Sermons are meant to be heard. There is something that gets lost in just reading one. The following sermon was written to be spoken aloud which explains why the writing is not always perfect and the punctuation is at times nonexistent. Nevertheless, I pray that it speaks to you.
May 14, 2017
MODERN DAY STONINGS
Do you ever feel like you’re getting stones thrown at you? Are there times when you walk through your day in a defensive position – just waiting for the next rock to be hurled at your head? Of course these are not actual rocks that we are defending against. But they hurt just as much – in a different way. Sometimes the rocks come because of something we’ve said or done. Other times they come because of a stand that we’ve taken. And sometimes they come at us for no other reason that people like throwing rocks.
Just after Jesus had risen from the dead and just after he ascended into heaven, there was a man named Stephen who had actual stones thrown at him. And at first glance there is nothing in his story that we can relate to in 2017. And yet, I believe that God speaks through this collection we call the Bible – and even though no one is literally stoning us, we can learn a lot from Stephen.
His story is found in Acts chapter 7:55-60. Follow along on your worship guide or on your device or in your bible.
55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Let us pray. God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand what it is you need us to learn about you this night. We pray in the name of the Risen Christ – Amen.
So the lectionary today drops us into this story about Stephen but it drops us in at end. And we are kinda whiplashed when in just a few verses we see this man, filled with the Holy Spirit, declare that he sees Jesus, and then dies by having stones thrown at him. Wait, what?
So yes, there is a story before the story. Briefly this is what is going on prior to our text for the day.
1. We first meet Stephen as the answer to a problem. There was an issue in the early church about food distribution. Widows would be given food each day from the group of believers and some of the widows felt like they were being neglected. So, they complained to the Disciples. The Disciples knew that they did not have the time to oversee the food distribution so they instructed the community to select from themselves people who would be in charge of the food distribution while the Disciples devoted themselves to prayer and scripture and teaching. Stephen was one of the ones selected to be part of this new group in charge of caring for the widows. Some have called Stephen the first Deacon – even today our Deacons are charged with caring for the homebound and for the needs of the congregation.
The scripture tells us they chose Stephen who was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” The writer of Acts also tells us that he was “full of grace and power and did great wonders and signs among the people.” So the first thing we learn about Stephen is that he’s a good man and he’s been given a big job.
2. One day Stephen was in the synagogue and he was getting in a – well, let’s just call it a “verbal discussion” with some people there. They were obviously talking about Jesus and who he was and what he did. But the scripture tells us that every argument these people made was met with a better one by Stephen. The scripture says “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” So, again, we see the power of the Spirit working in Stephen.
So these people who were bested by Stephen decide that they are going to bring false charges against him. Now, at this time there were two court systems in Jerusalem. There was the law of the Romans. And then there was the law of the Jewish people. The people fighting with Stephen decide to falsely accuse Stephen before this Jewish court – called the Sanhedrin. They find fake witnesses and bring him before the court which asks him to explain himself.
3. So Stephen goes into this long speech in front of the court. It lasts about 54 verses in Acts chapter 7. But here’s the thing. In this speech he’s not telling them anything new. He’s basically reciting to them the history of the Jewish people. And I can imagine the court sitting there thinking “Why is he telling us all of this – is he lecturing US on OUR history? We’re the Sanhedrin. We know this!
4. But then he comes to the end. And I have to read it to you because he basically lays into them. Here is what he says in verse 51 of chapter 7:
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 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. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
And this is where our text picks up. The court has become enraged with Stephen. They listened to his long speech about things they already know and then Stephen insults them because even though they know it – they don’t know it. Even though they are experts – they are not experts. Even though they are pious – they are not pious. And with these insults thrown at them - it’s about to become a mob scene.
But in the middle of all this rage Stephen looks up and sees a vision. And instead of keeping quiet, he tells the whole court what he sees. And how could he not? In the midst of all this anger – Stephen sees Jesus standing next to the Glory of God. He HAS to say something.
And when he speaks out - when he tells the court that he sees Jesus on the right hand of God – the place just erupts. They put their hands over their ears so they could not hear this blasphemy – this blasphemy that Jesus is standing next to God. And they rush him – carry him out of the city – and throw rocks at him until he dies.
And with that Stephen becomes the first person to die because of their belief in Jesus. Stephen was the first Christian martyr.
But does that matter to us today? What does Stephen have to say to us in 2017? Well, I think a lot.
First, I think we have to realize that being a follower of Christ may not win us any friends and may in fact earn us some enemies.
Now, I’m not talking about some of the “culture war” issues that we hear about. Just so we are clear: none of us can be called a martyr because we don’t get wished Merry Christmas or have to drink out of a holiday cup at Starbucks. The fact is we have robust religious freedom in this country AND a rule of law that protects religious expression such that does not exist in most other countries. But.
