Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-8:1a
3rd Sunday after Easter
St Barbara’s Church; 17.04.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Some moments, no matter how small, can remain etched in one’s memory. I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday as a child watching on TV an FA Cup final between Arsenal and Man Utd in the 1970s, and though I supported neither team, I immediately went outside after the game and played as if I were the winning side, copying their moves, imitating their shimmies, scoring their goals, and of course giving myself a running TV commentary as I did so! I saw; I was inspired; I wanted to do likewise.
I wonder if any of you have similar memories – if not of sports, maybe of great musicians, or of people brilliant in their jobs; or great public figures. How many of us have watched TV documentaries or read biographies of inspiring individuals and been inspired ourselves. Inspired to act a bit different ourselves, to try and emulate, may be in a somewhat smaller way, their courage, or their determination, their compassion, or their love.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is a bit like those biographies. The author, Luke, who has written a Gospel to share with us the life of Christ, now writes this book to share with us the life of the early church, and in doing so he gives us insights into the lives of Christians to inspire us and envision us, both as individuals and as a community of faith.
Starting last week with the conversion of Paul, we will be taking the next few weeks to look at some of those inspiring stories. If you haven’t read the book of Acts before, it is probably one of the easiest books in the Bible to read from start to finish, so do give it a go. Well today, we look at the life of Stephen.
We first come across Stephen when a problem arises in the early church. The church in Jerusalem, after the events of Pentecost, has been growing at an extraordinary rate. Hundreds of people have come to believe in Jesus and have joined the church. But such growth has brought problems. The administrative structures that had worked so well up to now couldn’t cope with the strain. The leaders of the church had been taking responsibility for receiving gifts from church members and making sure that these gifts were then used to meet the needs of the many widows who the church was caring for. But they couldn’t cope with the workload, things weren’t working as smoothly as they once had, and people were getting upset and grumbling. Some of you who are in committees in the church or help to organise events and activities may occasionally be able to identify with that!
Well, the answer the leaders come up with is to appoint more people to take responsibility for these tasks, one of whom is Stephen. It is worth noting that though the job was essentially practical – how to make sure all the widows in the church got a fair amount of the daily distribution of food – the church leaders sought out those who were known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to do the job. In other words, people who would bring God’s love to the role.
If we help to lead or serve in our church, in whatever capacity, whether that is on the PCC, or in sub-committees, or through serving teas and coffees, or on the work party – it is so important that we do so in the Spirit – with love, grace and wisdom. That counts for more than any amount of skill or expertise we may bring. Getting things done matters far less than the love for others with which we do them. And far too often, I’m guilty, and maybe others of us are too, of thinking its the other way round – of thinking that getting the job done is more important than the way we treat people. Serving in the Spirit, with love, must always come first.
From the outset then, we discover that Stephen was a person ready to serve. He was also a person ready to witness, willing to share with others about his faith.
A couple of weeks ago we had a family weekend in the city of Chester. We had a fantastic time there, but I confess that I had some initial reservations about going. The last time I had been in Chester was almost 30 years ago, when as an enthusiastic teenager I had spent a week stopping people in the street and telling people about my faith. I came away disheartened by the lack of interest, but at least I didn’t have to face them again. (I guess that’s why I slightly feared going back – would someone recognise me from thirty years ago and take me to task?) It can be far harder to share our faith with people we do know, because their disapproval matters more to us.
The striking thing about Stephen is that he shared his faith amongst the community he knew best. Stephen is a Greek name, and he would almost certainly have been a Greek-speaking (what was called Hellenist) Jew, and would have attended the Greek-speaking synagogue mentioned in our reading. It is this community, within which he had grown up, that he chooses to share his faith, and who take such great umbrage with what he says. How hard that must have been for Stephen. The criticism of strangers is one thing; the criticism of those one knows much harder.
Stephen shares the message of Christ not out of guilt but out of love: love for God, for the news of Christ’s resurrection is so incredible he just can’t contain it; and love for others, for how can he keep such good news to himself – surely it has to be shared.
If you are like me, the thought of sharing one’s faith does not come easily. How do I find the words to say? How do I do it in a way that doesn’t provoke a negative reaction? Well, if you don’t feel you have the confidence to initiate conversation, then the words of Peter in one of his letters may be helpful: “always be prepared to give a gentle and respectful answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” In other words, live such a life of love and faith that people themselves will initiate the conversation, intrigued to find out what motivates you to act as you do.
I am always encouraged and challenged by one member of one of our home groups who works in a particularly difficult, stressful and at times un-godly environment. But because of the way they are – the way they treat others, the way they respond to sudden crises, the fact they have a prayer stuck on the side of their desk – means that colleagues are genuinely interested to know about their faith and will ask questions.
I wonder, when was the last time someone asked us about our faith?
A readiness to serve; a readiness to witness; a readiness to forgive.
Two hundred years before Christ, Jerusalem had suffered from a foreign king who had gone out of his way to offend every sensibility, to destroy everything sacred or holy about the Jewish faith. Many Jews chose to die the death of martyrs rather than renounce their faith. But as they died, they prayed that God would reap his vengeance upon their persecutors, that they would suffer eternal torment for the torment they had inflicted on themselves.
Today, we have become all too aware of suicide bombers, seeking martyrdom for their faith, but in dying wanting to cause maximum death and misery to those who they see as their enemies.
Contrast that with Stephen. As the rocks and stones rain down on him, smashing his bones, causing fatal injuries, he cries out for his persecutors to receive not vengenace, not even justice, but mercy: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In doing so, he echoes the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
At the very heart of the Christian faith is the call to forgive, to love one’s enemies. And if Stephen could do it whilst being stoned to death, how much more should we be willing to do it, where the blows we receive may be emotional, but rarely are they fatal.
A readiness to serve; a readiness to witness; a readiness to forgive; and finally, Stephen had a readiness to die.
Stephen was willing to die for his faith – so important was it to him – but he was also ready to die. He was in a place where he could welcome death without fear. He receives a remarkable vision of heaven, and of Christ stood by the right hand of God, and realises that heaven is the eternal reality that awaits him. That the suffering of this life is temporary; the joy of heaven is eternal. And therefore he is able to offer his life up into the hands of God. Again, echoing the words of Jesus himself on the cross: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
I have had the privilege of accompanying one or two people in the last few weeks and months of their lives who have found a real serenity, a real peace, as they approached their deaths. They may not have had the dramatic vision that Stephen had, but through prayer, they have come to a place of seeing the heavenly reality alongside the earthly one, and that vision has given them the strength and the hope to help them die in peace.
None of us know when we will die, but we, like Stephen, can prepare ourselves for that day. We can begin to look for the signs of heaven that speak of the life that is to come. Over the course of the next week, why not specifically look for signs of heaven, signs of the love of God, around you. They may be in the smile of a friend, the warmth of the sun, the thoughtfulness of a colleague, the beauty of the world around you. Why not take time each day, even for just one minute, and stop and ask, “when have I experienced something of God’s presence, something of his love, a glimpse of heaven, this day?” For the more we look, the more we will see, and like Stephen, we will realise that heaven is all around us. Then we will be ready to die, no matter when that day may come.