Sunday, May 14, 2017

At the end, a beginning

Scripture:   Acts 7:55-60

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then 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. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then 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.


It’s Mother’s Day.  A day that strikes fear into the hearts of preachers everywhere, even more than Easter, if that’s possible. This is considered by some to be the 2nd most important Sunday of the church year - the day when many women in the congregation are proudly accompanied by children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren, secretly hoping that the preacher will say the exact right words to bring those kids back to this church again next Sunday.   And here I am, preaching on the stoning of Stephen.  Not exactly typical Mother’s Day fare.  You know, I really don’t try to be contrary.  It just sort of works out that way.  But bear with me, and it may all become clear.

First, let’s talk about Stephen.  Poor Stephen.  He really does get neglected.  Most of the time when this passage comes around, we use it as an opportunity to talk about Paul, because Paul’s journey to being arguably the most influential of all the early evangelists begins when “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  No one really talks much about Stephen at all.  It’s like a bride being upstaged at her wedding.  But Stephen himself is an important person. His story needs to be more than a backdrop to Saul’s conversion.

We first hear about Stephen in the 6th chapter of Acts, when he is the first of a group of seven men selected to oversee the distribution of food to the widows, so that both Greek and Hebrew women are served equally.  We are told that Stephen is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and grace and power, a persuasive speaker, someone who always bested opponents in debate because of his great wisdom.  False witnesses, bribed by men who were tired of being beaten by Stephen’s rhetoric and Spirit, told the Temple council that he had blasphemed against the law of Moses and spoken against the Temple.  When they called him to defend himself, they looked and “saw that his face was like the face of an angel”.  When he began to speak, he reminded them of the covenant God made with Abraham. He told them how the people had rebelled against Moses and rejected the Word of God.  He told them that God decreed a tent for God’s dwelling place, and that the Temple was the work of man, not God. He told them they had rejected God’s covenant in their hearts and minds, murdering those who prophesied the Righteous One, and killing the Christ.  He said, “You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it!”  And then, “54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.[j] 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”  And when he was about to die, Stephen, like Jesus before him, asked God to forgive them.

Stephen’s martyrdom is, indeed, the beginning of Saul’s journey to Christ, but it is so much more than that.   It is the end of the Temple leadership’s fear of the crowds.  Up to this point, in the book of Acts, the leaders of the Temple have been afraid to take strong measures against these Jesus followers because they feared the crowds would turn on them.  Peter and others preached with such fire and strength that even when chastising the Temple leadership in the strongest of terms, they felt powerless to stop them.   That ends here.  From this point forward, the gloves come off.  Imprisonment and execution for blasphemy are about to become reality for Jesus followers.   Some will continue to preach openly, courting martyrdom.  And like Stephen, they will face their martyrdom with courage and faith.  His example will guide them.  But many believers will go underground or flee the city for their safety.  

So it is a beginning.  Fleeing from Jerusalem, members of the early church will spread out to other cities, joining those believers who had gone back to their homes after their conversion on Pentecost, starting house churches, speaking to other Jews about Jesus the Messiah.  The Word of God through Christ will begin to spread throughout the communities of Jews in all of the cities of Asia, even as far away as Rome.  (Mind you, it will remain within the Jewish community until Paul shows up.  It is Paul who will carry the Word to the non-Jews, the Gentiles.)   Stephen’s courageous death sets an example for all of them, even the ones who leave Jerusalem, because from this time forward, faithful followers of Christ will proudly admit to their beliefs even if it means their imprisonment or death.  They will follow his lead and his example, forgiving those who persecute them.  The company of believers is about to become the Church Universal, for real.  

I had no idea how much my life was going to change after the baby was born.”   Yesterday at the Christian Women’s Fellowship meeting we talked about mothers.  Dawn told us that she had once heard a woman say that, and of course we all laughed.  Life is never the same after the baby is born.  Your life is no longer your own, after the baby is born.  Every moment belongs to that child, even when she isn’t living at home anymore.  Even when he is grown up wth children of his own.   We told stories of things we had learned from our mothers, and how those things had influenced our lives.  Mothers taught us to read, and we are lovers of reading.  Mothers taught us to relax about the small stuff, and not worry if there are Legos all over the living room floor when company arrives.  Mothers taught us to embrace our role, whatever it may be, and we are empowered to do things we didn’t think we could.  Even those of us with difficult relationships with our mothers, still learned from them, still gained insight and knowledge from them.  The things we learned early on from our mothers are things that will guide our lives.  We may find ourselves being more like our mothers than we ever expected.  I mean, how many times have you heard someone say, “OMG!  I have become my mother!” or maybe even said it yourself?  Usually it is in some child-rearing situation.  Maybe you say to your teenaged child something you swore, as a teenager, you would never say to your child.  Of course, every mother - even step and foster mothers -  quickly develops an extra set of eyes in the back of her head, as well as an almost spooky sense of when that child is doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing, and we realize that we are doing what our own mothers did with and for us.  We realize that what we have learned from our mothers is guiding us along our own life’s journey.  

Just as that young mother had no idea how much her life would change after the baby was born, the followers of Jesus had no idea that everything would change after that day.   Stephen’s stoning didn’t end the movement, or even slow it down.  Rather, it accelerated and empowered it.  Stephen’s martyrdom proved that God’s Word cannot be stopped.  Even death cannot stop it.  For just as the pain of child birth ushers a new child into our lives, so Stephen’s martyrdom mothered the new church into the next stage in its growth.  His death, his end, is a new beginning. Just as the example of our own mothers guides our lives in the way we grow, so Stephen’s example will guide the infant church into its next phase.  Stephen’s death is the spark that spread the Light out into the world, sending believers out from Jerusalem into Samaria and Greece and everywhere Jews could be found.  The apostles had been told to begin their ministry in Jerusalem, but now they will spread out.  Believers and preachers of the Word of God will soon cover the entire earth, proudly proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.   

My sisters and brothers, the Good News is that nothing can stop the Word of God.  Even Stephen’s death couldn’t slow down the movement of the Holy Spirit  that had its beginning in Christ’s death and resurrection.  That spark that ignited the fire of the Holy Spirit, throughout the world, that spark that lit up the whole world through the power of  God’s love, is now passed to us.  When we go from this place, let us take that spark and pass it on, to everyone we encounter.  

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