November 15, 2009
Luke 12:4-12; Acts 6:8-15; 7:54 – 8:3
We are continuing our sermon series from the book of Acts this morning by looking at the martyrdom of Stephen.
In the book of Acts, the story of suffering and persecution for Christians moves from a “warning in chapter 4”, to a “beating in chapter 5”, and now finally Stephen is the first Christian martyr in chapter 7.
Being a martyr for our Christian faith is not something most of us know much about today.
How many of you know someone personally who has been martyred for their Christian faith?
How many of you have heard of anyone in the United States in the last 20 years who has been martyred for their Christian faith?
In the United States, most Christians know very little about suffering or dying for their faith. In fact, my guess is that most of us have a hard time imagining that we would suffer for our faith in the United States.
Yet the reality is that Christian martyrdom is not a thing of the past.
I am told that in the 20th century more people have died for their Christian faith than in all previous centuries combined.
And for every one who has died – there have been many more who have been persecuted and risked death for following Jesus.
In many parts of the world today, and for most of church history, Christians have been suffering and dying for their faith.
Our own history as Mennonites is full of stories of those who died for their faith. Many of the early Anabaptists were “burned at the stake alive” or “drowned” because they refused to compromise their faith in Jesus Christ.
This summer in Europe, I visited a number of sites where Anabaptists were killed.
There is a book entitled “Martyrs Mirror” that tells the story of over 4000 Anabaptists who were killed for their faith.
This book has kept before the Mennonite church the witness of these believers to their faith in the resurrected Jesus.
Most Christian traditions have their own stories of martyrdom because the blood of martyrs has always been the seed of the Christian Church.
And usually the story of Stephen in Acts is one that Christians look back to for encouragement and hope.
The story of Stephen takes place in the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Jerusalem.
The Synagogue of the Freedmen was a synagogue for Greek speaking Jews.
These Greek speaking Jews – called Hellenists – were Jews who had grown up in Greek culture, but had returned to Jerusalem to live.
Many had returned to Jerusalem so they could be near the temple. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and practice.
The temple symbolized God’s presence to them. They believed God dwelt in the temple. The temple was so important to the Hellenists that many of them had invested heavily in repairing the temple out of their own savings.
Now, last Sunday, we learned that Stephen – also a Hellenist – had been chosen to work with food distribution to Hellenist widows. He did that, but he also was a preacher and teacher.
Some of the Hellenists did not like what he was teaching about Jesus, so they made up a bunch of lies about him to get him in trouble with the people.
Stephen is falsely charged with two things:
- He is charged with rejecting Moses and the Law.
- And he is charged with rejecting the temple as a guarantee of God’s presence. (v.14)
All of Acts chapter 7, then, is Stephen’s response to these two charges. This is actually the longest sermon recorded in the bible. He basically retells the whole OT story in his sermon to refute these false charges.
I am not going to read his sermon but I do want to summarize his argument here.
- First, Stephen shows that God’s prophets have always been rejected.
- He tells the story of how Joseph was rejected and sold into slavery. (v. 9)
- Then he tells how Moses led Israel out of Egypt but the people rejected Moses and wanted to return to Egypt (v. 39). They even built a golden calf, so they could have something visible to worship and guide them.
- Then, in verse 52, Stephen says they persecuted all the prophets.
He says – “which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
Stephen argues, from Israel’s history, that they killed the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah and now they have killed the Messiah as well.
Stephen’s argument is that he has not been unfaithful to Moses, but they have – because they rejected Jesus as Messiah.
- Stephen’s second argument is that God’s presence cannot be limited to a building.
Long before there was a temple – Stephen argues – God was present to his people.
- God appeared to Abraham and Sarah and led them to leave home and go to an unknown place. Stephen shows how God was present with them outside the Promised Land.
- Stephen also says – God was with Joseph in Egypt and cared for him in his suffering and trials.
- Next, Stephen argues that God appeared to Moses at Mt. Sinai – on holy land outside the Promised Land. It was there that God gave them the Ten Commandments.
- In the wilderness Israel had no temple – all they had was the “tent of testimony” that traveled with them wherever they went.
- Then Stephen concludes his argument by making this interpretation in verse 48. He says – “yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands.”
Stephen’s argument is that the temple will not guarantee God’s presence. Stephen sees temple worship as a departure from authentic Israel worship.
For Stephen there is no one holy place!
So, for a people who have given their whole life to a particular understanding of Moses and the temple – Stephen’s teaching is simply too much for them to bear and they stone him to death.
As Luke records it here – Stephen dies for his faith much the same way Jesus died. Stephen was accused of the same things Jesus was charged for – blasphemy against Moses and the temple.
