May 10, 2020 Zoom
When I introduce the job of deacon to newly elected deacons, I go to the Book of Acts and tell them the story of Stephen. But not the story Darlene read today. I don't really want them thinking they have taken on a job that will get them stoned to death. Today's passage from Acts is just the conclusion of the story of Stephen, the first Martyr.
Stephen is introduced in the previous chapter, in the very earliest days of the church. Jesus has ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit has come, the disciples have found a replacement for Judas so there are twelve again. And the church is meeting regularly. And part of their meetings included feeding the people. Property was held in common and goods were distributed by the twelve apostles. But some of the church members, the people from Greece, felt that the food distribution was not fair. They thought the native Hebrews were being favored. When this was brought to the attention of the Apostles, Luke records, ”And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”' So they asked the people to nominate seven well respected members to become table waiters/deacons. This is the part I teach so they don't get too puffed up over being a deacon. A deacon is a table waiter.
Long story a little longer, Stephen was popular and effective in his ministry which inspired jealousy which led to betrayal and arrest. Stephen then was taken before the council to give his defense. He gave a lengthy defense, in fact Philip Ruge Jones tells us this about the speech Stephen gave, “It is more than twice the length of any single proclamation by Peter. When Paul comes into his own, his longest sermons do not come close to touching Stephen’s duration. In fact, even Jesus didn’t preach a single sermon in Luke that could come close to what Stephen has proclaimed.”
We don't have time for the sermon, but here is Stephen's conclusion, “'You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers' When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” And then they killed him.
We don't know much about Stephen; he was a Greek Jew, he may or may not have been married, he was, according to the author of Acts, “ a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit...(he was) full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs.” What wonders and signs? We aren't told.
But he did get on the wrong side of some people in the synagogue who trumped up charges and brought him before the Sanhedrin. You remember the Sanhedrin? They
heard trumped up charges against Jesus too. But they'd learned that going through the Roman authorities got too messy. For Stephen, they supported the old custom of stoning a blasphemer to death.
In his sermon, Stephen had given a history of the failure of the leaders of the nation of Israel to recognize the servants of God. Jesus came as a servant of God and was rejected and killed. As far as we know, Stephen never met Jesus in the flesh, but he was one of those of whom Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Stephen believed to the point of dying for the savior.
Have you ever wondered about what would happen if we were asked to choose Jesus or safety? I pray none of us face that choice. But 21 years ago there was an incident that reminds me of Stephen's life and death. Columbine is a name that causes us all to shudder a bit. But a story of a modern martyr has come out of the violence of that day.
Rachel Scott was a student at Columbine. She was killed that day. But in the aftermath, we learned a few things about her, both in the accounts of her death and in her diary. She wrote, “I have no more personal friends at school, But you know what? I am not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus. I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put into me. If I have to sacrifice everything I will. I will take it. If my friends have to become my enemies for me to be with my best friend Jesus, then that’s fine with me.”
She was walking the talk at her school. She was, like Stephen, a part of the kingdom Jesus brought into being. According to reports, three weeks before the shooting, Rachel had tried to explain her faith to the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They too were bullied, outcasts and they really didn’t have any friends. But Rachel knew that they needed was Jesus. Unfortunately, they were not willing to listen and in fact they made videotapes mocking her Christian faith.
On that fateful day, Dylan and Eric shot Rachel twice. When they came back a bit later and saw she wasn't dead, they asked, “Do you still believe in your God?” When her unflinching and unwavering response was, “You Know I Do.” Eric told her, “Then go be with him,” and he shot her in the head.
A tragic story. Hard to hear. But for the many martyrs through the centuries, their passion for Jesus exceeded their passion for life without Jesus. And I'm not going to ask you to project a situation where you have to make that choice. But I will ask this, does your passion for Jesus exceed your passion for sleeping in on Sunday morning? Does your passion for Jesus exceed your need for security and a hefty checkbook balance? Does it exceed your desire for time to do whatever you want?
Jesus doesn't call very many to die for him, but he does call all of us to live for him. What that looks like will be different for every individual Christian. But I want us all to examine how we are doing at making Jesus a priority in our lives.
I'm reading a book right now, Children of the Storm. It was passed on to me from our granddaughter Ariel. It is the story of the Russian persecution of the church as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Natasha Vins. Her father was a Baptist preacher in the 1960's while the Soviets were doing all they could to destroy the church. Followers of Jesus had to meet in secret and were always in danger of arrest. The government broke up churches, split up families, arrested church leaders. But this passion to destroy the church could not destroy the passion of the people to gather as the people of God.
Our current corona-virus situation pales in comparison to the suffering of our fore bearers. But we are feeding our passion for gathering in the name of Jesus right now, through the airwaves. No one is going to break down your front door to arrest you. I, your pastor, won't be sent to Siberia for 7 ½ years like the father of Natasha. No one is going to drag you out and stone you to death. And yet, in this comfortable knowledge, we are in danger of losing our edge, losing our passion. Gathering with fellow believers, whether in secret in the woods or via Zoom sitting in our living rooms, we are strengthened by the fellowship we share.
In our gospel reading, we find a passage often read at funeral's because Jesus is speaking words of comfort to his disciples the night before he died on the cross. But maybe we, especially in the midst of our separation and isolation, may resonate more with the question of Thomas, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Where are you going with this worldwide virus? Where are you going with the new restrictions and divisions we see in society? Where are you going with inequities, unemployment, hunger, loneliness? And the answer Jesus gave Thomas, we do well to hear today, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” It is not given to us to know the why and the what next and the who's next. Ours is to follow the way. To live the truth. And accept the gift of life; not just being alive but having life to the fullest. Life filled with the Spirit. Life lived showing honor and obedience to the Lord.
We are not promised an easy life without issues, but we are promised abundant life. And that comes by recognizing and living with and for Jesus. May we know and trust the promises of Jesus, may we develop a greater passion for the things of God, and may we know the love of God. Amen.
And we honor today-- mothers; those who have given us life, our mothers who have nurtured us, taught us, rocked us and loved us. Most of us. Some of us do not get a mother capable of caring for a child. Some of us lost their mother early in life. And some long to be a mother who can nurture their baby. The why's about these sorrows are not ours to know either. But a passion for Jesus can help fill those voids. We are singing a hymn that has a familiar tune but the words may be new. The Tune is Faith of our Father about the men who lived and died for the church. Today we recognize Mothers as those who nurture and care for their families. Faith of Our Mothers