But, what about when living a Christ-like life starts to run counter to the prevailing ethos of the day? What about when we choose not to cheat in order to make an extra buck? What about when we choose to tell the truth instead of fudge our taxes or expense report or when we cut the corner on that regulation? What about when we choose people over profits? What about when we lead with love instead of greed? What happens when living as Christ makes us different – or even still, makes us a threat to the existing structures of society?
That’s what happened to Jesus. The world could not handle the way he was living and the way he was challenging existing authorities and structures. And I have to tell you – if we are living as Christ – if we are following his teachings and doing our best to bring in the Kingdom of God – we are going to face opposition. And it could hurt.
There is a reason Jesus asked us to pray “Thy Kingdom Come” – it’s because God’s kingdom is not fully realized yet. And so when we start living as kingdom citizens we are going to stand out. We are going to be weird. And sometimes we are going to get enemies who are more concerned with protecting their own kingdoms than seeing God’s kingdom come. So, the first thing we can learn from Stephen is that following Christ is not nessicarily a way to win friends.
I think another thing we can learn from the story of Stephen is that we still have the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that filled Stephen is available to fill us. All we have to do is ask and be open. The same Spirit that gave Stephen the power to speak his words gives us the power to live as Christ followers – gives us the power to love when we don’t feel like loving – to speak grace when we have no grace in us – to see people as God sees them – to live with love and mercy and compassion in a world that that thrives on power and control and ignoring those who are viewed as less than.
But I also have to ask – could it be that we are the ones who cover our ears? When Stephen is filled with the Spirit and speaking about his vision the court members cover their ears. They did not want to hear what the Spirit of God was saying – especially since it did not match what they believed and wanted to hear. And so I have to ask – how often do WE cover our ears to the voice of the Spirit? How often do we ignore what the Spirit is doing in our lives just because it does not match with what we want to hear? How often do we cover our ears to the promptings of the Spirit because we are too scared or too set in our ways? Are there times in our lives when we would rather stone the messenger than listen to the Spirit? The Sprit still fills – do we allow it? The Spirit still speaks – do we hear it?
A third thing I think we can learn from the story of Stephen is that stones still come at us. They may not be actual stones. But word stones and action stones and emotional stones can be thrown by people we know and people we don’t know – by people we love and by people who supposedly love us – and yes, by people who really don’t like us. Enemies even.
And the stones that come at us can really hurt. They can injure us in ways that others might not even see but in ways that we carry with us. Stones of abuse – physical or verbal or sexual; stones of slander – people dragging our names through mud; stones of indifference – being ignored and neglected by the people we love; And on and on we could go. What are the stones that have been thrown at you in your life? What are the stones that are about to be thrown at you?
And you know what? Sometimes we’re the ones throwing the stones. Sometimes we are the ones who cannot stand what someone is doing or saying and so we reach down and pick up the closest rock and just start tossing. We live in a time and place where we don’t have actual stonings anymore. But that does not mean we don’t have stonings and participate in them every day.
There is a fourth thing I think we can learn from Stephen’s story and that is: forgiveness is still the way.
The last words of Stephen were not about vengeance or hatred but were about forgiveness. Forgiveness is, I believe, one of the hardest things we do as Christians. And yet, we do it because WE have been forgiven. We forgive because we know that holding on to hurts just makes the one who hurt us more powerful. We forgive because we know that Jesus forgives. We forgive because we have been changed by it.
Forgiveness is hard. And we really could do a whole sermon series on it. But for now suffice it to say that the way we deal with the pain that can come from living a Christ-like life – the way we deal with the stones that are thrown at us – that way is forgiveness. Now, I’m not talking about forgetting or ignoring injury. I’m not talking about rolling over and letting anyone do anything to us. I’m talking about making an active decision to not hold on to pain, to let go of vengeance and hatred, to offer to others what Christ offers to us.
I think there is one final thing that we can learn from Stephen’s stoning and that is: Jesus stands for us.
Most of the time we hear of Jesus being SEATED on the right hand of God. But in this text, Jesus is standing. Why is that? Some commentators believe it’s because Jesus wanted to welcome Stephen into heaven. Some say that Jesus stands because that’s what a defense attorney does – Jesus is standing, defending Stephen against these attacks.
I think both of those could be true – but I also believe that Jesus is standing because Jesus is active in our lives. Jesus does not just sit and watch with unconcern and indifference. Jesus stands. And Jesus still stands for us today.
If we are under attack – Jesus stands for us.
If we are the ones doing the attacking – Jesus stands for us.
If we are running into problems because of our faith – Jesus stands for us.
If we are hiding our faith from others – Jesus stands for us.
If we are facing trials in our lives – in our marriages – in our families – in our careers – Jesus stands for us.
If we are having a hard time forgiving – Jesus stands for us.
If we are lonely or alone – Jesus stands for us.
If we are anxious or worried – Jesus stands for us.
No matter what we have done or are doing – Jesus stands for us.
Tonight, as we prepare to come once again to the table – ask yourself where you are in the story of Stephen. And the come and experience the grace of Christ – who still stands for you.
Let us pray…