On this fifth Sunday of the Easter season, we continue our journey through the Acts of the Apostles or, as some call it, the Acts of the Holy Spirit. That title fits Luke’s constant emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the growth of the early church. That is surely the case in our reading for today, where there are no apostles, but plenty of the Spirit.
Last week we focused on the Easter community that grew out of the outpouring of the Spirit and the first preaching about the Risen Christ. That community was pretty close to perfect, a model for the church of all ages. But the perfection didn’t last for long. Persecution began almost immediately, as we read in Acts 3 and 4, and so did internal trouble. Greed and dishonesty sullied the generosity of that community (Acts 5), and ethnic tension divided the once unified body (Acts 6).
It was out of that ethnic squabble that the office of deacon arose, and that’s where we first meet Stephen. He was one of the first seven deacons, or table waiters. He was not an apostle, just a servant in the house of the Lord. But he was a great man: “full of faith and the Holy Spirit;” “full of God’s grace and power (6:8);” he did “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (6:8).” And when his opponents began to argue with his preaching of Christ, they “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke (6:9-10).” Finally, when he was hauled before the Sanhedrin to defend himself against false charges, his “face shown like the face of an angel (6:15).”
His apologia and subsequent martyrdom mark one of the great turning points in the early church, as the Holy Spirit continued to empower the church in its Christ-given mission of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That is the central import of this text, though you could use it to encourage people to courageous, Spirit empowered witness in the face of hostile opposition. That would be a legitimate application of the text, but it is really about “first’s:” the first appearance of the Risen Christ after his ascension; the first message preached by a non-apostle; the first martyrdom; the first time the church was forced out of Jerusalem. Other firsts followed, like the first time the gospel was preached to non-Jews and the first time a violent opponent of the gospel was transformed to its most fiery preacher.
Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple and the law, specifically of claiming that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs handed down from Moses. “Are these charges true?” asked the high priest. Stephen’s answer is a masterfully sharp rehearsal of redemption history with a focus on Abraham and Moses and the temple. I say masterfully sharp, because he doesn’t just tell the story. He tells it in a way that will finally lead to a sharp condemnation of the way the Jewish leaders had almost idolized the temple, even as they had not obeyed the Law of Moses. Clearly, Stephen had not spoken against the Temple or Moses. But he surely did speak against what these leaders had done with the Temple and had not done with Moses.
As we read along in verses 2-47, it is clear that Stephen is a faithful Jew. If he had stopped at verse 47, he would have been set free. But then he moves on to those devastating words about the Temple and those leaders, who always resist the Holy Spirit and kill the prophets and now have betrayed and murdered the prophesied Righteous One. With that, the Sanhedrin was instantly transformed from a captive audience to a raging mob.
If Stephen had just stopped there, he might have been merely beaten and excommunicated. But he didn’t stop there; he moved on to our text. The result was that the church lost a great man that day, which is exactly what the Holy Spirit intended.
At least that’s how it sounds at the beginning of our text. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven….” The rest is history, sacred history, the history of the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit who had inspired Stephen’s sermon now moved him to look up to heaven. That same Spirit opened Stephen’s mouth to bear witness to what he saw in heaven. He could have kept it to himself and lived to preach another day.
But Jesus had given the Spirit in order to unleash the witnessing power of his disciples, both in life and in death. So, of course, Stephen had to tell what he had seen. Like Abraham and Isaiah and (almost) Moses, he saw God’s glory, but more astonishingly he saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Note that—not sitting (as in other New Testament texts), but standing, as if at the ready to act, perhaps even to return. This is the first appearance of the Risen, Ascended, and Returning Christ. No wonder Stephen had to speak.
“Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” With that blatant blasphemy (claiming that Jesus was equal in position and authority to God), the Sanhedrin moved from teeth gnashing teachers to screaming murderers. Rushing at Stephen and dragging him out of the city (always the rule keepers), they began to stone him. While they did, a previously unmentioned young man is introduced into the story of the Acts of the Apostles—Saul the passive guardian of their clothes who will soon become the active persecutor of the church, and then….
Moved by the Spirit, Stephen died not only testifying about the Risen Christ, but even imitating the Crucified Christ. Here a preacher can legitimately call on her listeners to be like Christ in life and death, committing our spirits to Jesus in our dying moments and with our last breath forgiving even those who bludgeon our lives away. Clearly, Stephen is imitating Christ here, borrowing two of his last words from the cross. So, having lived for Christ to the end, “he fell asleep.” Is that Luke’s subtle way of saying, that’s exactly how serious death is if you are in Christ to the end—even a violent murder is no more serious that falling asleep.
What a shame! What a tragedy! A great man lost to the church! Well, yes, if you stop reading right there at verse 60. But if you keep reading, this tragedy is turned into triumph. A great man’s death becomes part of the story of a man who will be even greater by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit—the Saul who “was there, giving approval to his death,” the Saul who would pursue the church all the way to Damascus, the Paul who would carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
That distant mission began as the immediate result of Stephen’s death. “On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Yes, it was all very sad; so “godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.” But those who were scattered (not the apostles) “preached the word wherever they went,” including another deacon named Philip who led the Ethiopian eunuch to Jesus. Thus began the mission to the Gentiles outside of Jerusalem. As Tertullian said long ago, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Stephen’s death brought new life to the church, even as Jesus death and resurrection brought life to the world. If Stephen had only lived and then died a normal death, who knows what he might have done, given who he was. But if he hadn’t died this way, so much might not have happened. In his grand plan for the church and the world, God turned this tragedy into triumph. Great loss became great gain to the glory of God, because of the Risen Christ by the power of the Spirit.
That’s what this text is finally about—the first non-apostolic preacher, the first martyr, the first time the church left the confines of Jerusalem, the first witness to the Gentiles, and the first step in the conversion of Saul, the missionary to the Gentiles. All of it driven by the Holy Spirit who turned ordinary people into world changing witnesses to the Risen, Reigning and Returning Christ.
I’m glad that Stephen was deeply mourned, even though God used his death in a remarkable way. That speaks to the way we wrestle with the death of loved ones. The eminent Christian philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, lost a son to a mountain climbing accident. That death devastated Wolterstorff, as he relates in his wonderful book, Lament for a Son.
In his memoir, Wolterstorff considers all the ways we try to square such a loss with our faith in a loving God. “God did it, some say: it’s part of God’s plan.” “Some say that tragedy is part of God’s strategy for soul making.” “Others echo Job’s friends, arguing that tragedy is God’s way of punishing us for our wrongdoing.” “Then there are those who argue that God is as pained by the loss as you and I are, but that there is nothing God can do about it.” “Finally, there are those who hold that the untimely death of a child is a price to be paid for some greater good that God is bringing about for human beings in general.”
Wolterstorff finds none of those classic attempts at theodicy helpful, preferring instead to leave God’s ways with us a mystery that should simply be lamented. God moves in a mysterious way, says the old song, and we can’t expect to understand. All we can do is join the Psalmists in lamenting. And then, just trust God.
I like that, but as our story shows us, we can both lament and trust that God used even tragedy (especially the tragedy of Stephen’s death) to accomplish something so grand that no one could have imagined it at the time.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55-60 Commentary