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Stephen and Paul: Failure and Hope: A sermon on Acts
May 25, 2011, 7:07 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

In this season of Easter, we’ve been exploring the book of Acts, seeking to find courage and guidance from the early church’s experience of God’s work in their midst. Today, we’ll focus on one man, Stephen, through whose story we may find ourselves. His story will also introduce us to another man, Saul, whom we are more familiar calling Paul. This Saul is the man who will meet Jesus on the road and be transformed from a persecutor of Jesus’ followers into one of his most passionate apostles.

Since the lectionary only brings us in at the very end of Stephen’s story, I’m going to read a bit further back into Acts, inserting a bit of summary as well, to help us understand what is going on, and then I’ll finish with the reading that’s printed in your bulletin:

(The church was growing by leaps and bounds. Jesus’ original apostles found that there was too much to be done in preaching, teaching, and service for them to do both the work and the administration. The Greek speaking believers came to them because some of the poor among the Greek community were not getting the food they needed, even though it was the intention of the whole community of believers to share everything they had. So, the apostles asked this community to help them by appointing more leaders for the work of faithful service. They said:)  3… friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with (six others). 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

8Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” 2And Stephen replied:

“Brothers and fathers, listen to me.

(So Stephen began telling the great story of God’s choosing Abraham and promising faithfulness and blessing. Stephen witnessed that God’s promise continued through Moses. He described Moses as one sent from God for the Hebrews, to free them from slavery and lead them into a new life. But Moses was rejected by his own people. This description of Moses, who was now accepted as God’s prophet, was meant to parallel Jesus, whom the current Hebrews had rejected. So, after Stephen taught about God’s work in the past, he witnessed to God’s work in their present. God sent Jesus for the sake of the very Hebrews who were now putting Stephen on trial. Stephen was direct and blunt, saying:)

51You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56Look, he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Here, in Acts, we meet a disciple and a martyr for us to exemplify. Stephen was a bold witness, appointed for service by his community. The community of believers had a need for more leaders to rise up. The community recognized his gifts, he was willing, and his work for the kingdom of God continued as he entered leadership.  Even when he was met with resistance and disbelief, he boldly shared his faith.

Because of his work of service and witness, we could name Stephen an evangelist. I’ve been thinking a lot about our parish and our lives as evangelists. The Lutheran Women Today Bible study that the WELCA circles of all the churches in our parish studied this month was on the topic of evangelism. It was supposed to help us think about how and when we might more frequently share our faith. Part of our Christian life should be telling others about our experiences of God in our lives. But, as many of us admitted, this is not easy or typical work for us. We do better at quietly doing service to our community than putting into words our religious reasons for doing service, or even simply sharing in conversation the life-sustaining experiences we’ve had of God. Maybe part of that is because we don’t quite know how to recognize God and God’s actions in our daily life. Maybe another part is not knowing how to connect our lives to the great Biblical stories that show us how the generations before us experienced God in their midst. This connecting of present to past to find God’s activity is something Stephen does well.

In Stephen’s witness to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, he interprets God’s past actions among the people of Abraham and Moses’ day. He points to God’s promise and plan for God’s people. It doesn’t come into effect right away. There are many generations between the first receiver of the promise: Abraham, and the next major story of God’s action towards fulfilling that promise through Moses. Stephen then moves forward many more generations to point to Jesus as the one God sent to fulfill God’s plan and promise. It’s Stephen’s blunt association of the enslaved Jews’ initial rejection of Moses with the Jews currently putting him on trial’s rejection of Jesus that makes the crowd angry.

As we struggle to live out our call to be evangelists and how to be a congregation that reaches out into our community, proclaiming the good news, we shouldn’t be surprised if we are met with resistance and failure. Maybe you’ve tried this evangelism bit before. You finally got up the courage to say something about God’s presence in your life, somehow the words came out, and then- they just fell flat. No change seemed to come over the person to whom you were talking, no new members joined the church, no rushing Holy Spirit.

