When Times Get Tough… July 10, 2022
Psalm 8, Acts 6:1-8, 7:54-8:3
July 10, 2022
Our story for today is about Stephen. In fact, this whole chapter, and the one before it, is about Stephen! In the beginning of chapter 6, Luke tells us how Stephen was chosen, along with six other men to help lead the ministry of the fledgling church. The part I read first is often looked at as the beginning of the choosing of Deacons or Elders, depending on what denomination you happen to be.
But from then on, the story focuses in primarily on Stephen. Verse 8 says, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8.) Stephen became more than just a “church officer!” He also became a great speaker, and a great advocate and defender of the faith.
The other word we might use for him is a word I’ve used before. Stephen was an “apologist.” An apologist is one who defends the faith with great wisdom and logic. As I’ve said before, when I think of the word “apologist” I think immediately of C. S. Lewis. I see Lewis as one of the greatest Christian minds of our age. The way he explained and defended the faith was amazing!
Well, Stephen seemed to be pretty good, too! If we read on in chapter 6, Luke tells us that a number of people “rose up and disputed with Stephen. But” he says, “they could not withstand the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke!”
So, the story today is about Stephen. But it’s also about how tough times began for the Church. And that’s not saying things were easy from the beginning, because they were not. We’ve already seen the Apostles arrested, thrown into prison, and put on trial before the religious council. But it would get worse!
Here with Stephen, those he was debating made things worse. They instigated other people against him. And before long he stood before the same religious council. And the biggest part of chapter 7 is about his speech – his defense – before the council. You can read that on your own sometime, it would take too long here today.
But when you do. You’ll see how his defense involved speaking about the entire history of God’s people, citing the experiences of Abraham, Moses, and David – the Big Three! And he showed how they all related to Jesus. And then he ended his speech in a rather forceful way. He pulled no punches with the religious leaders! Let me read a bit of that to you.
He said to them, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, as your fathers did before you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered. You who received the law as delivered by angels but did not keep it!”
That was not an ending designed to “ingratiate himself” with the religious leaders of Israel! And I picked up the reading again this morning with their response. In verse 54 it says, “Now when they heard this, they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him.” What an intense description! They were so furious, that whole business of the Romans taking away their right to capital punishment went right out of the window. And what follows comes under the paragraph heading in my bible, which says, “The Stoning of Stephen.”
Just before that, he took one last shot at them. “He gazed into heaven, and said, ‘Behold I see the heavens opened and Jesus himself standing at the right hand of God.” And they “stopped their ears and ran together upon him. And they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” And it’s interesting that this is where we’re introduced to Saul, who would become Paul. Luke tells us, “And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
We’re going to talk about him next week. But for now, Stephen became known as “The First Christian Martyr.” He was the first to die for the faith. And it was only the beginning. Because the beginning of chapter 8 also says, “And a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem. And they were all scattered throughout the region.”
Tough times began for the church in those days. “A great persecution arose,” mostly at the hands of the Jewish leadership, even though back in the beginning of this reading it says this. “The number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many priests were obedient to the faith.” Still, those in power wrought havoc on the church, including this man we were just introduced to. Luke tells us, “But Saul was ravaging the church! And entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
It’s a wonder the church survived those days! And that wasn’t all! Later in Acts, we would read the story of how the Romans would get in on the persecution, after the martyring of James. It’s a wonder – no, it’s a miracle that the church survived those days! And a wonderful miracle it has become! Gamaliel was right! If this thing they were doing was of God, no one would be able to stop it. And those who did often found themselves fighting against God! It was just as he said!
That’s what happened in those days when things got tough for the Church. And it certainly wouldn’t be the only time things would get tough. Down through history, the church has experienced persecution. And in our world today, it seems like things are getting tough for us as God’s people. No, we’re not being arrested and thrown into prison. We’re not being put on trial. (Not that that’s not happening in other places in the world!) But let’s not fool ourselves. Christians in our world are not looked on in a very positive way. We’re seen as oppressive, exclusive, intolerant, and any number of other modern descriptions.
It’s funny, because we live in an age of expanding “spirituality.” There are so many different “spiritual paths” people are taking these days! And they’re all looked on as good. But “organized religion” – as the church is often referred to – is seen in a negative light. “I have such a distain for organized religion.” I’ve heard people say that over the years.
So, what do we do? Well, one thing we can do is something I said a couple of weeks ago. We can give thought to what kind of image we are giving of the Church. I’ve heard too often that the negative image people are getting about the church comes from church people. And I believe we need to think about that every day! Is the image we’re giving of our faith negative or positive? Is it consistent, or is it hypocritical? Are our words “matching up” with our actions? Is the old song indeed true of us, that “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”?
That’s so important! Our savior said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” That’s part of the image he wanted his people to project. He knew that would win more people to the faith than just good arguments! People who love were more important to him than good apologists!
Paul took it a step farther. He told the Romans, “Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse them… Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. (Notice! Not just believers!) Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave that to God. No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him drink. For by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.” I love that image! “But above all, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good!” (Romans 12.) Do you get that? Overcome bad images with good images!
When I was young I was bullied to some extent. I have to laugh when I see reports about bullying these days, because sometimes it’s presented as though it’s a new thing! Like we never had it before, and we’re now just discovering it! Well, you know that’s not true! It happened when I was young. And I’ll bet you can say the same thing! And bullying is not just what somebody does to you when you’re in their presence! It’s also what they say about you when you’re not!
I remember a time when I said to myself that I was not going to be able to go around convincing everybody that what was being said about me was not true. I decided I would simply show them all, by the way I lived my life, that it wasn’t true. And I think the same can be said about the church. We’re not all apologists. We’re not all great debaters like C. S. Lewis – or Stephen. But we can show, by the way we live our lives, that we are God’s people, and that’s a good thing to be! And as God’s people, we need to know that everything we do and say reflects on his church – positively or negatively!
So yes, we are living in tough times for the church. We could talk about that for the rest of the day! But how do we overcome it? I hope we are determined that we will show, by the way we live, that God is real, and that it is good to be his people! And I hope we are determined that we will be a positive force for God’s kingdom!
Each day ask yourself, “How will they know God’s compassion, unless they see it in you? How will they know God’s love and Grace, unless they see it in the way you live your life?
Eternal God, help us to be aware of your Spirit within us, so that we may have the strength we need to be the light of the world that you so loved. Help us to be good witnesses of your compassion and your grace. Help us to live in such a way that people will see the hope that lies within us. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.