Sermon - The Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 19-20, 2008 - Text: Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60
Dear Friends in Christ,
Ideas are dangerous things. They could get someone killed. In fact most people who have been killed throughout the history of the world have been killed for some idea. One such dangerous idea was that of personal liberty. People like Nathan Hale, died for it. Another such dangerous idea was that all human beings are created equal. In order to transform this idea into reality, men died. Lot’s of men died in the American Civil War. The first man of rank to die was Colonel Elmer Ellsworth killed in a raid on Alexandria, Virginia. He was laid in state in the White House and his elaborate funeral was held in New York City. Many cities were named in his honor, including Ellsworth, Wisconsin. Another dangerous idea that many seek to crush is that there is any possible origin of life apart from Darwinian Evolution. The movie “Expelled” open to packed theaters last night challenging this orthodoxy. Another dangerous idea that must be silenced is that our refusal to fulfill the promises we made to the South Vietnamese government led to millions of people dying. Likewise the idea that man made global warming might not be real must be crushed. How will scientists get their grant money if people don’t think the sky is falling? The most dangerous idea of all is that God became flesh, dwelt among man, died for the sins of the world, and rose again victorious over sin and death. This idea is so dangerous that anyone foolish enough to actually believe this must be marginalized, abused, silenced and even killed.
It is for this reason that many of the Old Testament prophets were killed or imprisoned. Isaiah was beheaded. Elijah was hunted. Jeremiah was imprisoned. Numerous other, lesser known, prophets were killed or imprisoned in the Old Testament. Christ Himself was put to death to silence his accusations against the unfaithfulness of the Jewish leaders, whose descendants are with us to this day, even within the Christian church. Nor did this stop with the death of Christ, as we see in our text. The suppression, abuse and even murder of those who dare to speak the truth continued unabated.
Who was Stephen? Stephen was Hellenistic Jew who lived in Jerusalem in the first century. A Hellenistic Jew was one who, though Jewish, adopted many ways from the Greco-Roman culture around them. We know that Stephen is a Hellenistic Jew because he had a Greek name, rather than a Jewish name. According to Christian tradition, which is probably correct, he was stoned to death by a Jewish mob on December 26, 33 A.D., that is eight months after the death and resurrection of Christ. We don’t know when he came to faith in Christ. Perhaps he was part of the larger group of disciples that is described in the book of Acts, that existed prior to Pentecost. We are told there were 120 people in that larger group. Perhaps Stephen was a Pentecost convert. Perhaps he joined the Christian Church some time after that. He was a man who knew the Scriptures extraordinarily well. He was also immediately recognized as a man of great character. We are told that there was a dispute in those early months. The church in Jerusalem provided support for Christian widows. Now we must understand that in those days there were many young women who were widowed. Typically such women became prostitutes. The church offered them an honorable alternative. This support for young widows would evolve into the later nuns and convents. Some women felt they were getting slighted in the supported provided by the church because they Hellenistic Jews. So they appointed seven helpers, or deacons, to over see this work. Stephen was one of the seven. Two of these men, Stephen and Philip, became directly involved in apologetics and evangelism as well. It was during such an apologetics endeavor that Stephen was stoned. The Jewish leaders did not want to hear the truth of Christ. They stopped up their ears, both literally and figuratively to the truth that Stephen spoke.
This is still true today. Many will try to attack anyone who dares to stand up for the truth of Christ. We see this even in our own community. One of the main tactics of those who would silence voice of Christ is to say that all religions are really just different path to the same God. Since the various religions not only use different names for god, but also describe deities of radically different character, this is absurd on the face it. It is irrational. But more important than this, is that Christ Himself specifically tells us that this is false. “Jesus said..., ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6) Further Christ warns of false messiahs on numerous occasions. The book of Acts echoes this as well: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) In fact the idea that we must be connected to God by the names He has revealed - Christ - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Yahweh, and so forth, is central throughout Scripture. Finally in the Apocalypse of John we read many warnings in the letters to the churches about denying the name of Jesus. We must say with firm conviction that anyone who says that Christianity is but one of many ways to god, that Christians and others, like Muslims, worship the same god, are not in any way Christians and they will not be in heaven. It does matter how much they claim to be Christians, they are not. And if we fail to boldly confess against this, we place our own salvation at risk. And yet, we see all too often that those who teach this falsehood will brook no opposition and will seek to crush all who oppose them.
Stephen finally gives us the proper attitude toward those who persecute us. “‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” If we have the mind of Christ within us, we do not want our worst enemy to be sent to hell. We pray that they would come to see their error by our bold confession. We know that many will not, but there are always some who do. In this, the stoning of Stephen is instructive. The man who whipped up the crowd was a young Jew named Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a man consumed with the destruction of the Christian Church. He would arrest many for being Christians and was even sent out by the Sanhedrin to arrest Christians in the city of Damascus. But on his way to Damascus, Saul was confronted by the risen Christ. Acknowledging his sins, Saul would become the great missionary St. Paul. We never know what God has in mind. God has a sense of irony, or as He puts it Scripture, God works in mysterious ways.
The Church has faced persecution in every age. Yet, we must confess Christ. He alone is our savior from sin and death. Apart from Him and His great gifts of life and salvation, we have no hope. There is no other way to avoid the flames of hell. We know that we may be abused and at certain times and places may even be killed. But then our Lord also was put to death, so can we expect anything less. Yet, we know that our reward is secure, because it is a free gift from Christ to all who trust in and confess His name. And sharing the mind of Christ, we do not wish ill upon our persecutors. We hope and pray that they,like St. Paul, come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved.