Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 7, 2023

Acts 7:55-60 Commentary

On the face of it, a six-verse Bible passage that centers on the brutal murder of an innocent man does not appear to be an edifying preaching text.  Perhaps that seems all the more to be the case when we realize this passage is assigned in the Year A Lectionary for the Season of Eastertide when, you might think, the focus ought to be on happier things than death by stoning (a horrible way to die if ever there were one).  But since it’s Luke who has crafted this for us, there are (forgive the bad pun) some hidden Easter eggs here after all.

A first thing to recall (and there is a reason to go here) is that the famous “Seven Last Words” spoken by Jesus on the cross are an amalgamation of sayings collected from all four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion.  No one Gospel has all seven (and honesty compels one to note that it’s a little hard to square some of the sayings with the others since there appear to be at least two, possibly three, sayings that are characterized as the “last” thing Jesus said but each is rather different from the other two).

In any event, Matthew and Mark each have just one saying (the same one: “My God, my God . . .”) but Luke and John have three sayings each, though none identical.  And since Luke is also the author of Acts, you can see why I am directing our attention to these sayings.  In Luke 23 Jesus speaks to one of the thieves on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  But this is also where Jesus says “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” and then his final words in Luke, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Stephen in Acts 7 could not, of course, speak the words Jesus directed to the thief on the cross but with only minor variations, Stephen clearly says in the moments before his own death the other two things Jesus also said on the cross, asking for forgiveness for his murderers and asking Jesus to receive his spirit.  I will assume Stephen actually spoke these words or ones very similar to them but if Luke crafted and edited this just a little to make the Christ-like connection to the cross clearer, that would not be a surprise (and if he did, it was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that then is a fine thing to do!).

We are told that near the end Stephen saw a vision of heaven and saw Jesus himself.  His reporting of this in the moment somehow drove the people intent on wiping out the Jesus movement into an instant and insane frenzy.  There were at least two reasons for this: first, it seemed to some no doubt to be the height of blasphemy for Stephen to claim such a vision.  But second—and probably deep down the real reason for their rage—if Stephen really was seeing what he claimed, then these people who were anti-Jesus were in big trouble.  If there was a risen Lord Jesus to see, then everything in Stephen’s famous sermon was true and those who opposed him and the Gospel message he proclaimed were on the wrong side of history.  No, it’s worse than that: they were on the wrong side of God.

Stephen is usually identified as the first martyr of the church.  We assume today that “martyr” means only someone who was killed for their religious faith (though sometimes this word gets used for anyone killed for their beliefs whether they were particularly religious beliefs or not.  There were martyrs for the Civil Rights movement, martyrs who opposed Apartheid, martyrs like Bonhoeffer who opposed Nazism, and so forth).  But the Greek word actually means principally “witness.”  In this case, Stephen then is indeed the first martyr in every sense: he was killed because first he bore witness to the Gospel through his sermon but then at the very end he was a literal eyewitness of the living Christ and it was that witness even more than the witness of his sermon that got him murdered.

According to an old adage, the church throughout time has been the anvil that has worn out many hammers.  From the Roman Empire onward there have been efforts to wipe out the church once and for all.  But it has never worked to hammer away at the followers of Jesus.  The church survives.  The Roman Empire could not defeat it and in an ironic twist of providence the Empire ended up making Christianity the religion of the realm under Constantine.  In the twentieth century communism and socialism via the USSR and East Germany tried to wipe out the church—and places like China continue to try to do the same right now—and yet somehow the ordinary folks and all those babushka grandmothers who gathered in churches in Moscow and East Berlin to pray for justice prevailed over the high and mighty Stalins and Brezhnevs and Honeckers who fancied themselves as gods and lords who would stamp out the Lord Jesus.

And part of the reason for this is seen in the Stephen story in Acts 7.  Ordinary people have just kept getting filled with the Holy Spirit to enable them to preach, to bear witness, to point to another reality beyond the reality that can get reported on by newspapers.  What’s more, people have continued to see the living Lord Jesus one way or another and nothing on earth has been able to make these people believe there is anything to fear on this planet compared to the blessing of knowing Jesus as Savior and Lord.

In this Easter Season, we continue to reflect on what was spoken all over the world on Easter Sunday a month ago: Someone says “Christ is Risen!” and everyone else responds with faith-filled confidence “Risen Indeed!”  Today in Acts 7, it is Stephen who speaks both of those lines.  His witness and example have been preserved for us as he dies exactly as Christ died and with some of the same words and grace-filled sentiments of forgiveness and hope that Jesus also expressed.  We look at Stephen and say “Christ is Risen!”  Risen indeed!

Illustration Idea

In the sermon commentary above I noted how the church has survived every attempt to wipe it out, including attempts by the old Soviet Union.  That in turns reminds me of a story told to me by my colleague Bruce Rigdon.  Bruce spent many decades of his life getting to know the Soviet Union / Russia and especially the Christians living there.  He led many groups to the USSR and found many ways to show support for the Christians and for the church in that repressive communist environment.

One year Bruce and others were in Moscow and attended an Easter Vigil near Red Square and led by a Russian Orthodox priest.  The crowd that gathered in front of the church that night was huge.  At midnight as the day turned to Easter Sunday, someone knocked on the front door of the church.  The door burst open and the priest declared “Christ is risen!”  And with one thunderous voice the entire throng replied in unison “Risen indeed!”

Bruce once told me that the sound of that affirmation was so powerful, it pierced his very being.  And then he said, “And that was the moment I knew with a surety I had never before felt: It’s all true.  Christ is risen.  Jesus lives.  It’s all true and without a doubt.”


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