A Time of Great Faith – June 29, 2008

Genesis 22:1-14, Acts 6:7-15

June 29, 2008

We’re coming back to the Book of Acts today. And before we go any further, I’d like to give you another reading assignment. I’d like you to take some time to read these next two chapters, 6 and 7. Because I want you to get the big picture of this part of Acts which is centered around this man named Stephen. I’ll do my best to paint some of that picture for you this morning. But later, I’d like you to read the whole story of this man who became the first to die for the faith.

In the first part of Chapter 6, we find the Apostles expressing a need for more help in the ministry. And this a passage which is near and dear to the heart of us Presbyterians. Because it’s all about the choosing and ordaining of elders. Those of you who are ordained, or who will be soon, might pay particular attention to this. Because it’s all about the sharing of the ministry and the importance of elders in the leadership of the church. We Presbyterians believe that’s important. In fact, our name “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word for “elder.” We are a denomination that believes in the shared ministry of clergy and elders.

So here in Acts 6, we have the Apostles choosing the very first Elders. And here they even did this thing we still do. They “ordained” the elders by prayer and “the laying on of hands.” We do that in our ordination service. And it started with this man Stephen. So I encourage you to read his story. (And I know some of you are doing your “assignments.” But I really think it’s important that we all do!)

These early days of the Church were an amazing time. Here it says, “The Word of God increased…” There was a huge amount of growth. And there was a lot of “buzz” about this man Jesus. Remember, this was not long after he had been there. Many of those people had seen him and heard him speak. Now there was talk about a resurrection and a “new relationship with God” through him. And many people from all levels of society were responding to that message. We’re even told in verse 7 that “a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) But as you know, there was also trouble brewing. And in our story for today, all that trouble seemed to land on this man Stephen.

Look at verse 8. It says, “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” That sounds a lot more like just helping in the ministry, doesn’t it? And I think that’s a good passage for those of us who are called serve. Because sometimes we think our job in the church seems mundane and unimportant. Sometimes we think our “duties” in leadership are more drudgery than service. But the way Stephen took his calling, there was much more to it! He was described as being “full of grace and power?” Isn’t that the way we want to see our lives in God’s service?

Stephen was full of grace and power, and he performed “signs and wonders among the people.” But it got him into trouble, didn’t it? And if we are bold in our witness, and outspoken in our message, the same can happen to us, too. That’s where we might have need of some of that courage we talked about last week.

Stephen sure did! In this story he was arrested, he was brought before the council, and he was put on trial. (They certainly were busy with trials in those days, weren’t they? First Jesus, then Peter and John, and now Stephen!) And as this trial unfolds, the High Priest first hears the charges against Stephen and then he asks him, “Is this true?” And that was Stephen’s “opening” to speak. In other words, the High Priest asked him at that point to defend himself. That was his right. And defend he did.

As I read I read Stephen’s defense, it seems to me that Stephen is being an “Apologist.” Have you ever heard that word before? “Apologist.” I know what it sounds like. If you’ve never heard that term before, you might think an apologist is one who apologizes. But it’s not. That would be an “apologizer.” An apologist is an older term that we don’t hear much any more, and it actually means the opposite. An “Apologist” is “one who defends the faith.” An apologist explains the faith through logic and knowledge and reason. My favorite Christian apologist of all times is C. S. Lewis. He had a wonderfully analytical mind, and he did much to defend the faith in his books and lectures and even in his children’s stories!

The reason I say this is that sometimes in our world, we feel more like “apologizers” than “apologists.” Instead of defending the faith, we apologize for it. Sometimes we Christians give the impression that we’re sorry for some of the things our faith teaches, things of which we aren’t all that convinced ourselves. And I think the challenge in our world is not to be apologizers – ashamed of the faith, but apologists – defenders of the faith! That’s what Stephen did! He began his defense by saying, “The glory of God appeared to our ancestor Abraham…” Instead of apologizing, he started from the beginning, and he took them through the entire history of the people of God, systematically explaining how that whole history pointed to the coming of Jesus.

