Third Sunday after Easter – April 30, 2017
Acts 6:1-7:2a, 44-60 and Luke 23:33-34a, 46
We might ask, “What is the Good News in a passage like the one we just read?”
It could be seen as a horrible example, or it can be read for what it is, spelling out the faithfulness of one of the first people to die for their faith, in a very similar fashion to that of Jesus Christ, the Head and Leader of our church.
Right across the centuries, all since the time of Jesus, and also even before that with the prophets, throughout the church there have been umpteen times when leaders in the church have been treated the way Stephen was treated. Granite stones were physically thrown at Stephen and an example was set from within the Jewish-Christian folk of the early church. There were two parties of Jewish-Christians, those that spoke Hebrew and those that spoke Greek, and the strife that existed in this Jerusalem congregation culminated in the death of Stephen. We can call it an intra-Jewish disagreement.
Did we think the church that is described in the book of Acts was a kind of utopian community? If yes, we just need to keep reading on.
Doesn’t the Christian sometimes have this thing about it? The gospel is radical and stands at odds with popular culture. When you are rejected, ridiculed and mocked, it feels like you are the one at fault. We live in a world that holds out this promise that good things happen to “good” people.
This just does not hold true. Stephen is a clear example of what happens and naming that means a dose of sanity. Or, a person could say, “Hey, I’m not getting the accolades and windfall for living the gospel, meaning: I must be doing something wrong.”
But what strange comfort there is when you know living the gospel means you confront evil. Evil doesn’t play nice and that does not mean God has abandoned you or you did something wrong.
In a nutshell, to say it bluntly, it is kicking the prosperity gospel to the curb and that is what the gospel is eventually about.
Stephen seemed to be doing “great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). This was not in the job description the church gave Stephen! But as we know well, sometimes the church gives us a particular job description, but often times God has a wider sense of our call.
Of course, there is no comfort in doing silly things that aren’t thought through and then, when you get resistance, to think this resistance is because you are obediently following what is “right” and that persecution comes to those that do “right.”
When Stephen preaches and does great wonders, it causes controversy and eventually a group conspires against him. Stephen is then brought before the high priest. This is where Stephen continues to speak the gospel. This sermon is included in most of Acts 7 and then it concludes with the last verses of our passage this morning.
When Stephen insists that God can’t be constrained to a time and place that we create, it gets seen as a stunning rejection of the importance of the temple.
Stephen emphasises it, “…the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (7:48). In some ways, this is not uncontroversial. God simply cannot be constrained to a time and place we create. But there is more! Stephen then echoes prophetic denunciations of long ago to condemn those who killed the prophets who foresaw the Righteous One as well as the Righteous One himself!
Such daring leads to Stephen’s stoning. Yet even as he dies, he resembles Jesus on the cross as he proclaims forgiveness over his persecutors. And there is one more dramatic intrusion into this narrative: Saul is standing there. This is the first time we encounter him in Acts, a less than auspicious introduction as he approves of Stephen’s killing.
It is at a killing that echoes Jesus’ death that Saul enters the narrative world of Acts. There is an additional echo as our passage closes. Remember that in Acts 1:8 Jesus calls his followers to be “my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” At the beginning of Acts 8 then, we learn that a persecution that arises in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom spreads the church to Judea and Samaria.
One of the key storylines of Acts is how Saul the persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles who is persecuted. But that could be a sermon for another Sunday.
Acts narrates the church at its best and its worst, at its heights and its depths. Therefore, we don’t have a blueprint for an ideal church in Acts, but rather a complex narrative that invites our imagination.
What might it look like to be a community that cares for the widows in our midst, whomever they might be? What might it look like for us to bear testimony to Christ in ways that evoke Stephen’s courage and clarity? What might it look like for us to be the church that must grieve the loss of someone like Stephen and fear that we might be next?
No doubt, the gospel continues to be radical, and it continues until this day to come with a price. It is in the face of these realities that we are still encouraged to remain faithful.
Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church
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