Faithful Witness

A sermon based on Acts 6:1–7:2a, 44-60

This week, it’s time to hit fast forward…. Since we have to go in real time between Easter and Pentecost,  and since Luke doesn’t give us much content to explore in his gospel and in Acts between those days, we are going to jump ahead in the story a bit. I promise, we’ll come back to the action in the upper room on the day of Pentecost in June.

Heading into the remainder of Eastertide, we’re going to zip past that, past Peter’s first big sermon and the church’s first wave of converts. In fact, the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem is part of the conflict that shows up in our passage for today.

Even as a city made up primarily of Jews, Jerusalem is fairly diverse. Many of its citizens are from the diaspora- those who had been scattered during the time of exile and had learned the languages and customs of the places they had settled.

The groups Luke identifies most often are the Hellenists and the Hebrews. It’s likely that he was using Hellenists to describe the Jewish people in the community who were more comfortable speaking Greek, and he probably used the descriptor “Hebrews” for those whose native language was Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic.

As the numbers of people following the apostles in the teachings of Jesus grew, so did the numbers of people who had particular needs. There were widows and orphans, there were people who were infirm and displaced.

The apostles were trying to figure all this out – how to keep telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, how to help other people understand his way of approaching life and love, AND how to care for all those who were in great need… and it was more than a little complicated.

Until they realized that they could share the load. They didn’t have to do it all.   

Listen to the first few verses of Acts 6

6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”

5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

The twelve leaders brought in the larger community of disciples – the women and other men who had been around longest, were helping to support the work of the community. They could have done it all themselves, or attempted to control the process, but they trusted the Spirit to lead the community in this effort.

The prayers and laying on of hands conferred the authority and power to these men, so that they might make wise decisions and serve the community well.

And it seems that they did.  

The apostles continued in the work they were called to do… spreading the good news and teaching others.  And the work the church was called to do… it was done too.

It seems that when you are a faithful witness, when you stand up and speak truth to those with the power to make change- as the Hellenists did- you may indeed see justice.

The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.  Even many priests from the temple became obedient to the teachings of Jesus.  The Spirit was empowering this community of faith.  God was blessing their efforts.

Don’t you wonder what happens next?   Listen…

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.

Now, perhaps, like me, you’re wondering how did we get from Stephen serving in a role that looked more than a little like a deacon, to Stephen standing and arguing theology between the signs and wonders he was performing? He sounds more like a prophet than someone taking care of tables.

Truth is, Stephen was simply bearing witness -faithfully in word and deed – to the power of God and the resurrection of Christ. He was faithfully doing his work, and then responded to the call to show up, to speak up, to act up. To be Christ-like in every sense of the word.

It sure goes to show, you never know what might happen in the laying on of hands… And you never know how people will respond when you preach truth.

Certainly hearts can be transformed as the Spirit works and people are moved to compassion and hope and faith.

But hearts can also be hardened by fear, by desire to maintain their position of influence, by a lack of trust in God and in neighbor. And there were some in Jerusalem who were frightened by the power with which these followers of Jesus were speaking, including Stephen.

11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.

13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.  

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?”

Stephen, like Peter before him, begins to speak, not because he is an orator by nature, but because the Spirit of God was in him, ready to make known the truth.

His sermon is worth a read, though it is a bit rambling. He responds to their accusations by connecting the dots between Moses and Jesus, by describing the ways that God has been among them.  He finishes with some hard words… We’ll pick up near to the end.

2a And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me…

44 “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors.

And it was there until the time of David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,

49 “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

Sound familiar?   Luke is helping us remember, even as he tells the story of Stephen, what happened to Jesus.
Once again, the Sanhedrin is the location.
Once again the people are stirred up by a small number of those who are against this new stream of Judaism in their midst.
Once again, the story and promise of liberation, of redemption, of God’s love for the people of Israel and God’s power to turn the world upside down… the potential that Stephen was right about Jesus… that powerful teaching was enough to set this small group of leaders against Stephen.

And as he closes his impassioned and faithful witness to God’s promises made and kept, he knows that their hearts are not open.
That his time has come.
And he doesn’t back down.
He doesn’t back down. In fact, he looks up.  

He looks up and describes a vision of Christ as Messiah, ascended to heaven and reigning with God.

And while I’d like to say it’s hard to imagine the scene that comes next, we have seen all too frequently the reality that angry, frightened people do awful things.  And this crowd has been stirred up…
by the group that wanted Stephen quieted,
by the passion in Stephen’s voice,
by the truth in his words and the confusion in their hearts.

They were ripe for a riot.  

58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen was a faithful witness to the end.  And like the prophet, teacher, messiah he followed in death, he asked that those responsible for his death might be forgiven.

I’ll be frank with you. I don’t know how to get there. I don’t know how to get to that kind of forgiveness.
I mean, I am a person of faith.  I believe that Jesus was who he and his closest followers and generations of disciples after claim him to be.

