Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.
And Stephen said, “Brothers and fathers, hear me”.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60 ESV)
We can imagine the excitement of the resurrection reality for the Early Church. To have someone raised from the dead; to know him; to follow him; to speak about him and see people’s lives change – repentance and baptisms; to see power such as healings as his signs, yes, we can imagine it all being quite intoxicating. Of course not everyone believed – none of us believe that there were only 3,000 people in Jerusalem at Pentecost – the number of those baptised – and the Church’s continual growth meant that people heard the message and saw the signs and didn’t believe in this Jesus. The enthusiasm of the resurrection reality can drown out in our imagination the worldly reality that Jesus whether alive, dead, or alive forevermore faces opposition.
The Acts of the Apostles record about 30 years of church history. It’s not detailed but more overview; we don’t get biographies of everyone, just snippets of some, details of a few, and silence for most – but the broad brush strokes are evident and today’s first reading gives us a window into an aspect of the resurrection reality that is often missed behind the power and success of the Gospel – that there is a day-to-day aspect here, pragmatic, ordinary stuff – getting food on tables, helping people – some deserving, others probably less so, complaining and grumbling (which never happens in a church), decision making and planning – and I think it can seem so ordinary and unspiritual!
Our First Reading ‘tops and tails’ chapters 6 and 7 – we get the beginning of 6 and the end of 7 and the missing out of the majority of the chapters might encourage us to read the two chapters at home – but I think it is meant by the lectionary compilers to be examples of the type of, what I might call, the
‘spiritual ordinary’. Here we see the resurrection reality in service and in apologetics – defending the Faith – particularly in opposition.
When Jesus ascended his followers numbered 120. By the time of our text the number is well over 5,000 and growing. Following Jesus’ example and teaching – indeed follow Jesus himself – meant that everyone was being helped and served – and we can imagine what happens if someone was hungry or thirsty or without clothes and so on. If you didn’t have family or your guild or you weren’t in slavery and you came on hard times, there was limited support or scaffolding or help. The elderly – particularly widows were vulnerable. But disciples of Jesus helped each other – even across the previous Jewish / Gentile divide. Of course it wasn’t perfectly occurring but the intention was there and we begin chapter 6 with complaining from the Gentiles that Gentile widows were getting less than the Jewish widows. How long does it take for racism or previously learnt behaviours and attitudes to get ‘unlearnt’?
The apostles responded by focusing themselves on Word and Prayer while they established what has become known as Deacons but which our text says is about ‘serving tables’. The Church has debated this position and its function down through the centuries – the general view of history which was disrupted by the Reformation was that there was a threefold office of ministry involving bishops, priests, and deacons. Since the Reformation there are many other ministry models in the Church and Lutherans around the world have a variety of understanding about deacons – with some Lutheran churches now regarding the role as for women – hence the Lutheran deaconess in some churches. However it seems obvious from the text and looking at Stephen that he handled the ‘daily distribution’ of support and he knew how to talk! Stephen was engaged in miracles – the signs that Jesus was breaking in and disrupting the ‘old way’ of things – and he was able to speak about the Lord he followed. Hence the resurrection reality sees the Church whether individually or structurally responding to the need of one another – for if one part of the Body of Christ suffers then all suffer. The resurrection reality in healthy churches can be seen in how people support each other – with what is needed at any given time.
What Stephen did wasn’t going unnoticed and his religious interpretation and action – and we can imagine that his association with Gentiles would raise the eyebrows and the hackles of others and the dispute was on. Stephen didn’t pick the fight so to speak. He didn’t go the synagogue and declare war. He was interested in ‘serving tables’ and telling the world about Jesus. But when the dispute comes – when he is challenged or attacked initially verbally – it will get worse later – he was ready to defend. This defence is called an ‘Apology’ which isn’t about saying sorry but is about speaking the truth as you understand it over against error; defending the truth. And that’s what Stephen does for the rest of chapter 6 and most of chapter 7. He draws on the history of God dealing with his people in the Old Testament and like Jesus did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus where he preached himself from the Law and the Prophets so Stephen does the same thing and preach Jesus. And just as Jesus points to, alludes, suggests and at times is quite blunt about linking himself with God, so Stephen takes the Old Testament history and particularly aspects of worship – notably the sacrifices and the temple – and says that these are now fulfilled in Jesus!
You want to get church people riled up? … Change their hymnal – tell them their liturgy is obsolete – present them a new way which challenges but offers to fulfil the past ways – and see how folk respond! And Stephen – described as full of grace and power and having wisdom and the Spirit – wasn’t meek and mild either and called stubbornness and rebellion for it was – stubbornness and rebellion. Remember Thomas wasn’t doubting the ‘oh, I just don’t know what to believe’ but had set up his own faith criteria and was resisting what he was being told; so similarly there are times when people simply know the story of Jesus – know about the message – know their behaviour and what God thinks – and keep any message that is o spoken to them about sin and grace at arm’s length – it’s not for me! And the best way to defend such a position is to attack.
It is a cheap shot to say that all wars are called by religion. Violence in this world has many causes and religion can be one of them and while I haven’t done the research, I’d be prepared to hypothesise
that all religions have seen violence in their name. The Christian Church’s history has it. The death of Stephen was at the hands of the religious and this, too, is another resurrection reality in the world. Stephen fought the Faith – defended the truth – with spiritual armour – the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, ie. the Word of God – and he died praying for forgiveness of those who physically killed him. This is a resurrection reality we’d prefer to not experience. What Stephen doesn’t do is violence towards his attackers.
I’m not talking pacifism here for the Christian Church has various views on that topic and Lutherans teach about defending others when attacked. Nevertheless Stephen’s situation points a specific attack – one of faith (rather than about property or country) – and when the Christian Faith is attacked then we need to remember that actually Jesus is being attacked in a vain attempt to kill him again. How many times has the world tried to kill Jesus? They didn’t do it right the first time and they’ve been failing ever since!
Remember Stephen was living – doing his thing – and the dispute came to him. For whatever reason, he couldn’t leave – that is an option – and so he continued what he had always done – served those around him with the Word and was Jesus to them. He couldn’t control the world’s behaviour and what they might do but he could trust Jesus and what he has done on the cross.
There is no formula for life – no get check list to tick off about what to do in this or that situation. All there ever is is us – the situation – the people around us and the relationships between us – and Jesus. This is the resurrection reality we live in – using God’s Word, our sanctified common sense, receiving support from fellow believers, and living each day as it comes always seeking to serve.
- Acts 6:1 - 9
- Acts 7:2a
- Acts 7:51 - 60