And Stephen, like Jesus as he was dying – prays for his murderer’s forgiveness. Stephen prays – “do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen becomes the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.
The question is – what does his story mean for us today? What value does it have for us in our Christian walk?
- I want to suggest this morning that Stephen’s story is important because it reminds us of our Christian vocation to a life lived “with and for others”.
Just as Jesus suffered “with and for others” – so his followers could also be expected to suffer in this life.
One thing that becomes clear in the NT is that Christians saw their own persecutions and sufferings as directly connected to Jesus’ sufferings.
Any suffering they might experience was always connected to being faithful to Jesus.
- In First Peter 2:21 we are told – “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his footsteps.”
- Or in Colossians 1:24 Paul writes that our suffering completes the work of Christ. He says –“I am rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s suffering for the sake of his body the church.”
- Or in Revelation 12:11 Christians are reminded that evil is overcome through suffering and martyrdom. It says – “but they have conquered Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
Stephen, like martyrs of every age since, did not cling to life and his testimony was a powerful witness to overcoming evil with good.
Here is the paradox of the Christian life. Following Jesus is the most life-giving, freeing, liberating, and joyful thing one can do because God forgives us and sets us free for a life of love and service. It is truly the good life!
On the other hand, following Christ is the most difficult thing we will ever do. Since we are called to serve others and to love our enemies – the Christian life can be costly.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor during Hitler’s reign, probably said this best when he called Christians to a “costly grace”.
Bonhoeffer wrote – “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Christ. Costly grace, on the other hand, is grace that calls to discipleship. It is costly because it can cost a person his life. It is grace because it leads him into true life.”
Stephen’s story is important because it reminds us that to be Christian, to follow Christ, can be very costly. And for most Christians in the world – being Christian is a deadly serious matter.
- But the other thing I want to suggest this morning is that – Stephen’s story is important because it inspires hope and courage for all Christians to remain faithful to Jesus amidst a very seductive culture.
Since our country allows religious freedom we can practice our faith without much fear of persecution.
This is a good thing, but it has made it so easy for most Christians in the United States to live mediocre spiritual lives. It has convinced us that Caesar and Christ can happily co-exist.
Stephen’s story reminds us how the early church was on a collision course with the Roman Empire and how today the church is also on a collision course with the empires of our world.
Stephen reminds us that only Jesus is worth living and dying for – not any nation or leader or people group.
Jesus told his disciples in Luke 12 not to “fear those who can kill the body, but to fear only God who can destroy both body and soul.”
When the Mennonites first came to this country they were concerned that the nonviolent teachings of Jesus might be compromised in the face of war. So they had the book Martyrs Mirror reprinted and they put copies of it in the hands of all their young people.
Their hope was that the stories of these Christian martyrs would inspire these young folks to live a consecrated life, to practice greater self-denial, and to remain faithful to Jesus.
My hope today is that the story of Stephen and other Christian martyrs will inspire us to identify with and advocate for those who are suffering in our world.
We do not suffer today – in part – because we often fail to identify ourselves with those on the margins of society or with the poor as Jesus did.
Many people all over the world today suffer from violence and war. But just as much suffering is caused from economic injustice.
I believe that just as Christians today look back on the holocaust and say – “how could that have happened?”
Some day, Christians will look back at the millions and millions of children that die each year from hunger and say – “how could we have let that happen?”
Some day Christians will look back on the billions and billions of dollars we spend on the military instead of on food and shelter for the needy and we will say – “how could we have let that happen?”
Our challenge today is not so much persecution – as it is accommodation and spiritual mediocrity.
The story of Stephen inspires us to proclaim with boldness that Jesus is Lord – not Caesar. It inspires us to love freely and more sacrificially and generously. And it inspires us to be an advocate for the most vulnerable of society.
This is not a call to be a martyr for Jesus. This is a call for us to volunteer for risky duty in Jesus name. When we say “yes to Jesus” none of us really know what that will mean for us.
God never offers us safety or health or wealth, but only to be with us and to give us strength for whatever we face along the way.
As the Gospel of Luke says – just as God sees every sparrow that falls – so God will never lose sight of his friends. No one who gives their life for Christ will be forgotten or lost to God.
I believe God wants to inspire us this morning with hope and courage to remain faithful to Jesus – no matter what the cost.
The story of Stephen reminds us – polite, civil, and fairly comfortable Christians that once there were Christians who quite joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, and even life itself in order to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.
I believe God will give us courage to be faithful in our day – and maybe even give us the grace to discover that the way of Jesus is really the “good life” after all – no matter what it costs us.
So, with the Holy Spirits help and power – let us do something courageous for God! God is with us – and nothing can separate us from the love of God!
Jesus is truly worth living and dying for!