July 30, 2000
"A Dangerous Truth"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Acts 7:51-60
After our "Christmas break" last week we continue this week in our study of Acts. The story of the young church continues. The Holy Spirit has empowered believers to speak the Good News of Christ and thousands of people have come to believe in the risen Lord. This week we are confronted by the martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen bluntly spoke the truth before the high priest and he paid for it with his life. This is how it happened: Read Acts 7:51-60.
The scripture I've read is a climax of the story of Stephen. Just reading the end, however, is like coming into the theater late and catching the end of the film or the last half of the play. It's like that family member who wanders in and watches five seconds of the TV show that you've been watching for an hour. They are full of questions. Who is she? What did he do? What happened there? or the best question. . . What's going to happen next? Of course, the questions are frustrating, but it is hard to understand the whole story without a little background.
In the account before us this morning, we've learned that Stephen, the first recorded martyr of the early church, was stoned to death by a group of people who could not bear to hear what he had to say. And we also learn that in the midst of that horrible death Stephen had a vision of the glory of Christ, he knew the assurance of eternal life, and he asked for forgiveness for the very people who ended his life on earth. How did it come to this? Stephen was among the thousands who came to know Jesus Christ through the witness of the apostles. It was soon evident that he stood out among the faithful. When the apostles asked church members to select seven men to assist them in the work of the church, men of good standing, full of Spirit and wisdom, Stephen was the first they chose. They saw him as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3-5). The apostles laid hands on Stephen on the others and charged them to "wait on tables" and to care for those in need. Stephen took his responsibilities seriously and was soon known as a man of grace and power who did great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8).
It should not be surprising to us that this happened. The Holy Spirit had so set the church on fire, that its servants could do nothing else but reflect their belief in Jesus and his presence in their lives. Jesus, on the night before he was to die, reassured his disciples that whoever believed in him would also do the works that he did, and even greater works as Jesus returned to the Father (John 14:12). Stephen was the example of that truth as he ministered to those in need and served the Christian community. And his witness went beyond service to words. He could not help but speak the truth of the Gospel.
Consider the atmosphere of the church of our ancestors. The Holy Spirit empowered them to act and speak in the name of Jesus, and they didn't put their concerns for comfort or status quo before their mandate to witness. There were too many people who did not know the Good News. This experience is not limited to people of another place and time. I recently heard a radio interview with the son of Billy Graham. He is following in his father's footsteps as an evangelist. I must admit that I was cynical when I first heard him. I figured he was an evangelist because growing up in the family he did, it was easy to be one. Billy Graham's son told a different story. He had tried to get as far away from his family as possible. Eventually he found himself doing mission work in a foreign country. And then, as he grew in his knowledge of Christ he felt called to speak about Jesus, to tell everyone he knew. Before he knew it, he was an evangelist just like his father. This vocation, however, did not come to him by the bloodlines of his famous father, but by the saving blood of Jesus Christ.
There were some who spoke to Stephen who were frustrated, because in religious arguments couldn't beat him. His wisdom and the evidence of God's Spirit in him won out every time. In their frustration and jealousy they charged him with blasphemy against Moses and God. They accused him of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and would change the religious customs established by Moses. The people, the elders and the scribes were so stirred by the accusations that they seized Stephen and brought him before the High Priest and the Council of Justice, the Sanhedrin. He was there because he dared to upset the balance of power. His presence posed the challenging question, "Could Jesus Christ have more power than the reigning keepers of the law?" Now Stephen stood accused, as Jesus had been, in the same place that Peter and John had stood before him. Imagine the angry accusers and the religious leaders gathered to find fault with him. And as they stared at him intently they saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). It glowed with light. And perhaps for a moment those gathered recalled that Moses' face had glowed in the same way after an encounter with God.
But they pressed on. The high priest asked, "Are these accusations true?" And Stephen began to tell the story of salvation. He told of the promise God gave to Abraham and the patriarchs, to Moses and the prophets. He reminded the hearers that Israel had not always been faithful, but had turned from God. He told them that the dwelling place of God was not made with human hands, but Heaven was the throne and earth the footstool.
And as we heard this morning, he told the listeners that they were stubborn. While they may carry the mark of circumcision that identified them as in covenant with God, their hearts and their ears had forsaken a relationship with God. They were against the Holy Spirit, just as their ancestors had been, killing God's prophets and eventually killing God's Son. He spoke this dangerous truth: "You have been given the law by angels and you have not kept it." You have been shown the way to live, and you have chosen not to follow.
Before we distance ourselves from the crowd that surrounded Stephen, let us consider the dangerous truth that we might hear from him today. You have been forgiven, saved and shown the way through Jesus Christ to life and yet you hesitate. You have been given the clear commands of love God and love neighbor and yet you do what you want and rationalize that your behavior fits within those commands. You have been promised the power of the Holy Spirit to do God's work in this world and yet you doubt its power or its availability to you. You have been shown the way to live and you have chosen not to follow.
Uncomfortable words? Incendiary words? A dangerous truth?
Those who heard Stephen could not let it go on. They rose up in rage. They would silence him. And Stephen full of the Holy Spirit had a vision of Christ. . . standing in Heaven, ready for action, ready to greet him. Those who heard now physically covered their ears, just as they had covered them to the idea that they needed to walk with God. And rushed him.
They dragged him out of the city and they began to pick up rocks, pelting his body, and Stephen, he prayed. His certainty of salvation, the promise of Jesus Christ is revealed in his words, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:1-3)
And then kneeling, Stephen offered this final prayer, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He was so connected to the forgiving spirit of God through Jesus Christ that he could have no other response to this brutal execution. Forgiveness is the very way of God.
Now, you might conclude that the dangerous truth in the story of Stephen's martyrdom lies with his accusations against a hard-hearted people, devoid of God's Spirit. And it was, in fact, a truth so dangerous that it cost him his earthly life.
But I invite you to consider the dangerous truth that confronts each of us in this story. It has to do with how our lives will be lived from this moment on. We are challenged to live fully connected to Christ and open to the Holy Spirit.
Is God's love evident in our words, our actions and our lifestyle choices? Is the story of our own salvation one we're ever ready to share with another? Are we ready to take chances in the name of our faith, trusting in the protection of Jesus Christ? to speak against injustice? to provoke change? to crack the hard shell of hypocrisy? to proclaim a forgiveness that goes beyond all human understanding? to take our life direction from God's Spirit?
If we say "yes" to these things then the dangerous truth is that living as faithful Christians is not easy, and the stones may fly. But our hope, the hope that gave Stephen the face of an angel in the midst of death, is in Jesus Christ. In Jesus is our salvation, in his Spirit is our overcoming power. All glory to God for this truth.