Isaiah 53, Acts 7:44-60
June 28, 2015
The story of Stephen is an interesting story. Stephen is one of the first elders in the Church. And we’ll talk about him a little more when we get to the point of ordaining and installing our leaders in September. For now, you can read about that in the beginning of the previous chapter, chapter 6.
Well, another thing occurred to me about Stephen. He was chosen as an elder to help with the “administration” of the fledgling church. But at the time of our story he was the person who preached the fourth Christian sermon recorded in Acts. (If I’m counting correctly!) And that just might mean that he was the very first “Commissioned Lay Pastor.” – just like our own Harold and Darryl! So Stephen is a kind of “patron saint” to you guys!
Of course, Stephen is probably most remembered as the first Christian martyr. And that’s the part of his story we’re talking about today. This is the story commonly known as “The Stoning of Stephen.” And so for now, I’d like us to think about his courage, and his trust in God – a trust that held him until his last breath.
I’ve often talked about the adversity, the difficulties, we sometimes face in our lives. And you’ve heard me say how important it is that we seek the peace of God, no matter what the circumstances. It’s easy to be a follower when life is all good. But we know (or at least I hope we know!) that being a follower of Jesus is not about having a life that is “all good.” It’s not about being free from adversity. In fact, we follow a Jesus who said, “In the world you will have tribulation.” He told his disciples, “If you follow me you will have persecution.” That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it! But don’t forget that we also follow a Jesus who said, “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” I love that verse!
Well here, in the story of Stephen, we see some of the adversity that was facing the apostles – and I’m going to call them that from now on. because now they have become “ones who are sent.” That’s what the word “apostle” means. At this point in Acts, they were still feeling the repercussions from the event in chapter 3 when Peter and John healed the disabled man at the Temple gate. And what really got them “in trouble,” was the fact that they had done so in the name of “Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”
The “fallout” from that story is now in it’s fifth chapter. And here we find Stephen still feeling the anger of the religious leadership. Again, they thought they had ended the ministry of Jesus once before. And now they found themselves trying to end it again. And as we’ll see, not only does Stephen feel their ire, but the whole of the Church would feel it, too. As we ended this chapter, we met the next big “player” in the book of Acts, this man named “Saul.” Sometimes I wonder if the story of Stephen was told so that Luke could introduce him to us. Because, as these men go to stone Stephen, they lay their garments at the feet of Saul. “And Saul was consenting to their deed.”
That’s the first time we meet Saul. But I have to say again that it would make sense for him to have been in this story all along. I have to think he would have heard Jesus speak. He was could well have been one of the Pharisees who were “keeping and eye on Jesus.” He might even have been one of the unnamed Pharisees who questioned Jesus, and tried to “trap him in his words.” Remember, this is not all that many days after Easter. And I think it would be much less likely that this man Saul came onto the scene only at this point.
So as I said, soon the entire Church would feel the ire of these religious leaders and their attempt to end the ministry of Jesus – again. If we read into the next chapter, we find that a great persecution arose at that time. And it was led by this man Saul. In verse 3 we read, “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
This was the beginning of the persecution of the Church. The “Stoning of Stephen” is presented here as being the point where that persecution began. And how long would it last? Anyone know? It lasted 300 years! A little later in Acts we will read how the Romans got involved. And they would continue to persecute the Church until the time of Constantine, when he established Christianity as the “official religion” of the empire, That happened in the year(?) 325AD.
As I think of that, as I think about Stephen, I wonder sometimes how we would have fared in that time. The interesting thing about that time is that while under persecution, the Church continued to grow. And that has happened throughout history. But, I’m sure there were people in the Temple and in the Synagogues all around that area who were intimidated by that persecution. I’m sure there were those who were content to keep their faith the way they always had it, rather than risk becoming a part of this new movement – no matter how popular it was becoming!
What would you have done? And as you take a moment to think about your answer to that question, try to do so from the perspective they had in those days. It’s hard, but try to imagine what it was like for them without 2,000 years of Church history! In fact, for their perspective, they had a history of their religion which stretched back five thousand years or so!
What would you have done? I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of a traditional guy. And if I were faced with that choice, and that persecution was happening, I’m afraid that five thousand years would be looking pretty good to me! What about you?
And if I had made that choice to follow Jesus, I wonder if I could have stayed the course. Things got pretty gritty after a while – especially when Rome got involved! And I’m sure there are people who turned back. How about you? Again, (and always!) it’s very easy to look back on this time and say, “Sure! I would have kept the faith, even in the persecution!” And who knows. Maybe you would have! I suppose we never really know until we are faced with such times. But what would you have done? Would you have kept the faith? Or would you have “gone back?”
That’s the reason Paul wrote the book of Hebrews. It’s not clear if it was written in the time of this rising persecution or not. But Hebrews is a letter that was written to a group of Jewish Christians – Hebrews – who were considering “going back.”
Now, having said all that, I want you to think of the kinds of adversity we face in our lives. Certainly we don’t face the kind of persecution they had to face in the early church. But what are the things that might cause us to question our course? Financial and personal hardship? Anti-christian sentiment? How about apathy and complacency? And while you’re thinking of that, ask yourself this question. Do we not still need the same support and encouragement they did in the first century? Do we not need the same fellowship and camaraderie of others? (In the “stormy seas of life,” do we not need to be in the same boat with each other?)
The question came up again to me lately, “Why do I need to be part of a church?” “Can’t I just ‘worship’ God on my own?” Well, my answer to that question has changed over the years. But the latest “permutation” of that answer is that we need each other! Yeah, sometimes we drive each other crazy. But we need each other! God gave us each other for times when we are uncertain. He gave us each other for times that are tough! I believe that more and more all the time!
It’s of course hugely ironic that Saul, the persecutor of the Church, would himself be persecuted later in this story. And in his letter to the church in Philippi, he would write, “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11) And I think we need to pay particular attention to that word “learned.” Being content in all circumstances is a “skill” that we learn and develop over time. And we develop it together!
Stephen had peace in the turmoil. As he stood before the council, at the beginning of this story, Luke tells us that “All who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Stephen had peace in the tribulation. He had peace even in death! He forgave his executioners. That’s hard for us to imagine! But isn’t it reminiscent of the reaction of the people in that church down in Alabama. And isn’t it reminiscent of Jesus on the cross!
We can have that peace to if we have Jesus in our hearts. We can be of good cheer – even in times of tribulation, for he has overcome the world. And he has promised to be with us always! Together, we share that “good cheer.” Together, we share his grace. Together, we share his spirit. For together, we are his people!
Eternal God, we are grateful that, in Jesus Christ, you have promised to be with us always. We thank you that we are never alone. We thank you that you have given us each other, and together we are the body of Christ here on earth. Help us to live in your spirit, to learn to be content in all circumstances, to be the light of your love and your presence to the world around us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.