Genesis 12:1-9, Acts 6:1-15, 7:54-8:1
June 2, 2013
Today we’re looking at two things. Because I think they’re related! We’re looking at the story of Stephen. He’s the man who became the first Christian martyr. And then we’re also looking at some of the things that caused the spread of the Christian faith in the early days. For that reason, I included the first verse of chapter 8 in our reading for today. “A great persecution arose on that day and they (the believers) were all scattered throughout the region.” That’s an important ending to the story of Stephen, because as the people were scattered, so was the faith.
Because of that, I’m using as the title of this message, “The Fire Goes Out.” I hope you see the little play on words here. By using that title, I’m not saying “the fire goes out” as in the fire is “extinguished,” although it could be read that way. But I’m using “the fire goes out” in the sense that the fire of the Gospel was “spreading.” It was “going out” to the world. And it did so for a number of reasons, all of which seem to be related to this story for today.
So, first of all, let’s look at the story of Stephen? Who was he? Well, as we read at the beginning of chapter 6, the Church was growing. And the Apostles were trying to deal with the ever increasing numbers in the new Christian community. Well, one of the things they realized they needed to do was to delegate some of the leadership tasks. So they chose some other people to be leaders, including this man Stephen. And they set them before the congregation, and they “prayed and laid hands on them.” What does that sound like? That was the beginning of ordained leadership in the church. Pretty cool, huh? Stephen, and several others, became the first Christian “elders.” Or, as we would call them, the first “presbyters.”
Well, it wasn’t long before Stephen was doing a lot more than just administrative work. (More than just serving on a committee!) I’m sure he did some of that, too. But were also told that he “did great wonders and signs” among the people. Like the Apostles, he also preached the new faith and convinced many of the validity of Jesus. And also like the Apostles, he got some people angry, and before long he was arrested by the religious authorities.
So, as chapter 7 opens, Stephen has been brought before the council, and there he gives his defense. And its very interesting. Because he defends himself basically by telling them their whole history! And of course he’s telling this to those who knew it best. These were the teachers of Israel. And Stephen is pretty thorough about it! If you ever want a quick overview of the history of God’s people, read this testimony of Stephen! It’s like a book of “Cliffs Notes” to the Old Testament! I’m not sure why he chose to defend himself this way. And yes, it does appear as though he was “preaching to the choir” here. But the upshot is that the priests on the council were incensed that this man dared teach them. And that anger led to the stoning of Stephen at the end of this story.
Let me tell you something, though. What seems to be coming out in Stephen’s defense, is reminiscent of the things that were happening in those early days of the Church. And I think that’s why Luke chose to record his testimony in its entirety. You see, in the earliest days of the Church, the Gospel of Jesus was touching the lives of people who were outside of all that Jewish history and tradition. So far, the early stories in Acts have the gospel being told to Samaritans and Ethiopians. And that would increase! And I’m wondering if that was the real problem with those in the religious council. Despite what was being said about their part in all of this, ultimately they were “comfortable with their own beliefs, with their own people, and their own land.” And yet, even the ancient history Stephen was telling them about included nations and peoples outside of that land, places like Egypt and Mesopotamia.
I’m thinking that may have been the real problem with the council! Those borders of Israel were already being pushed out a little too far for them. I wonder if they were even a bit uncomfortable with that aspect of their own history! And that was happening not all that long ago for them. We know that many of the Jews were dispersed after the Babylonian exile, which is why on Pentecost we have that long list of names of countries to read! Those were countries the people had come from to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.
Well, now Stephen was expanding the scope of all that. He was suggesting that all those other people were now being included in this new history of Gods people. And as the gospel was being spread, there was a sense of it going out beyond the boarders of Israel, to other lands and peoples. I think that was as much a problem for that council as was the message of the Gospel.
It was a bigger problem than that, though. We know for a fact that it became a problem even within the church. Later on in the book of Acts there was an important council that took place in Jerusalem. And the purpose of the council was to deal with the question of the Gospel being accepted by Gentiles. Yes, the new faith was still made up mainly of Jews who had accepted Jesus. And now it seems their leadership was having the same problem the Jewish Leadership had. The faith was now including people outside of their comfort zone!
That was a hard thing for some! As the Apostles took the word out, they would come to deal with a number of different antagonists. And among them was a group called the Judaizers. They were actually believers. But they were ones who said that, in order to be a Christian, you first had to become Jewish. You can just imagine what problems that caused for the Apostles preaching to the Gentiles. (Especially the uncircumcised Gentiles!)
I hope you see the big picture here. The early church certainly had it’s enemies because of the new teaching about Jesus. But the church also had its detractors on the inside because of who was being included. Some, like the Jewish leaders, were only “comfortable with their own beliefs, with their own people, and their own country.”
So in our story, Stephen was put to death. And at that point were told that “a great persecution arose.” And it came out of this whole controversy of Stephen and the history he told about. So those two things are linked. But it was a funny thing. Because those who tried to stamp out the church in the early days caused the church to scatter to spread out, just like it says in this verse. And the enemies of the church thought that was a good thing. They thought that if the church was scattered, it would die out, like the scattered embers of a fire. But what happened was, the gospel spread it went out to the world because of it!
So it was true that “The Fire Went Out.” And I hope you like that play on words. The fire wasn’t “extinguished!” The “fire” of the Gospel “spread.” That’s what happened in the early Church. Instead of being spread out and dying, it spread out and grew! I’ve often heard the growth in the early church compared to a wild fire. And as my fire fighting buddies all say, theyd much rather fight a building fire than a wild fire!
I hope today I’ve given you a little bit more of the picture of the early Church. It was a very interesting time, a time when people were learning what this new faith in Jesus really meant, who it was going to include, and what it was going to cost them to be part of it. I hope you’ve seen today some of the obstacles the Church had to overcome. They encountered persecution from the outside. But they also had their own “comfort zone” issues within. And isn’t that always the same with us? Like those in the early days who were trying to figure it all out, we too can easily find ourselves to be “comfortable in our beliefs, with our own people, and in the space within these walls.”
That’s what I want you to think about as we move through this post-Pentecost time of the year. Imagine yourself part of the Church in its earliest days. What would you have thought of all of this? Would you have seen yourself as a Jewish Christian, or perhaps a Gentile convert to a totally new faith. What would you have understood your role to be. I hope you’ll think of that long history that Stephen laid out before the council, and I hope you’ll remember that the culmination of all of it was Jesus. And now his story was being promoted and spread throughout the world.
If you think of all that, maybe you can picture the long line of believers who have brought that Gospel down through the ages – to us! What will we do with it? Will the fire continue to go out from this place?
Eternal God, we know that we are part of the ministry of Jesus Christ which began so long ago and continues even today. Help us to be your people, your ambassadors, the instruments of your peace in the world. May your message be heard in us, and be lived in us, as an example, as a light to the world. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen!