Psalm 62:1-8, Acts 6:8-15, 7:32-51
July 17, 2011
Today we have the story of Stephen. And it’s a difficult story! Because Stephen is the first Christian martyr, the first to be put to death for his faith. But if you read the next chapter in Acts, you’d find he was only the first. There would be more. In verse one of chapter 8 it says, “And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.”
They were scattered. The other way to say that is that they were “dispersed.” But strangely enough, that persecution and the dispersion of the believers had the opposite effect that one might think. Instead of the movement being silenced, or dying out as people were spread out – like spreading the embers of a dying fire – the word spread! The message of Jesus went out with those people, and instead of dying, the church grew! In fact, to use a similar analogy, the church is described in those days as “spreading like wildfire.” And, as my firefighter friends tell me, they’d much rather fight a fire in a building than a wildfire out in the open!
Well, later in chapter 12, things would “heat up” even more. And I’m talking now about the persecution. In that chapter we read this. “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. And when he saw that it pleased the enemies of the church, he proceeded to arrest Peter, also.” (Acts 12:1-2) And it went on from there. Throughout the book of Acts, the persecution of the church would continue to be the backdrop for the story of the early Church.
And it went on beyond Acts. The Romans got involved, and their persecution of the church would continue, with varying levels of severity, for many years. As my confirmation students would tell you, the Roman persecution lasted until the year 325AD when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. That’s three centuries! This country is only just over two centuries old! Imagine a period of persecution that lasted that long!! But through it all, the Church would continue to grow and the word would continue to spread across the known world!
So, the question for the church, from the very beginning, and the question that would continue to be important throughout the history of the church – and for us – is this. Will we stand up for God when there is opposition? Of course our version of that opposition wouldn’t be anything like the terrible persecution under the Roman Empire. But I’m sure we’ve all had our times when it was difficult, for one reason or another, to stand for God and affirm our faith before the world. And we can be pretty sure we’ll face those times again in our lives.
So, when the time comes, will we stand for God? Steven did! And we have his story before us today. He was arrested and brought before the religious council, as were Peter and the Apostles before him. And when he was there, he spoke boldly, even though he knew he had a hostile audience! Throughout most of chapter seven, he gives his defense before the council. Take some time to read it when you get a chance. It’s an amazing statement!
Stephen makes a statement before the council in which he explains and defends the ministry of Jesus. And he does so by putting it in the context of the whole history of the faith. Think about that! Here he was telling those men their history, including the stories of two of their two greatest patriarchs, Abraham and Moses. And as my Confirmation students would also tell you, Moses is important because he represents the salvation story of the Old Testament. And here Stephen is naming Jesus as the salvation story of what would become the New Testament! And these men were not happy about it!
Remember, this is not Peter speaking on Pentecost, telling the people of the city the religious history as it led up to Jesus. This is Stephen telling that history to the priests and religious council! And not only did they not like the message he was giving them. But they liked even less the idea of being “taught” by this man! They had a real problem with pride. They were very proud of being the educated men they were.
Do you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John chapter nine? The man was brought before the council and questioned about what happened, and he presumed to challenge those religious leaders in their doctrine and understanding. And instead listening to his challenge, they said angrily, “You were born in utter sin, and you would dare to teach us?!” And they threw the man out! Then, of course, when it came to Jesus, they didn’t like it at all when that “upstart” rabbi “presumed” to teach them things! So now, in the middle of this trial, in their own council, this “upstart prisoner” Stephen was doing the same thing! And they were enraged!!
Remember what I said last week. These were the most learned and highly educated men in that society! As the leaders of Israel, they were highly respected. This wasn’t a mob of barbarians! This wasn’t some rabble of ruffians! This is like a group of senators, or a gathering of ministers, getting angry and killing someone!! That’s hard to imagine!! But kill someone they did! And they didn’t wait until chapter 12 to let the Romans do it for them. Remember, they had gone through that once before with Jesus. They had put a great deal of effort into the tricky process of getting Pilate to do their “dirty work.” There was none of that here! In their anger, they took Stephen out and stoned him themselves, right then and there! And what I want you to see, in this whole difficult story, is the great contrast between their anger, and the spirit and peace of Stephen.
I believe Luke saw that as one of the most important parts of this story. It was important because the question for the Church, and the question for us, is still, “What will we do when we face opposition?” Will we stand for God? And more than that, will we have the peace of Stephen at those times? And I’m not just talking about having courage. If you think about it, courage is mostly an act of the will, isn’t it? If you’re courageous, isn’t it because of what you do?! If you describe a courageous person, you do so by telling of their acts of courage.
That’s a great thing! We celebrate courageous people in this country. We give them medals for bravery. We honor those who gave their lives to win and defend liberty. And we honor everyday hero’s. I love how the police in our cities are referred to as the city’s “finest,” and how the fire fighters are referred to as the city’s “bravest.” But most of those courageous people will tell you that when the time came, they were scared! The difference was that they acted in a courageous way, despite their fears!
I’m talking about more than that here. I believe that, in this story, Stephen was more than courageous. He had peace in his time of trial. When he was first standing before the council it says “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” In some way he was angelic and peaceful in his demeanor. Whatever it was about him, it was important enough for Luke to take time to describe him that way! And then at the end, as he was being stoned to death, his last words were, “Lord, do not hold this against them.” Now who does that sound like? It sounds like Jesus! From the cross he said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do!”
Isn’t that more than just being courageous? Courage is a good thing. But Stephen had within him the Holy Spirit. And that’s what gave him, not just the words to say in the council, but the peace to face his execution. The Holy Spirit is what made this scene, isn’t it?
So, let me ask you. Has that ever happened to you? Were you ever asked to stand up for what you believed, and you did? And when that happened, what did it feel like? Did you feel a kind of “inner peace?” I know I’ve felt that. I’ll bet you have, too. It’s hard to describe, but it’s almost a feeling of, “There, I’ve done it, and it’s ok – no matter what happens now.” Friends, that’s the holy spirit. And that’s the promise Jesus gave. “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will tell you in that very hour…) (Luke 21:11) That was true for Stephen, and it’s still true for us today!
We need to trust God at such times. We need to stand for him. And the other thing we need to remember is the more we trust God, the more we become sure in the knowledge that we can trust God! Does that make sense? Let me say it again. The more we trust God, the more we know we can trust God. Maybe that’s why we refer to it as “practicing” our faith. The more we do it, the better we get at it. And if we aren’t good at it, maybe we need to ask how much we are practicing it! Do you see how that works?
So trust God. If you’re not sure you can, at least start by trusting me to say that you can. Then begin to trust God more and more – practice that trust. And as you do, talk with him! Ask him for peace in all times of your life. And remember those times when you felt opposition, when you stood up for God, and when you felt him standing with you. I guarantee you will grow in that trust, and in that peace, no matter what comes in your life!
Eternal God, we pray for your peace in our lives no matter what the circumstances. We ask for your strength when we are called on to stand for you. Help us to be steadfast and faithful, as you are to us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.