St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 25th May 2014
Reading – Acts 6:9-7:60
So with Hope 2014 only a week away, can I ask: how many of you are willing to be a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ?
That’s quite an encouraging answer. OK then, so perhaps I can ask a rather more difficult answer: how many of you are willing to be a martyr for the Lord Jesus Christ?
As I expected, I don’t see quite as many hands go up at this point. But actually, all I’ve done is ask the same question in two different ways. The word “Martyr” is only the Greek equivalent of the English word “Witness”. So when you witness for the Lord Jesus Christ, you are – at least in theory – signing up to become a martyr.
Indeed if you look across the world then you will see that martyrdom is all too often the experience of believers in many different cultures and many different countries. Only this week we heard news from Sudan where a woman who is eight months pregnant has been sentenced to death. Her crime? Because she had a Muslim father, the courts there deem her to be Muslim even though she was brought up as a Christian and has made a profession of faith. In the eyes of the court, she has abandoned Islam and so is guilty of apostasy. Not only that, but by marrying a fellow Christian she has committed adultery because a Christian wedding is not considered valid under the law of the land. So as we sit here this morning, she is languishing in jail with her twenty month old son. Her name is Meriam Yehya Ibrahim and we need to unite in prayer for her.
Sadly such cases are far from rare. Indeed as religious extremism in various forms spreads across the world we see more and more evidence of Christians being persecuted. As Jesus Himself says in our gospel reading: a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God (John 16:2). But if we think this is a particularly modern phenomenon we only have to go back through church history, through the Reformation, the Middle Ages, the evangelisation of Europe, the church fathers and finally into the pages of Scripture itself, where we end up with the story of Stephen, the very first martyr, who was stoned to death for his faith.
Now as we gear up for Hope 2014, we can be thankful that none of us will experience quite the same reaction to our testimony. But we also need to recognise that while some will welcome our message, others will react with fear or hostility or even aggression. As Jesus tells us plainly in our gospel reading our message is not a message that the world welcomes, even though it is the most wonderful and precious good news. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should stop telling others about Jesus. Rather, we need to look to the example of a man like Stephen and see what we can learn from his bravery and courage.
And there are three things I’d like us all to notice about Stephen.
First of all, as we saw last week, Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5).
What did that mean in practice? Well, perhaps the most obvious point to make is that he didn’t go around giving answers to questions that people weren’t asking. I sometimes get worried when mission and evangelism is seen as simply going round telling others about Jesus, whether or not anyone is listening or indeed whether or not the situation is appropriate. Let’s be clear – Stephen did not ask for trouble. He wasn’t the sort of Christian with armfuls of tracts that people crossed over the street to avoid when they saw him coming.
No, because Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit, he quite simply concentrated on the task that the Lord had given him. His duty was to sort out the daily distribution of food to the widows in the church, and so that is what he did. It must at times been quite a trying and demanding task – Mrs Jones bending his ear about Mrs Smith and how much that woman got yesterday, Mrs Smith bending his ear about Mrs Jones and how she wasn’t as hard up as she claimed to be.
Stephen must have been a saint just to put up with all that hassle. Yet because Stephen carried out his task with such grace and wisdom, people began to trust and respect him. And before long, they came to him with their other needs. They told him about their physical pains, about relationships that needed healing, about people that were on their hearts. So from such a small and humble beginning Stephen’s ministry began to grow. That’s why by the time we get to verse 8 of chapter 6 we read that Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. You see, the more he served, the more he had opportunities to share his faith and so become a blessing to others.
Yet, at the same time, the more Stephen shared his faith, the more he attracted opposition. Why? Because when the name of Jesus is proclaimed, you’re faced with a choice. You can’t carry on ignoring the good news as if it didn’t matter. You have to either accept Jesus as Lord or reject Him. And if in fact you are perfectly content with your old, cosy religion, then not only will you reject Jesus, you will find the good news deeply, deeply offensive. Because religion tells us that if we try hard enough, then God will in the end accept us. It panders to our pride and our belief in our own goodness. But the good news of Jesus cuts through all that and tells us to repent and believe in a crucified Saviour instead. And for the people who belonged to the Synagogue of the Freedmen, this message was dangerous and had to be stopped. So when argument and persuasion failed, they resorted to desperate measures. They had Stephen arrested on trumped up charges, and, as we read in verse 12, they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law.
That’s how Stephen ends up on trial for his life, alone and defenceless before the Jewish ruling council. And what I find so remarkable about this story is that even as Stephen stands there completely on his own, his faith and his holiness still shine through. Verse 15 tells us: All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. So the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, can see this man is special; they can see he is radiating God’s glory, and yet, tragedy of tragedies, they still press charges. Truly there is no greater testimony to the way the human heart resists the good news of Jesus Christ.
And what can we learn about the way Stephen answers these allegations? Well, the second point that comes out of our reading is that Stephen knew His Scriptures.
Now we don’t have the time this morning to go through the whole of chapter 7 in any great detail. But I would suggest that later on you take some time to read it yourself. Because what Stephen gives as testimony is a most detailed and most remarkable account of God’s dealings with His people through the Old Testament, right from the moment God called Abraham to go to the Promised Land up to the building of the temple under King Solomon.
Of course you may well ask what Stephen is doing telling the Jewish ruling the council the story of the Old Testament. After all, the people there already knew the history of God’s people and I expect many were better qualified to teach on the subject than Stephen. But the point is this: what was at stake was not how much or how little folk knew about Scripture – rather it is how folk read Scripture in the first place.
