August 7, 2016 “Forgiving Truth” – Acts 6:8 – 7:2, 7:51 – 8:1
Acts 6:8 – 7:2, 7:51 – 8:1
August 7, 2016 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
As Olympic track events begin in Rio this Friday, folks in Oregon will be watching for English Gardner in the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter relay. She’s a Duck who turned in an incredible performance here a month ago as she broke a world record in the Olympic trials for the 100-meter and became the fourth fastest sprinter in the U.S. and the seventh fastest in the world. She did this after a serious knee injury in 2008 that ended all her athletic scholarship offers from every school but the University of Oregon. And she didn’t quite make it on the Olympic team in 2012. So her victory is remarkable.
It is even more remarkable, as some of you may remember, that after winning that race here in Eugene last month, she dropped to her knees on camera before the world and began to exclaim, “Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Oh God I praise you, I give you so much glory.” The video of that moment of worship went viral and has been watched a hundred thousand times.
I took a few moments and read some comments on YouTube about her act of praise to Jesus. There were many appreciative of her public prayer of thanks, but also a number of people who said vicious and nasty things about that witness. One commenter said it was “overdramatic.” Others said they “cringed” watching it, while yet another said it was stupid for a black person to worship a white God. Someone else thought she needed mental help and another called her an idiot.
Just like it did in Jerusalem in the first century, public faith in Jesus generates both like and dislike, appreciation and hatred. We see it beginning here in our text today with Stephen the deacon. Speaking faith in Jesus aloud causes people to react.
As we read last week, Stephen was a Hellenist Christian, part of the Greek-speaking Jewish community. As he spoke about Jesus and even did miracles as verse 8 tells us, the reaction came from his own circle. Other Jews from beyond Jerusalem, from a Greek-speaking synagogue of the “Freedmen,” responded with anger. Verse 9 identifies them as Jews from northern Africa and Asia. They “stood up and argued with Stephen.”
They felt threatened by Stephen’s witness, just like people today may feel threatened when they see a Christian do well and attribute her success to her Lord. So they stood up, but verse 10 says they could not stand up to Stephen in debate. His God-given wisdom and the Holy Spirit gave too much strength to his words. They could not prove him wrong.
So in verse 11, when arguing about the truth failed, Stephen’s opponents, like many people in public discussions, turned to lies. They found men to start rumors that he was blaspheming against Jewish faith, against Moses and God. Verse 12 shows us that the rumors managed to turn both the general populace and the authorities against Stephen.
You might think Stephen’s own people, Jews who came from the wider world, would have been more tolerant. But these were people who had moved long distances to make their home in the central city of Jewish faith. You could call them “Zionists,” Jewish nationalists, with all the zeal of foreigners trying to prove they really do belong in their new home. They called themselves “Freedmen,” free now in Jerusalem to truly worship as Jews. They were acting on what they perceived as a threat to that freedom.
Turning the people against a Christian was something new. Until now Jewish leadership had opposed the new faith, but this was the first time the general populous got riled up about it. The Freedmen seized the opportunity to seize Stephen and haul him before the Council, the Sanhedrin. There they trumped up more lies, based in false charges originally made against Jesus. In verse 14, lying witnesses said Stephen taught that Jesus would come and destroy the temple and change the law of Moses.
In our Gospel reading from Luke 12, Jesus told us not to be afraid and warned us to be alert and ready. Stephen had learned that lesson. Far from giving into fear, verse 15 says that when the council looked at him, “they saw his face was like the face of an angel.” Accused of attacking Moses, Stephen was given the blessing Moses received, a face glowing with the light of God’s own presence. In the “face” of that, they had to let him speak. In verse 16, the high priest asked for his response.
Stephen’s self-defense fills most of chapter 7. It was a history lesson. Stephen told a story the Sanhedrin knew as well as he did. He spoke God’s dealings with Israel and their rebellion against God and the leaders He gave them. He talked at length about Moses, reminding them how the Moses whom they wanted to defend had himself been rejected and ignored by people like them.
After Moses, Stephen quickly covered the building of the temple, the sacred structure supposedly being threatening. In verse 49 he quoted Isaiah 66, “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord.” Stephen’s point was that Jewish defense of the temple is wrongheaded. God didn’t live there. He is the creator of everything.
Verses 51 to 53 wrap it all up by turning Stephen’s defense into an accusation against his accusers, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” In other words, the historical record shows that it’s actually the leaders of Israel who did what Stephen was accused of, who blasphemed and did not keep the law of Moses, as he says in verse 53.
Most of all, though, like Peter constantly told this same group of authorities, they had murdered God’s chosen one, “the Righteous One,” as Stephen calls Jesus in verse 52. Their ancestors killed God’s prophets and they themselves had killed God’s Son.
Jesus taught us to be ready and alert for times of persecution. I Peter 3:15 tells us to be always ready to offer a defense for what we believe and how we live. Stephen was ready. He was ready because he knew God’s Word, the Hebrew Bible, as well as those accusing him. That’s why we make such a big deal out of Bible reading here, why we’re going to immerse ourselves in it this fall. We cannot defend the faith we live if we do not know it well. If we want to be like Stephen, we need to follow his example and know the Scriptures.
