Isaiah 66:1-5, Acts 6:8-15, 54-60
July 15, 2007
How courageous are you? If you had to defend your faith in the face of criticism could you do it? If you were in a group of people who were ridiculing the faith, would you speak up? What if your life depended on it? Remember old Peter. He boldly stated that he would stand by Jesus, even if he had to lay down his life. But we know what happened when that time came. If we were given that choice, how would we fare?
Today we have the story of the first person in the Christian Age who had to answer that question. This is the story of Stephen, a man who was considered to be the first Christian martyr – the first to die for his beliefs about Jesus. And it is a story about true “Courage in Christ.”
We meet Stephen earlier in Chapter 6, when he’s chosen as one of the Apostles’ “helpers.” It was in the very early days of the Church, and the number of followers had begun to grow fairly large. So the Apostles recognized that more help was needed in the leadership of the Church. There were more people all the time, and there were many different kinds of ministries starting to happen. And there are only so many of the Apostles – Eleven at this point. So they choose some other leaders to help, and Stephen was among those chosen.
In recent years, some Churches have started what have been called “Stephen Ministries.” Maybe you’ve heard that term before. Maybe you’ve seen it on a Church bulletin somewhere. Steven Ministers are people in congregations who have certain gifts that are used to aid the leadership of the Church. They might help in taking care of the sick, for instance. They might help with food pantry distribution. In our Church the Deacons do much of that kind of work.
So, Stephen is introduced in Chapter 6 as one of those “Stephen Ministers.” And now we come to the big part of his story, where we find him being brought before the Jewish council. In the middle of Chapter 6 we find that he had quickly become a very strong voice in the early Church. He was speaking and performing miracles in public, and now he had been “turned in” to the religious authorities. And he was put on trial.
That seems to be happening a lot in Acts. Just about every week now, we’ve found someone on trial before the religious council. As I’ve said before, the religious leadership of the day was really concerned that this “Jesus thing” had not gone away. In fact, it was growing. And so, then, was their efforts to stamp it out before it got much further. So this time it’s Stephen who is on trial!
Now, unlike the other accounts, Luke gives us a great deal of the content of this trial. We don’t have the time to read the whole thing, but I hope you will when you get a chance. Most of Chapter 7 is Stephen’s defense. And it’s interesting because it comes in the form of a long history of the faith. He begins with Abraham and he gives this “history lesson” trying to show how it all led up to Jesus. And remember, he’s giving this history lesson to these teachers of history! Just imagine how that made them feel.
Well, if that wasn’t bad enough. Stephen gets wound up at the end, and he throws some harsh words at the council. He says to them, “You stiff necked people!” “You’re just like your ancestors, resisting the call of God. Which of the prophets did they not persecute?!” Now, that is not a random insult! In the Old Testament, “a stiff necked people” is the description that God himself used to describe the Hebrew people. And these people knew that. And they pretty much “lose it” at this point. And Stephen becomes the first Christian Martyr.
Now, remember here, Rome had taken away the people’s right to capitol punishment. That’s why the council had to change their real charge against Jesus. They had convicted him of “Blasphemy,” which meant that “he said he was God.” But the Romans couldn’t care less about that charge. So they had to get Rome to convict him of “Treason.” In other words, “He said he was a king.” – a rival to Roman power. That charge the Romans did care about! The Jewish leaders had to make that change. And they had a very tough time of it.
None of that seems to matter now! They are so angered by Stephen that they immediately dragged him outside and stoned him to death! And as we read this story the big thing that stands out to us is Stephen’s courage. He speaks boldly in the council. He tells the story of Jesus. He confronts the high priests. And then, as he is dragged out, and they start throwing stones at him, he prays, “Lord, do not hold this against them.” Where have we heard that before? From the cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
So that’s the story we have today. That’s the “history.” Now, what’s the application here? It’s easy to think of the history of all this and the understanding of the Biblical story. And both of those things are fascinating to me. And it is my hope that I can transfer some of that fascination to you on a Sunday morning – at least for a while. But the real question is always, how does all this have an impact on our lives? What difference does this make in our day to day living?
