“Followers of The Way: Stephen”
For the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time looking at the first followers of the Way. That is, the people who started the church by living out the commands of Jesus Christ shortly after the Holy Spirit was unleashed upon the apostles.
Last week we looked at someone we know fairly well, Peter; the first disciple; the first to speak when the apostles emerged from their home to share the Good News on the streets. We listened to his passion as he spoke over and over again about Jesus Christ and the work God was doing through him, even in the face of great danger.
Today we look at a lesser known hero. A man who only shows up in the Bible in Acts 6 and 7, and is buried in chapter 8 and is considered the first Christian martyr.
We know very little about this man. What we know of his history, where he came from, it’s all in what we read from Acts 6 this morning.
The 12 Apostles were busy men. They spent their time spreading news of Jesus Christ to the people in the various communities they found their way into. As they brought more people in, the church grew, and grew, and grew. We learned in Acts 2 we learned people were selling everything they had to join the church. All that was brought in was shared among the people, so no one would ever be in need.
It seems as though there was a point where the distribution became uneven. It was brought to the attention of the Apostles that there were women, widows in particular, were being neglected in the distribution of food, and they were expected to do something about it.
The 12 talked and decided the work they were doing was too important to spend time handing out food, so they appointed the first deacons of the church. The chose seven men to lead the fair distribution of goods to all the people.
Stephen was one of these men and we’re told he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. And again, the church continued to grow.
Stephen, as part of his work with the poor, continued to do great wonders and signs among the people. He was seen as a man of great faith, which was a problem for leaders of the old church, the men of the synagogue.
So they had Stephen arrested and used false accusations to rile up the temple leadership. They made him out to be some great threat against the temple, as if he was raising up people to take it over. When asked if the accusations were true, Stephen speaks.
Stephen speaks boldly, it’s all recorded in Acts 7. He tells of the history of the Jewish people. He tells of the great heroes of the faith, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and Solomon. Stephen is telling the temple leaders their own story. The stories of the men they claim to honour, and the mistakes they have made along the way. He tells of when they turned their backs on the leaders, and God.
Then he pulls out the scriptures these men do not want to hear. He tells them that God does not reside in the temple, God is in heaven, a place for all people.
Then he drives it home. Stephen says to the faces of his accusers,
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do 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 and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Ouch! Uncircumcised of heart and ears? Those are strong words to people who see themselves as the chosen men of God. Accusations of prosecution and murder? Maybe not the smartest thing he’s said all day. But the last straw… not keeping the Law? Saying these things to the people who are the keepers of the Law?
I think you can see where this is heading next. As Stephen finishes his speech, he is overcome with the Holy Spirit and sees Jesus in the heavens, at the right hand of God. They have heard enough. They drag Stephen out of the city and they stone him to death.
In two chapters, Stephen goes from a man recognized as strong and wise in faith, an example to the other followers of the Way, to dragged out of the city and beaten to death by people throwing stones.
In his final words, as his life bleeds from his body, he cries out loud, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And he dies.
There was a young witness to this event. A young, zealous man named Saul, who approved of this killing. Saul was well known and even worshipped by some for his ravaging of the Christians who tried to tell others of Jesus Christ. Saul was there. Saul heard Stephen’s cries. He saw his death. This same Saul who would become the great evangelist and leader, Paul. But we’ll hear more about him in the coming weeks.
But what we do need to know this week is that this is Saul’s entry into the story. His presence at the death of Stephen leads to the church being scattered and hidden because of his threat to its existence. Stephen’s death marks a change in the way the church functions, it’s forced to become more secretive in its activities, less visible to the public eye.
The death of Stephen is a sharp change in the church. It’s forced to rethink it’s approach to spreading the news of Jesus Christ to the world.
Stephen is an example, and a fine one. Elected by the leaders he was given a task to server the poor. He had gifts in this area, and he was more than generous in sharing his faith with those he served. He himself, through his service, was bringing people into the church, introducing them to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
When he was called before the authorities, he didn’t back down. He took the opportunity to stand up for what he believed, not afraid of the consequences. He saw the flaws in the system, and he poured light upon them in front of those who perpetuated the darkness, the system. Those who used the system to protect their positions of power. He was not going down quietly.