You see, when the ruling council read the Old Testament they got the message that basically they belonged to a chosen, special people, that even though they did wrong, God never abandoned them and He was still basically pleased with them. Stephen’s reading however was rather different. When he read the Old Testament, he saw the message of a people who constantly refused to listen to God, even though He chose them and spoke to them again and again; indeed although they claimed to be worshipping God, in reality their hearts were set on false idols and they persecuted those who came in God’s name. That’s why the people of Israel at that time were a people under judgement.
So how does all this relate to us today? Well, when it comes to sharing our faith, we will come across plenty of people who think they know the message of the Bible. They think the Bible is the story of God who loves us and forgives us even when we do wrong. But in the end, providing we try hard enough and live a Christian kind of life, God will accept us and we will earn a place in heaven. That’s the sort of message I hear time and time again. What we have to do is explain, yes, God loves us and, yes, God does forgive anyone who is truly sorry. But we need to recognise that at heart we have fallen away from God’s plan for our lives and we have to turn to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, recognising that only through Him can we receive eternal life.
But please listen to this. Whether we put our case as fluently as Stephen, or simply say a few words of personal testimony, let’s remember that no-one will ever be convicted of their sin just because we have won the argument or hit home with a few well-chosen points. Our message will only make a difference when like Stephen we are relying on the Holy Spirit to give us the right words to say and the right way to say them. As Jesus says in Mark 13:11: Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. And even though we may not be arrested and brought to trial, I believe the same principle also holds good for us.
So when someone asks you about your faith, may I suggest you just take a short pause before answering? Take a moment to recognise that you are speaking for Jesus, and silently ask Him to give you the right words, so what you say – whether you are a person of many or few words – is clearly of the Holy Spirit. Resist the temptation to dive in straightaway, because the chances are, once the moment has gone, the Holy Spirit will then convict you of the right words you should have said fifteen minutes earlier.
But please also realise, that even we are aware that the Lord is helping us to speak the right words, even the most gracious and most wise words will not necessarily help someone come to faith. As Stephen pointed out to the Jewish ruling council at the end of chapter 7, they had a track record of resisting the Holy Spirit. In other words, even though they were sitting there hearing what Stephen was saying, they weren’t really listening. So when Stephen reached the point in his speech when he directly challenged them, what did they do? Verse 54: they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. And sadly it is still true today, that when people hear the good news of a Saviour who loves us so much He died on the cross for our sins, some still get angry, some still reject our message, some even break a friendship. If sharing the good news of Jesus Christ does not come at a cost, then we have never learnt what it means to be a witness.
So what did Stephen do as the council grew more and more angry with him? Did he back down or mumble an apology? The short answer is no, even though by this stage he almost certainly knew what was coming to him. But then you see, and this is the third and final point I want you to take away, Stephen loved the Lord Jesus.
On Thursday it will be Ascension Day. Now Ascension Day is a festival we don’t tend to celebrate that much, but it’s an important occasion in the life of the church because it reminds us that Jesus is now seated at the Father’s right hand, in a place of majesty and honour, interceding on our behalf and blessing us with His Holy Spirit. Why is He seated? Because His work here on earth is now complete; His victory over sin and death and evil has been won; there is salvation freely available to all who believe and trust in Him. And time after time the New Testament writers lay great emphasis on the simple fact that Jesus is seated. Their message is clear, that if you want full assurance of your faith, come to the one who is enthroned on high, because He is the risen, ascended Son of God.
But in just one place in the New Testament, one very special place, we hear of Jesus not sitting, but standing, at the right hand of God. Did anyone notice it in our reading this morning? That’s right, verse 55: But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Why has Jesus stood up from the place where He is enthroned in all glory and splendour and majesty? Because He is preparing to welcome Stephen home. Yes, very soon Stephen’s life will come to the most cruel and most painful end. Yes, very soon his family and friends will be left to mourn a most remarkable and most courageous man. But the sorrows of this life will be as nothing to the reception Stephen will receive as Jesus stands before him and says: Well done, good and faithful servant.
That’s why even as the stones begin to tear his flesh and crush his bones Stephen is able to pray with confidence: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. This is not the cry of a man in despair, a man who is raging against the dying of the light. This is the cry of the man who has loved Jesus above all things even to the point to death and knows that he is shortly to receive the goal of his salvation.
And even as his life begins to ebb away, that same love for Jesus enables him to follow His master’s example as he prays: Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Stephen does not die wishing his persecutors ill or asking God to bring down judgement. Rather, even then, he prays for their forgiveness just as Jesus Himself prayed when nailed to a cruel cross: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).
All this is a long, long way from those early days when Stephen was waiting on tables sorting out disputes between Mrs Smith and Mrs Jones. But we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that Stephen somehow became a greater Christian because the Lord called Him away from that ministry to become the very first martyr for the faith. Rather what we should take away from the story is that in whatever situation Stephen found himself he was willing to witness to the Lord, in word and deed, whatever the cost. He witnessed to the Lord as he waited on tables. He witnessed to the Lord as he healed and performed great miracles. He witnessed to the Lord as he spoke before the Jewish ruling council. He witnessed to the Lord by the manner in which he died. Quite simply his whole life spoke of Jesus.
And that’s the challenge for us. The Lord does not call us all to follow Stephen’s example of martyrdom. As far as we know, five of the seven men chosen to wait on table continued to do so. But whether we are called to witness publicly or maybe in quiet, almost unseen ways, our calling is to be like Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, knowing our Scripture and loving Jesus.
So let me finish by asking one simple question this morning: what do you need to do become more like Stephen? Are you filled with the Spirit? Do you know your Scripture? And above all else, do you love Jesus?