That’s always my objective. Or at least I try to make it my objective. So in this case, we need to look at Steven and recognize his courage and his conviction. And we need to ask ourselves, “Do we have that kind of courage?” “Are we that strong in our beliefs?” Think about my original question. If you were called on to give a defense of your faith, could you do it? Could you stand up against those who oppose our faith?
As you think about that. Let me say to you that such courage is going to be needed more and more in our world. Whether or not we like to admit if, there is now an Anti-Christian sentiment growing in our world, and it’s been getting stronger every year. That seems strange to us. We tend to think of the Christian faith as being loving and gracious, and why would anyone fight against it? Well, the answer to that question would take a long time. But suffice it to say for now that people are fighting against it. And we need to remember the words of Jesus himself, who told his followers that if they loved him they would be persecuted!
Does that mean we will face the kind of persecution and outright danger that Stephen faced? Probably not. But do we need his courage – this “Courage in Christ” – in our lives? I think we do. And I’d like us to give some thought today about how we get that courage.
First, we need to think about the source of Stephen’s courage? Where did Stephen get his courage? The answer is, of course, “From God!” And when we need to have courage in our lives, can we rely on that same source of courage? Of course we can. The question is, “Do we?” That’s not easy, I know. But one of the things that helps us to rely on God as the source of our courage to be prepared to rely on God! And the first part of that is knowing the source of our strength. Remember the Psalmist’s words. “I lift up my eyes until the hills from whence does my help come? My help is from the Lord, [the one] who made heaven and earth!” (Psalm 121.)
That’s the first part. But the second part is about choosing courage when the time comes. You see, when it comes down to it, acting courageous is a big part of being courageous. You say, “Isn’t that a bit phony?” Not really. Think of it this way.
After September 11th, 2001, a lot of things were said by a lot of people. But one of the things I remember the most was said by David Letterman, of all people. He said “At this time we need courage more than anything. And whether you have courage, or just act courageous, the result is the same! So be courageous!” I think that’s an amazing insight! Acting courageous is half the battle of being courageous. If you think about it, “fearlessness” is not the same as courage. If we have no fear about something, then we’re not really being courageous when we do it, are we? People who are truly fearless are very rare! (And if you think about it, they’re probably the ones who are crazy!)
It isn’t that courageous people have no fear! What courageous people do have is the will to act in spite of the fear! Roosevelt was right. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! Fear will attempt to stop us from acting. If we attempt to show courage, and feel fear rising within us, that doesn’t mean we don’t have courage!
There’s a lot of similarity between having courage and having faith. If we simply believe, and there’s no possibility of doubt, then there really isn’t faith, is there? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is something believed based on good evidence, but not necessarily complete evidence! Faith should not be blind faith. It’s not wishful thinking, either. It is a matter of choosing to believe based on the facts as far as we know them!
Again, it’s the same with courage. We know that the source of our courage is God. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have fear. But we have courage when we choose to stand up for what we believe, despite the fear.
Think about old Stephen again. Do you think he had fear? I’d be willing to bet he did! Did he choose to stand up anyway – despite the fear? Yes. Then think about yourself. Are you about the business of choosing to stand up for what you believe? That is the question. It’s about saying now, what we will do when we are faced with difficult circumstances. The time to find out if we are courageous is not so much at the time courage is needed, as much as it is in deciding beforehand that we will be courageous.
When I close the service today and use the “Charge to the Congregation” – those words right before the benediction – I’m going to say, “Go out into the world in peace, be of good courage…” I hope you’re remember Stephen, and choose courage yourself.
Eternal God, we know that you are the source of our strength, a very present help in all times of our lives. Help us to choose to trust in you. Help us to speak out as ambassadors for Christ despite any fear we might have. Help us to know the overwhelming joy of your kingdom. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.