The Stoning of Stephen
Sermon: “Seed of the Church”
The book of Acts is traditionally read during this Easter season, where we learn about the founding of the Christian church and the spread of the Gospel. We’ll share more about Pentecost in a few more weeks, when we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. In the book of Acts, you heard a few weeks back about Saul’s conversion, who became who we know today as Paul.
In the book of Acts there was some bickering in the church—imagine that! People’s needs weren’t being met---there wasn’t enough food distributed to the needy and the widows were being neglected by some.
So, prior to the story today, in Acts Chapter 6, the apostles chose seven men, one of which was Stephen and laid hands over them, prayed over them, and they became deacons (or servants) of the church. The word apostle, by the way, comes from the Greek word Apostolos, meaning messenger. Therefore, before the cross, you’ll hear the followers of Jesus referred to as disciples. Disciple literally means student, or learner. After Pentecost, however, they are sent out as messengers, and they are referred to in Acts as the apostles.
Stephen, whom you’ll hear from today in the Scripture reading, was full of grace and power and did great wonders and signs among the people. There were some who tried to argue with Stephen, but “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” They even got some men to instigate that Stephen said blasphemy words against Moses and God. They brought him before council to accuse him. He gives a very lengthy speech to the council.
And then he wraps up his speech with these final words from Chapter 7, vv. 51-53.
READ Chapter 7: 51-53
Oh, my! Maybe if he just left that part off, he would’ve been okay. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, so I suppose he didn’t expect what was coming next.
READ Chapter 7: 54
Now with this introduction, hear the passage today from the book of Acts as we hear Stephen’s response:
Scripture: Acts 7: 55-60
Often we think of Christian martyrdom as something that happened long ago. We don’t experience it around here. It’s rare that you pick up the North Shore News, or glance at it on your phone and read that someone died because they wouldn’t stop proclaiming Christ.
Our Bible stories, however, are full of those who would not bow down to false idols, and would worship God alone. One of my favourite stories is in the book do Daniel about Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego. Three young men who were raised at the feet of their grandparents, hearing the stories of God. And when they were young men, the test was on, they chose God no matter what. These were the three that were commanded into the fiery furnace, yet did not burn. They didn’t know they would come out alive, they simply knew that nothing was more important than worshipping the one true God.
Well Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego came out alright, but such isn’t always the case when you stand for God. We find this today in Stephen’s story, and in others around the world throughout history to the present. What needs to be made clear, however, is that what makes a death into martyrdom is the injustice of the act. Rev. James Howell writes, “It is the innocence of martyr, the nobility of the cause in which the martyr is caught in some crossfire, that underlines that evil is very real.” You see this injustice act in our story today with the stoning of Stephen. God works through the suffering, but is not the cause. God ultimately overcoming death on the cross, is how we can have hope, and the hope goes beyond this earthly life.
Leo Tolstoy claimed that the secret of life is not in staying alive but in finding something to live for. By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Selma in 1965, he said, “I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit—but we must stand for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.”
Now, Stephen probably didn’t know what he was getting into when he gave his big speech. Or, did he? Regardless, he preached the truth rather than compromising his faith. The amazing part, though, about his death, is that the advancement of the gospel spread because of it! The early church father Tertullian wrote “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Remember from a few weeks ago when you heard about Saul. I told you that he was present here in this scene as well—he was one of the witnesses to Stephen’s death. Saul, who agreed with the stoning of Stephen. Saul, who went out and imprisoned men and women for their faith. Saul, who the Scriptures say was still “breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord,” when he came upon the road to Damascus and God spoke. God told Ananias to go to Saul, and remember what Ananais said? “Lord, I’ve heard the horrors of what this man does!” What Ananais didn’t know at that moment, was how the Lord had also laid on Saul’s heart that a man named Ananais would come to him. Saul became Paul—a Christian convert and of the greatest missionaries we’ve ever had.
God uses us when we don’t even know it. Have you ever felt on your heart to go and speak to someone on behalf of Christ? Maybe you were nervous about it, or you thought it might appear a little crazy?” What we don’t know, is what God might also be doing on their heart. God may be saying to that broken person, “Hilary King is going to confirm today for you that I love you.” Or, a man named “Hennie” will be on the road where you are walking and give you the encouragement you lack to keep going. Who knows? And even when we do know, we still may hesitate sometimes to simply act for Christ. If we are people of prayer, and believe in the Holy Spirit as we profess, who are we to doubt the powers of God and the works to be done in his name? Maybe we’re afraid of the stones…
Martyr comes from the Greek word meaning “witness.” Stephen was not only a witness to Christ, his very death parallels Jesus’s death on the cross. The words are similar in that Stephen asks the Lord to not hold their sins against them. And Stephen says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The difference in the words, however, is that Jesus’s words are spoken to God, and Stephen’s words are to Jesus—the son of Man, which is a reminder that Jesus knew all too well the suffering that Stephen endured. God came to us a human being, in the flesh---and God redeemed us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ll talk more about the Trinity in a just a few more Sundays, as well.
Stephen as the first martyr happened a long time ago. But in this past 20th century, there were more Christian martyrs than in any other century before.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a thirty-nine year old Lutheran theologian from Germany, when he was executed in 1945 by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s first allegiance was to Jesus Christ and to the Church, to the Body of Christ in the world. He was in school in the US, when he realized he felt that it wouldn’t be “right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…” He went back to Germany, and his execution was ordered just days before the Nazi’s surrendered. Bonhoeffer’s work and writings have been very influential in the Christian faith. His legacy remains that his life as a pastor and theologian which was one of great intellect and spiritually-- lived as he preached.
Oscar Romero was a courageous priest in El Salvador. He was archbishop at a time when the regime was murdering its opponents. And as archbishop he ordered them to stop. Eventually he became a martyr. But before that the soldiers came and roughed him up a little. His followers thought this was it, his coming doom. But Romero did something remarkable. He figured most of those soldiers were themselves Catholic, like most Salvadoreans at the time. So he started saying mass. He crossed himself, “We gather in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Some of the soldiers crossed themselves, they couldn’t help it. “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” His followers raised their voices, emboldened. And a scene of violence transformed into a scene of mercy. The weapons of prayer are stronger than the weapons of war. And sometimes you even see it, as in the resurrection of Jesus.
We often consider in the church that our life is fruitful, if what we do, say, and act on spreads the gospel message to those we meet. But will we, not just in our life, but in our death, proclaim that good news of Jesus Christ. We pray so. We pray that our lives are not the completion of heaven, but a participation in the salvation on the cross, as we join the saints who have gone before, and those who will follow after. Reinhold Neihbuhr was right when he said, “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single life-time; therefore we are saved by hope.” At the end of the day…the future does not rest in our hands, but in God’s. The fruitfulness of our lives hangs entirely upon God, our Lord and Savior.” We will serve no other gods, no matter what the cost. And the seed of the church is spread.