I don’t understand them, but I believe that there were signs and wonders wherever he went. I believe he healed and forgave and set people free from all manner of ills.

And I believe that both he and Stephen meant those words, “Forgive them.”  

But I am pretty sure I am far from mature enough in my faith to be able to do that.   To ask for forgiveness on behalf of someone who is in the midst of an unspeakable act of cruelty.

But then I have to look again at what they saw…
The people who came after Jesus.
The people who came after Stephen.
They were – in their own ways – making every effort to be faithful witnesses.

And they were, just as much as Jesus, equally as much as Stephen or you or me… Children of God, beloved and worthy of compassion.

It would be easy to characterize them as evil people.  Or at least people who have been overtaken by evil.  In fact, that very characterization has been an excuse for generations of anti-semitism as Christians blamed Jews for killing Jesus and early martyrs like Stephen.

Stephen himself called them stiff-necked, calling to mind Moses and his frustration with the generation God called him to liberate.

Stubborn, yes.
Evil?  No.

You know –  faithful Christ-followers today find themselves disagreeing about what Scriptures say about many difficult topics.Not just because of their political party affiliations, though that does sometimes get in the way…

No- I’m talking about people who have spent hours with the Bible and commentaries and the Holy Spirit in conversation with God about
whether the Body of Christ should support the death penalty
or should be ok with using drones as opposed to foot soldiers in a war zone
or if we should lead the way in welcoming immigrants and refugees
or whether the church should limit the role of women or fully embrace and affirm LGBTQ folk in church leadership.

Because the scriptures are complex and complicated, the answers to those questions aren’t simple and faithful people come to very different conclusions.

Within denominations or with theological cousins, within particular congregations, even within this congregation, we Christians have been known to throw some pretty large (if metaphorical) stones at one another. Often causing significant emotional and spiritual wounds.

We are passionate about holding our position, stiff-necked even, and we believe that God is equally passionate about supporting us. And so we bear witness to what we understand God is saying to us.

We make every effort to be faithful witnesses.
But what happens if we’re wrong?  

What happens if we’ve spent years arguing and fighting against what we perceive as a threat, or what we believe to be unfaithful? And then we find that we were wrong?

There was a young man on hand at Stephen’s death. His name was Saul.

The people who were ready to stone Stephen, to kill him for his words – they put their cloaks at Saul’s feet.

We don’t know the timeline…

It may be that this is the moment that launches his career as the persecutor of Christians.
Or perhaps it verified for him that he was right…
Or maybe he was among the pot-stirrers that got the whole incident started.

Luke doesn’t say.   But he does tell us, going into Chapter 8, that Saul approved of their killing Stephen. And that a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.

And you and I, we know more of the story to come;
we know about the redemption to come.
The re-orientation that was coming in Saul’s heart, so complete that it made him a new man.
So complete that he needed a new name.

And I wonder, was it the prayers of Jesus and of Stephen that set in motion the work of God to make that change? Was it the forgiveness that flowed as thick as their blood?

Was it that faithful witness to God’s enduring love and mercy that made possible the change in Paul’s heart?

And then made it possible for the very church he had persecuted to see and hear and embrace him as a leader among them.

I wonder…
I wondered about that quite a bit this week. And then I begin to trust.
Because there is power in forgiveness,
healing power,
saving power,
resurrection power

And there is even greater power in the seeking of forgiveness:
In the confession of our own sin, of our shared sin,
In the confession of our complicity in the pain and oppression of others nearby and worldwide
In the confession that we, too, can be stiff-necked and proud, when God would have us humble and willing to bend

There is power in confession and forgiveness and orienting our hearts to God.

Not the sort that lords over another, but the sort that allows the Lord to enter a relationship to heal and redeem it.

That is the power of full submission to God’s will,
The power of choosing to bear witness to God’s great love, not by force, but by faith

Bearing witness by taking risks on the side of love and welcome,
On the side of forgiveness and compassion
On the side of life over death.

That is the hard work of being a follower of Jesus. Submitting to God’s will and bearing witness to the fullness of Christ’s teachings shapes our lives in community with one another even as it deepens our relationship with God.  And it is the means by which we assure succeeding generations have the chance to hear, believe and become faithful witnesses.  

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who made it possible for us to worship here today.  The generations of women and men who built this church, literally and spiritually.

Can you give thanks for them with me?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who have fought for this congregation’s life, who are fighting for it even now.

Can you give thanks for them with me, too?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of  those who took the fight for the life of the Body of Christ elsewhere, when their gifts were no longer welcome in this place.

Can you give thanks for them?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who have endured the pain of staying when their gifts were less than welcome in this place.

How about them, can you give thanks for those dear ones, as well?

I give thanks, by faith, for the faithful witness of those who will use their gifts to express God’s love in ways we’ve not yet imagined… here in this place… to the glory of God.

I pray that we might all bear faithful witness to God’s grace and mercy, and God’s justice and love, to one another and to a world in need.

Today and every day to come.  Amen.

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