Stephen courageously continued with his proclamation even though he knew the danger he was in. The charges against him were blasphemy, punishable by death. His actions led to his death. In Stephen’s witness and his death, we see a disciple truly following Jesus, whose ministry so offended the world that it led to his death.

In our life of faith and work as a congregation, we may experience times when it seems like we’ve missed God’s message or will because it doesn’t seem to be working out. I’ve recently heard people say things like, “We’ll know it’s the right decision or action in God’s eyes by seeing if it leads to success or decline.” But I think that’s imposing our own success-driven culture onto God’s action. We don’t always get to see our hard work, our sharing of the good news, or our service blossom into a change in someone’s life or in our community.

Stephen didn’t see the fruit of his witnessing, but he did get to see a vision of God in the midst of his persecution. Even as he’s being killed, he sees Jesus at the Father’s side, looking down at him and the angry mob. He knew that he was witnessing to the one who has the power to give life in the face of death.

It’s nice when we get a glimpse of God in the midst of our apparent failure, but it doesn’t always happen. We can spend our time and our tears sharing our God-given love with children in our community, only to watch them leave us after confirmation. We can do our best to make worship interesting and inviting, only to see our numbers dwindle. We can plan an amazing event, like our confirmands did with their faith project, only to be met with no interest. It can be easy to get discouraged when we don’t see the results we expect, and we don’t see any divine assurance!

Stephen witnessed to God’s plan and promise. God is still working towards the fulfillment of that promise. We are a part of that promise, and one group among many trying to bear witness to the work of God in our midst. Stephen was strong in his witnessing, but he didn’t get to see God using his witness. Stephen could not have guessed how his proclamation would plant a seed of faith in Jesus that would blossom and grow and spread.

Did you catch the introduction of the other man in this story? Did you hear how we first meet Saul? In verse 58: “58Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This young man, who watches approvingly and goes on to lead greater persecution will be transformed by God. We can’t quantify Stephen’s effect on Saul, through his witness and death, but I would imagine that Saul did not forget Stephen, and that God was able to use that seed of Stephen’s witness to prepare Saul for his encounter with Jesus, and for his future life as a zealous witness to Jesus Christ, just as willing as Stephen to give up his life for the sake of giving witness to Jesus. None of the apostles or the community of disciples could have guessed that God would be able to work in Saul such a transformation.

In our daily evangelism and in our work as a congregation, we don’t always see the harvest that God brings from the seeds we plant. I think that might put our job as a congregation into a new perspective. Instead of working simply to keep our doors open and our pews modestly filled, we might focus on proclaiming God’s presence in our community, with trust that God will use whatever meager seed our words are able to spread. We might focus on going out to those people who are different from us, whose values might be different, whose ability or desire to attend church and give money aren’t apparent.

I think Stephen was able to be bold in service and in witness because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and had caught hold of the joy God brings to us through Christ. I think it’s joy that will most inspire us to serve and witness- not duty, or fear, or obligation. My hope is for this congregation to be a place where we lift each other up to experience this joy, and thereby equip each other for the work of sharing that joy with the world. I find joy in seeing myself amid the great cloud of witnesses, the many saints who have recognized God’s presence in their lives. I find joy in the promise that there is One- Jesus Christ- who will always love and accept me, no matter how much I feel inadequate or that I have failed in my plans and purposes. I find joy in the beauty and wonder of God’s good creation. I have an assignment for you all this week. I want you to spend some time each deliberately opening yourself to recognizing God’s presence with you. Ask yourselves: “How do I see God in my life, my family, or my community today?” and don’t be afraid to ask others what they are seeing, too!

People of Redeemer Lutheran, we are called to live out our calling to be evangelists like Stephen. Because Jesus lives and is risen, we need fear no death or failure. Death and failure are not permanent states. God brings life out of death and works good out of failture. God has proven that God can and will perform miracles even for the sake of those who reject God! Jesus Christ has already triumphed. Jesus’ triumph over death and doubt and rejection is for us, it is our triumph, already secured. We may not see the winnings of our faithful witness, but we can be assured that our work is victorious because its power rests in Jesus Christ.