He faced his accusers with their own history, the same history they claimed to uphold and dedicate their lives to. He told the stories of the men they use as prime examples for faithful living, the fathers of the faith. But then he told them how they fell short.
He told them that instead of living like Moses, they lived like the people who craved an idol to worship in the golden calf. He told them how they built a temple for God, but God would never live in such a place. Stephen stood up to what was wrong with the old way of doing things, and how they were ignorant to not see the Messiah they themselves had put to death.
On Saturday mornings the kids usually eat their breakfast and watch a movie of some sort while I finish off my sermon. Well, this week they decided to watch Toy Story 3, which meant my sermon had to be put on hold.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie. It’s a growing up story. It’s a story about the changes that come in life, and how we can sometimes resist these changes. As a parent, I can guarantee you’ll tear up when you put it in the context of your own family.
But it’s also a story of finding new life in the changes. New hope. New connections. New friendships. Change is not always a bad thing.
On Thursday night at the board meeting, we discussed a motion that was made at the last presbytery meeting. The motion proposes that Sydney Presbytery be reduced from 20 pastoral charges to 5, and that the churches be organized by geographical area. So for us, we were grouped with St. Matthew-Wesley, Wilson, Boularderie and St. Ann’s. All one pastoral charge. If this motion passes next month, it’s up to all of us to work with presbytery to figure out how it all fits together. How many churches? Where? How many staff? What sort of governance? All these things we’ll need to figure out.
It’s time for a change. The church after Stephen’s death went into hiding after being very public about what it was doing. It’s time for us to do the opposite. It’s time for the church to stop hiding behind closed doors and get back into the streets. The church of Stephen’s day survived going into hiding because people were searching for it. They wanted to know about Jesus Christ. Those first few months of preaching in the streets created such a buzz that as word spread people would come from all over to hear the good news. So even when they went into hiding, people still found them and came to them to hear the stories of Jesus.
That’s not how the world works today. People don’t know about Jesus, they don’t know of God’s great love shown to us through the Son. Because we’re in hiding.
As a result, we’ve got far too many churches that are struggling just to get by. Did you know, that today at Carman, we don’t have enough money in the bank to pay our bills for April? At the end of March we were almost $2500 overdrawn in our bank account. Our monthly costs are roughly $6000 this time of year. On Thursday, we had about $1500 in the bank.
And we’re not alone in this place. Churches are struggling all over North America to stay open, to keep a full-time minister, to do repairs.
It’s because we’re hiding. People don’t know we’re here. People don’t know what we do, often because we don’t do much outside of Sunday mornings.
The time for change is upon us. If we want to survive, we need to find the courage to stand up and speak about what is wrong. We need to be willing to risk some harsh words and angry stares along the way. We need to be willing to find good in the changes required to move forward as a church.
We need to find Jesus Christ. All of these leaders we will be talking about over the next few weeks, they are passionate followers of Jesus Christ, and nothing, not even death, keeps them from proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is our story. This is the birth of the church. These are the fathers of the Christian faith, men who step out and speak of the great love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. Showing us how to preach and live with respect to each other and the world. Just as Jesus had taught them.
We look around and we see death. We see bills, we see too few people, we see the writing on the wall.
But is it really?
Is it really the end of the church? Or just the church as we know it?
It is not the end. Jesus Christ is alive. He’s alive in me. He’s alive in you. He’s alive in Carman. He’s alive in Sydney Mines. He’s alive in CBRM. Jesus Christ is alive. He is risen! He lives! Our Saviour is alive!
Let’s embrace the God all time. The one who made promises to be with His people for all time. Who promises to bless those who follow is laws. Who sent us Jesus Christ to show us those laws in action.
Let us be like those first followers of the Way, of Jesus Christ, and let us be fired up to show his great love to the world. Starting with one step at a time. Starting with praising the one gives life by the giving of his own life for us.
Praise be to Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world. Saviour for you and me.