ourselves unjustly dying at the end of our lives? Great but how does that help us now as we continue on our pilgrimage through life? Well, let’s remind ourselves of why we’re celebrating this Easter season. Yes, we’re celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the grave but what does that mean? It means Jesus conquered sin and death, something no one else has done. Perhaps more importantly it means there can be life after death…new life! It means that even in death there is hope. Jesus quite literally showed us that there is new life after death, new life and new hope. There is a transformation that occurs in death, we are transformed into our new bodies and new selves. And how are we transformed? Through the power of God! “Praise the Lord! He is risen! He is risen indeed!” When we proclaim that, the power of God goes to work transforming our lives and the lives of those around us. It is a mighty and powerful word! God made the impossible possible, He brought new life out of death, new life and new hope! And if God can do it for the Son, He most certainly can do it for you and me! The same power that was in Stephen and that elderly woman is in you and me! We have the power to transform lives, simply by sharing the hope and life of the resurrection with those around us.
Recall the words of Paul to his congregation at Corinth, “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.” (6:14) God didn’t stop raising people from the dead at Jesus. No, God simply used Jesus to illustrate his mighty power to raise from the dead. All we have to do is reach out and claim the new life He has to offer. Well, that and actually die to our old selves, die to our sinful selves. We no longer have to be slaves to sin, we can live and truly live in Christ! He IS the way and the truth and the life as we hear in John, 14:6. Friends, this is good news! When we proclaim our risen Lord, we are boldly invoking transformation in the lives of those around us! Our risen Lord WILL grab ahold of those who are suffering and dying from their sins and offer them new life! We simply have to invite them to listen to what he has to say. He’ll do all the work…his words and his life and death and resurrection are enough to transform lives. They are witness to our loving God, to our praiseworthy God. Our God is a mighty God, creating life out of death with his mighty power. Recall Paul’s words to his congregation in Rome, “ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though that are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (1:20) The world around us is an example of his life-giving power. Just look at the life and new life that abounds because of his mighty power! Recall Paul’s words to his congregation at Colossae, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.” (1:16)
Stephen’s witness is less about how to die selflessly and compassionately and more about how transformative God can be through those who faithfully serve. Stephen and his six fellow apostles encouraged a great many people in Jerusalem to become disciples and deepened the faiths of several priests! God can also use us to transform the lives of those around us! Let us be both emboldened and empowered by Stephen’s witness, not only to die selflessly but to live faithfully. Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.