Acts 6 and 7
You might say that the Book of Acts is the Church’s book – the Church’s wall where we remember the shaping events of our earliest years. More than other books in the Bible, we read the Book of Acts and think to ourselves, “Hey! I have been in that situation. This woman or this man looks a lot like me.”
Stephen was a follower of Jesus who looks more like us than most of the other characters of the Bible. The Bible is filled with full-fledged heroes who did amazing feats for God:
+Moses who led the children of Israel out of Egypt to the Land of Promise,
+Rahab who risked her life to make a way for the people of God to enter the Promised Land.
+Mary and Joseph, who risked their lives to be the earthly parents of Jesus,
+The Twelve Disciples who left ordinary work to follow Jesus,
+Paul the Apostle who was turned into the greatest evangelist the world has seen,
Each of these people was an extraordinary leader and a powerful believer. Each of these gave their entire lives to the service of God, taking great risks for their faithfulness, witnessing amazing results from their ministries. On my best, most faithful, most energized day, I have never imagined myself to stand in the company of a Paul, who spent his life taking the Gospel throughout the known world, or a Mary, who bore the Baby Jesus at great risk to herself. Each of these seemed to have a direct and life-shaping experience with God. For example: None of us can say that we walked with Jesus in Galilee. None of us can say that we encountered God in the wilderness at the burning bush. Very few of us can say that God did mighty miracles through our hands. Like Stephen, we are faithful, even inspired, but few of us can claim to be amazing.
We are those who have come to faith in Christ through the Word of the Gospel. Like Stephen, we have never been brought to our knees as Jesus himself preached. Like Stephen, we were not there when the Master stilled the raging storm or healed the lepers. Still, we have found faith.
Do you remember that, after the resurrection in John 20, Thomas doubted and would not believe until he had seen and touched the risen Christ for himself? Thomas did get what he needed so that he could believe. But, following Thomas’ confession of faith, Jesus said "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." (John 20.29). Jesus was talking about us and about the Stephens of this world: those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
II. Stephen has something to teach us about being a follower of Jesus.
A. A follower of Jesus is like Jesus himself. The growing hostility provoked by Stephen’s ministry is due to his likeness to Jesus. Stephen is portrayed as a prophet full of “wisdom and Spirit,” capable of performing “great wonders and signs.” These are words the Bible used to describe Jesus himself. He continued what Jesus had begun to say and to do. The accusations brought against him are also similar and are made by the same opponents. Ultimately, Jesus and Stephen died as martyrs, obedient to God to the end. For both, their final prayer was for the forgiveness of those responsible for their deaths. Stephen is like Jesus in character and conduct. And like Jesus, he is lionized by the church as a great example of Christ-like obedience to the great purposes of God (1).
Take a lesson from Stephen: are we becoming more and more like Jesus? Can it be said of us that we are also FULL OF WISDOM AND SPIRIT? Do we make it our purpose to say what Jesus said and to do what Jesus did?
Surely, Christ would save us from our sins and restore us to the Father. But, the first moment of our faith is not also the last moment. Christ does not count himself finished with us just because we are saved or just because we sought baptism. Christ would continue to work in us until the image of Christ is formed within us.
B. But, Stephen has more to teach us about discipleship. Along with our conviction that the image of Christ is being formed within us, we are convinced that we can never stand in Christ’s place; we can never be little Messiahs in his place.
[Calvin & Hobbes]
Calvin is standing in front of his bedroom mirror in his BVD’s, flexing his muscles. He's proudly saying, "Made in God's own image, yes sir!"
Hobbes is flopped on the floor beside him, disgusted at his pal's self- absorbed preening. "God," he says, "must have a goofy sense of humor" (4).
The church’s confession of Jesus as Savior and Lord underlines his unique role and status in God’s salvation. To imitate the risen Jesus is not to assume for oneself his messianic calling or his heavenly status (2). As Peter said in Acts 4.12:
“There is salvation in no one else,
for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals
by which we must be saved."
C. Third, Stephen teaches us costly obedience. How? While they were stoning him, Stephen chose to pray. His inspired vision of the exalted Lord at the very moment of his martyrdom, expresses a deep piety. Yet the most compelling evidence of the depth of Stephen’s spiritual life is the content of his prayers. Similar to Jesus’ dying words, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his enemies at the very moment of their apparent triumph over him. He does not ridicule his executioners, nor does he express regret for his untimely death. He prays for their salvation: It is for what and for whom he prays, and not that he prays, that gives his death its most profound meaning (3).
[APPLIC] Let us exercise costly obedience when we pray. What are we praying at the moment our tormentors are at their worst? Are we praying like Stephen, “Lord, forgive them,” OR are we praying, “Lord, give ‘em what they have coming to them”?
I have a suggestion: Watch your prayers over the coming weeks. What do you pray? Who are you praying for? For others? For the needy? For your enemies? Or only for yourself? Are you the neediest person you know? Pray in costly obedience to Christ.
D. Fourth, Stephen teaches us that often great ministry happens as we serve tables. I am always caught as I read the beginning of Acts 6 that the real disciples (those who knew Jesus personally) were too busy to wait tables; they had to focus on the ministry of the Word. But, I think that I have misunderstood this exchange. Both the concern and the work of waiting Tables were respected by the disciples and the early Church.
When people complained that their widows were being neglected, the disciples recognized the problem, but decided that the ministry must be expanded to include others. So, they said the church should identify others to serve the tables. The interesting part of this duty is that it was considered a spiritual duty and calling. It was never considered to be a menial task; it was a spiritual task. This is the source of our ministry of the ordained deacon (as Rev. Rick Isbell, a deacon on the Church Street clergy team, demonstrates); this is also the source of our conviction that baptism is the ordination of the laity. The work we do as our ministry in the church is not just busy or messy work; it is a calling from God, a spiritual work.
Stephen's story presses us to think deeply about our discipleship. Read this passage again; think about its lessons for us.
Finally, something happens at the Table when disciples are serving. It happens at the dinner table and it happens at the communion table.
+There is welcome for the stranger and the one who has become estranged.
+There is not just a memory but an enactment of the breaking of the bread which Jesus did at the Last Supper. It happens again in this hour of worship.
Look around the table at these others who kneel beside us. These are our family, the family of God. These are our family: they believe with us in Christ Jesus. They are also servants of the Master. Together, we also ache for the broken and spoiled world. They also know the heart of Jesus. All of this happens at the Table.
I invite you to come and share the cup. You see, at the Table, somewhere in the serving and the receiving, Christ is seen again.
1. Wall, Robert W. “Acts of the Apostles,” The New Interpreters Bible, vol. X, p. 132.
3. Ibid, p. 133.
4. [Calvin & Hobbes] cartoon, 10/16/93