Sunday, May 22, 2011
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 22, 2011)
Text: Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60
During these Sundays of Easter, we have been contemplating the readings from the book of the Acts of the Apostles assigned in the lectionary. In these readings, we learn how the first Christians responded to the news of the resurrection of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles, you may remember, is not so much about the Apostles as it is about the ongoing life of the Risen Jesus in his Church.
Having said that, in today’s reading Jesus makes only his second appearance in the book. The first appearance is when he was with the disciples on the mountain at his Ascension. The second appearance is at the stoning of Stephen, where Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in glory. But even though he makes few personal, public appearances, it doesn’t mean he isn’t present and active. He is very much present and active, empowering his Church with forgiveness and grace. He sends the Holy Spirit upon the Church to empower us in our life of faith and witness. You see, the story of the book of Acts continues down to our present day and will continue until Jesus returns to take us to be with him in the place he has prepared for us … which, as you well know by now, was not yesterday as was predicted by a certain California prophet. (Why does all the weird stuff seem to come out of California?) As we read these accounts from the book of Acts, then, I’ve been asking you to see yourself in the story … to see how the events recorded for us can teach us about our life together as the Church in this place, and to know that the Risen Jesus is among us today, gathering us around his Word and Sacraments, sending the Holy Spirit upon us to empower our life of faith and witness.
Last week’s reading from Acts chapter 2 told us about the unity and intimate fellowship the early Christians shared. They were united around a common confession of faith. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching. They gathered around the table of the Lord and ate and drank the body and blood of Christ together. They prayed together. They sold their possessions in order to support those among them who were in need.
The sinful nature being what it is, you knew this couldn’t last very long. Disharmony soon reared its ugly head. What was the problem? Two factions within the Church were at odds. The Hellenists were Jews who were heavily influenced by Greek culture. The Hebrews were Jews who had not allowed themselves to be “tainted” – as they saw it – by the pagan Greek culture and language. When people from among these groups converted to Christianity, the old conflicts remained. And so, when the Hellenists saw that the Hebrew widows were being favored in the daily distribution of support, they felt slighted and neglected.
You can just imagine the scene. Jealousy was inflamed. Accusations of favoritism circulated. Gossip ruled the day. Even before the complaints reached the ears of the apostles, words like these may have been heard behind the scenes: “Who do they think they are? Our people are just as valuable as they are! Don’t you think it’s just awful the way our women are being treated? We ought to do something about this!” We don’t know the exact character of their complaints, so I don’t want to put words in people’s mouths. But similar situations have arisen in congregations all across the centuries. You can be certain that the pot was stirred up and feelings were hurt.
And so, a “church council” meeting was called. The apostles explained that it wouldn’t be right for them to give up preaching in order to “wait on tables,” as they put it. The gathered believers listened to and accepted the apostle’s creative solution so they could continue to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. The first auxiliary office to the pastoral office was established. Seven men were appointed as deacons who were to specifically care for the physical welfare of the members of the local gathering of believers. The word for deacon comes from the Greek word diakonia, which can mean “service” or “ministry.” That’s the word used in President Harrison’s emphasis for our church body, although there it is translated as “mercy,” reflecting the acts of mercy that are done in service to those who need our care. We have a deacon in our midst. His role is a little different than that of those first deacons, but it is similar in the way he serves to support the pastoral ministry God has established in this place, even as all auxiliary offices support the ministry … for example Sunday School teachers, elders, and Directors of Christian Education, just to name a few.
After the deacons were installed, the Word of God continued to increase. Living stones were being built up into a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5). The number of disciples in Jerusalem multiplied. Many priests who served in the temple came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. In word and deed they witnessed to the life of Jesus in his Church. Our Lord’s words ring true where he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Pure doctrinal statements and confessions, as important and necessary as they are, will sound like only a clanging gong coming from our mouths if we do not also show love to each other (1 Cor. 13:1).
From disharmony within the church we move to a dispute with those outside the church. One of the deacons who was chosen, Stephen, became involved in a dispute with several groups of Jews over the identity and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Steven proceeds to speak to them and recounts the history of the people of Israel. In Acts chapter 7, Steven starts with Abraham, then moves quickly to Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Israelite slavery in Egypt, Moses, the Golden Calf episode at Mt. Sinai, all the way down to David and Solomon. In the end, Stephen compares his hearers to the stubborn unbelievers among the people of Israel over the centuries. “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.” (Act 7:51-52)
“Uncircumcised in heart and ears.” What an insult to a Jew that would have been! In other words, Steven is saying, “You who cling to your bloodline and physical marks of the covenant … because of your unbelief, you are no better than an unbelieving Gentile! Moreover, you killed the Messiah for whom you were waiting!”
What was their response? Filled with rage, they ground their teeth. Then Steven, filled with the Holy Spirit, was granted a glorious vision of heaven. He said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this, his opponents cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and rushed at him. I imagine them doing this like a child might do when they refuse to listen (cover ears and say “la la la la la!”). They stoned Stephen to death, and we are also introduced for the first time to Saul, who was personally overseeing this gruesome sight. Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, later on in the book of Acts becomes Paul, the great missionary and defender of the Christian faith after his own encounter with the Risen Jesus.
At times, you and I can be pretty stubborn and stiff-necked, too. When does it get to the point when you and I are actively resisting the Holy Spirit? I’m not sure I can pinpoint an exact time when that happens in each of your hearts. However, we live in dangerous territory when we refuse to forgive a fellow brother or sister in Christ, when our conscience is less and less bothered by particular sins, when we have pulled ourselves away from the Word of God whereby the Holy Spirit acts upon us to convict us of our sin and to point us to Christ who takes away our sin.
But we have a Savior who bent his neck under the heavy load of the cross. In the darkness and gloom of Good Friday, he bore our sin and paid our debt to God with his shed blood. While he hung there, feeling alone, abandoned, forsaken, he continued to trust in his Heavenly Father, enough to say in his dying moments, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And earlier, he was able to look out upon the very ones who had nailed him to the cross and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Did you notice the parallels between our Lord’s death and Stephen’s? With the heavens opened, seeing the Lord Jesus at the right hand of God, Steven commended himself into the Lord’s hands and forgave his enemies. While rocks pelted his body, bruising his flesh, shattering his bones, crushing his skull, Steven cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He was able to look out upon the ones who were hurling the stones at him and say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Filled with the Holy Spirit, the Risen Jesus was present and active in Stephen so that his dying words matched our Lord’s words from the cross.
Heaven has been opened to us, too. A place has been prepared for us. We don’t get to see a glorious vision … not yet anyway. But heaven is still opened to us in the waters of Baptism, in the word of Absolution, and when we break bread together at the Lord’s Table. The Risen Jesus stands and serves us with heavenly gifts, his body and his blood. The Holy Spirit loosens our sinfully stiff necks, turns our gaze from the allure of the world, and turns our gaze to God in repentant trust. Now, no matter what “stones” are thrown at you – hurtful words, cold shoulders, challenging circumstances – you can commend yourself to the Lord. Because Jesus took your sins with him to the cross, you can know that your sins are not held against you. And now, you are free to forgive those who have offended you. There is no need for you to hold their sins against them.