Acts 7:8-9, 57-59 – July 12, 2015
When you have a crisis or serious situation around the house, or personal matters that require some assistance, who is the first person you think of? Who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? Do you have someone in mind? That’s who, that’s what I think of when I think about Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Early Church.
Here we are, in the next installment of our summer sermon series from the Book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. I’ve mentioned this before, of how this sermon series reminds me a bit of a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . “ Last week, we took a look at the first recorded church conflict, in Acts 6.
This tension and conflict revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. It escalated into a problem between two separate groups of believers in the early Church. Jews separated by language and by culture. One Greek-speaking group of Jews—a minority group—claimed they were being overlooked, and were being left out in the charity distribution to widows.
Remember, the twelve Apostles needed help, so they called upon the whole congregation to choose deacons, people of good standing, stature, and wisdom to serve the congregation. Among these Greek-speaking men was someone named Stephen. Like the others, he was appointed and ordained to take care of social welfare matters in the congregation.
Let’s take a closer look at Acts 6, and see what it has to say about Stephen and the other deacons. I’ll be reading from a modern translation, called The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. “[The congregation] went ahead and chose [seven Greek-speaking men.] Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task. 7 The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith.”
In these deacons, we have seven respected believers, people of wisdom, with Greek names. What’s more, one man was even a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. These Greek-speaking believers were good stewards of the gifts God had entrusted to them. They were also good stewards of what the congregation in Jerusalem had entrusted to them, too.
The book of Acts is not specific, but I can imagine them taking up their new duties. Going around the main part of Jerusalem and perhaps the suburbs, too. Checking up on the widows and those who could not come to services regularly. Making sure that the elderly, the young ones, and the infirm had enough to eat, and if need be, medical care. In this way, the deacons freed up the Apostles to continue in prayer, and preaching and teaching God’s Word.
Whatever they were doing must have done the job. We can see, as Dr. Luke said, the number of believers continued to grow—and grow!
What about us, here, today? Think about the things God has given you stewardship over. What gifts and talents do you have to offer the church? What can you offer to your neighbors? I’d like you to think about that, as we continue to look at Stephen.
Acts 6 lifts him up as a stand-out, as far as the new deacons are concerned. Stephen does an exceptional job. If there were Olympic-level competition in being a deacon, I suspect Stephen would be right up there, competing for a medal. He is a stellar deacon, serving the congregation! Listen to our passage from Acts: “8 Stephen, brimming with God’s grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.”
Remember how I opened this sermon? How I asked everyone here to think of someone who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? I just so happen to have someone like this in my extended family. My brother-in-law, married to my husband’s sister. Rick is one of the nicest guys you could meet. He was a volunteer fireman in his small town. Now he’s a fire inspector in his region of Michigan.
But that’s not what I wanted to highlight about Rick. Instead, he goes above and beyond when he’s asked to help. Now that my father-in-law is in his mid-eighties, my husband and I are sure glad that Rick lives only about a half hour’s drive away from Grandpa Jones. Rick is handy around the house, always keeps a cool head no matter what, and is just a swell guy to have around. Not only that, he’s an elder in his Presbyterian church, and a pillar of the community. Very much the kind of person I imagine Stephen to have been.
Back to Acts 6: “Then some men went up against Stephen trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke.”
It seems that Stephen is not only an outstanding deacon, excellent at serving others in the congregation, but I understand God has blessed him personally. Abundantly. He is an excellent steward of both his personal gifts, as well as God’s gifts of life and blessing for others. He must have been articulate, too. Fantastic at expressing himself, with wisdom and holy insight.
Remember, the Early Church was located in Jerusalem in these early days. Jerusalem was not friendly to the group of believers in the Risen Messiah Jesus. (I’m getting worried about what is going to happen.) Let’s read some more from Acts. “So in secret, the men bribed others to lie: ‘We heard him cursing Moses and God.’ That stirred up the people, the religious leaders, and religion scholars. They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council. ”
Ah. The High Council. In other words, the religiously powerful. I see them as those who block access to God. As a United Methodist commentary says, “those who use and interpret the Law in order to control access to God’s gifts. It seems that Stephen is so good at doling out ‘life abundant’ to anyone and everyone, that the religiously powerful go to unscrupulous lengths to stop him from doing what they perceive to be their job exclusively.”
Stephen continues to be a stand-out steward of the gifts God has given him. Even in his lengthy defense to the High Council—he takes almost all of Acts chapter 7 to go through the history of the nation of Israel, showing how ungrateful and stiff-necked the Jewish people are.
Just listen to the climax of Stephen’s defense: “And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!”
“At that point [the Council] went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed—he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. He said, ‘Oh! I see heaven open wide and the Son of Man standing at God’s side!’
57-58 “Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them. 59-60 As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, ‘Master Jesus, take my life.’ Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Master, don’t blame them for this sin’—his last words. Then he died.”
As a commentator says, “Even as the council is extinguishing Stephen’s life – stone by hideous stone – he continues to dole out life and grace to them, his killers.”
Radical stewardship, indeed. He gave generously of God’s gifts of life and blessing for other believers. Such a stand-out, he was martyred for his stewardship of his gifts.
Stephen and his example of stewardship stand not only as an example for us, but for the Church Universal, and for the centuries. We can see that “The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.”
This is what this church does. This church has a regular collection of food for the Maine Township Food Pantry. We feed the hungry and provide for God’s table of grace. This congregation shares food—and we share God’s gifts of life—with the hungry, with the vulnerable, with those in need. This is serving in the way that God wants us to serve.
I will adapt Paul Waddell’s words, as he writes for the Center for Christian Ethics: “Christian [stewardship] is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and the unlikable, the weird and the strange, in gratitude to God and in imitation of Christ. For Christians, [stewardship] is not an occasional gesture but a whole way of being. It is not an interruption to our normal way of life but a habit, practice, or virtue that ought consistently to characterize our lives.”
Do you share God’s gifts of life, every day? Do we provide God’s table of grace for others, regularly? God calls each of us to be generous, each day. Be of service, one on one. Be excellent stewards—personally. God is calling, to you, and to me. Won’t you answer?
(My thanks to “Radical Gratitude,” http://www.umfnw.org for several excellent ideas and quotes I used in this sermon. And, my thanks and deep appreciation for Eugene Peterson’s translation of selected verses from Acts 6 and 7; “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”)