It was great. But the problem was, like Peter before him, he was preaching this stuff to the religious leaders! And in both cases I have to wonder, “why?” Were Peter and now Stephen trying to anger those men? Were they trying to alienate the Jewish leadership? Actually, the more I think about it, the more it seems the opposite was the case.

Think about it. Those religious leaders had a great deal of power influence over the people. And if the Apostles could convince them that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, that would have been a good strategy! (God used it himself when he called Paul!) And if you remember verse 7 it makes even more sense! “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.” If that continued, if the Apostles could bring the religious leadership of Israel on board, the good news could have been universally accepted, and the story of Jesus could have been integrated into Judaism! Because, the Apostles believed it was! These guys didn’t think they were out to start a new religion. They believed the Gospel was just a new phase in the old religion! At first, they continued to worship in the Temple. They didn’t “believe in Jesus” then go out and start “building churches” right away – with crosses on top!

Well, try as he might, Stephen did not win the hearts of these men. They couldn’t see past their own pride, the love of their positions of authority, and the importance of their own understanding of “the way things were.” Stephen tried. His message was so full of love and grace that in verse 15 it says, “his face looked like the face of an angel.” He was lovingly defending the faith. I believe he truly wanted to win their hearts. But, still they put him to death.

Sometimes our message will land on people the same way. We will speak out for our faith in the most loving and caring way we can, and still people will have a resistance to it. They may even become angered. But like Stephen, if that happens, we must not become angered ourselves. We must keep our composure like he did. We must keep the love of God in our hearts. And I know that’s not easy to do! There’s a lot being thrown at us in the Church these days. And it can be upsetting. The Church in our day has been called exclusionist, bigoted, and politically incorrect. Like Peter and John earlier in Acts, we have been charged with not speaking in the name of Jesus. And some of that has caused us to shrink back. But God needs all his people to stand firm in the faith. He needs his people to speak out about his love and grace. He needs people to answer the critics of the Church. Because the nature of rhetoric – religious or otherwise – is that, when there is an accusation, if there is no defense, people will believe the accusation!

So God needs all of his people to defend the faith – and not just us “clergy types!” Because in a way, we have less of a voice than you do. Because it’s expected of us. We’re supposed to be apologists! We’re supposed to say things to defend the faith. The world perceives us as doing and saying what our profession calls us to do. But when you speak out, you who are not expected to do so by virtue of your position, when you who are not perceived as “professional apologists” speak from your hearts about the wonder and beauty and power of the Gospel, your voice is louder than you will ever know!

God needs all of us to speak out! And as we do, I want to remind us of something I’m sure I’ve said before. It’s something that was often said by a “radio minister” I used to listen to in the Midwest. He had a show where he did his best to answer questions about the faith. He was an apologist! And he used to say, “our job is to love people into the kingdom of God, not to browbeat them.” I’ll never forget that. We are to love people into the kingdom! In his first New Testament, letter Peter said this. “Always be ready to give answer (to make your defense) to anyone who asks you to explain about the hope that lies within you. But do it with gentleness and reverence.” (I Peter 3:14-16)

Of course, it needs to be important to us. When it comes down to it, the spirit behind our witness is the spirit behind it. None of what we’re saying here will matter all that much if it doesn’t matter all that much! Stephen was filled with grace and the holy spirit. We too need to be filled with that grace and spirit, too! We need to have that hope within us that will show to others. Notice, it’s not that we are to be ready to give a statement about the hope within us, we are to give answer. The hope is evident in us, first.

So, do we have that hope within us? Are we filled with that power and that spirit? Are we amazed still by God’s grace? Those things are more important than the story itself. Those things were evident in Stephen, and they need to be evident in us – in all of us. And they will be in us, the closer we are to God. As we close, let that be subject of our prayer together.

Prayer.

Heavenly Father, so fill us with your love hope that it will be evident in our lives. Give us the grace we need to speak of your love with your love. Help us to have the courage to defend our faith in you at all times. Help us to be open to your spirit working in our lives. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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