Do we really want to be like Stephen? That’s the question. Look at his courage and you may ask, “Could I do that? Could I hold onto my faith if my life was on the line?” I ask that question of myself with a particular earnest because I’m named after him. Could I live up to my name? I don’t know, but the only way to be ready for such a challenge is to stay faithful like he did, to keep speaking the truth and remaining committed.
We learn faithfulness in the big moments by our faithfulness in the small moments. Come to worship even when you don’t feel like it. Keep serving in the nursery or cleaning our buildings when you’re really tired of it. Make time for prayer and Bible study when there’s other work to be done or fun to be had. Make peace with someone in the church you don’t get along with. Give enough that it hurts. Over and over, in small ways, we practice faithfulness to Jesus. In the process, we become more like Stephen, faithful enough to be faithful when it’s truly hard.
The last verses always choke me up. It my name there again, and I wonder if I could die like Stephen. Verse 54 tells how his last remarks infuriated his listeners. But he was no longer paying attention to them. His passion carried him into a vision. He looked up into heaven and saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” In the Apostles’ Creed we say and in the rest of the New Testament we read that Jesus is seated at God’s right hand. Yet Stephen saw Him standing. Some people suggest Jesus stood up for Stephen, to welcome him into his presence.
When Stephen told the Sanhedrin what he saw, in verse 56 calling Jesus the “Son of Man,” which means the Messiah, it was the last straw. They lost all reason. They covered their ears and shouted so they wouldn’t hear anymore. They rushed to drag him out of the city in token piety, because blood could not be shed in the supposedly holy city.
Unlike Jesus’ crucifixion, Stephen’s execution was totally illegal. The Sanhedrin could not render a death penalty without Roman approval. That’s what Pilate was all about in the Gospels. But this was a lynch mob. In verse 58, they stripped off their outer garments so they could throw their rocks with more force. But Stephen had a little more to say.
As the stones struck him, says verse 59, as each blow drained the blood and the life from his body, he prayed a child’s prayer. It was much like Jesus’ prayer on the Cross. It was what every Jewish child learned to pray from Psalm 31:5 when going to sleep, “receive my spirit.” Except Stephen knew Jesus, knew that Jesus was God. So he asked Jesus to receive his spirit. In verse 60 instead of writing that Stephen “died,” Luke tells us that, like a child trusting God, “he fell asleep.”
Before we consider Stephen’s very last words, let me go back to those comments about English Gardner on YouTube. It was sad to read those critical and hateful remarks about her, but it was even sadder to read a few supposedly Christian responses to those negative comments. After one person said he cringed, someone responded with a vulgar suggestion and said, “it’s called being grateful.” Another thread included a couple of Christians using another obscenity to express how they thought non-Christians think.
Responding to attacks on our faith with our own attacks is a temptation which Christians have succumbed to down through the ages, whether it’s been by military force or by the sort of apologetic argument that delights in displaying the stupidity of non-believers. But Stephen shows us what our true and best response looks like.
Stephen imitated some of Jesus’s last words asking God to receive his Spirit, but then the very first Christian to die in a long line of men and women and children who have laid down their lives for Jesus imitated his Lord in a deeper, more profound way. Like Jesus on the Cross again, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Bloody and broken by rocks, Stephen was faithful to His Lord who taught him to forgive his enemies.
Stephen’s forgiving prayer had an effect he could not foresee. One of his enemies, one of those covered by that prayer, was the young man who stood looking after the garments of those who flung the stones, a young man named Saul, says verse 58. Chapter 8 verse 1 ends what we read today, “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”
For now, all we learn about Saul in the next two verses is his leadership of an intense campaign of Christian persecution. Christian men and women fled for their lives to places throughout Judea and Samaria. But they took the Gospel with them. Next week we will see another deacon Philip landing in Samaria and sharing Jesus there.
But that persecution and dispersing of Christians was not all that happened. Stephen prayed for his enemies to be forgiven. He prayed for Saul. And the next chapter of Acts is the story of Saul’s salvation. Stephen’s dying prayer was answered by taking Saul the church’s worst persecutor and transforming him into Paul the church’s greatest missionary. Augustine said, “If Stephen had not prayed, the church would not have had Paul.”
Stephen and many other Christians like English Gardner teach us to be bold about sharing the truth of our faith, our confidence in a Savior who died and rose again and lives to save and help us today. But Stephen especially shows us how that witness happens best, with a forgiving love even for those who misunderstand and hurt us.
Some of you may have seen a video of a 10-year old Christian Iraqi girl being interviewed on a Mideast Christian television station. She and her family had been driven into exile by the Islamic State. The interviewer asked little Myriam, “what are your feelings toward those who drove you out of your home and caused you hardships?” She replied, “I won’t do anything to them, I will only ask God to forgive them.”
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. The word “martyr” means “witness.” The truth of our faith in Jesus is displayed in its greatest power when Christians stay faithful to Jesus through the worst hardships. And it is especially confirmed when, just like Jesus, they forgive those who cause those hardships.
Stephen stayed faithful and forgave because he kept his eyes on his model, on the one who was faithful and forgave him. His last sight on earth was Jesus Christ in heaven. May you and I have that kind of vision, our eyes focused clearly on Jesus. Then if we need to defend our faith, we will be able to do it as Peter said, with gentleness and forgiveness toward others and reverence for Jesus in whom we’ve placed that faith.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj