Lectionary readings (Sunday, May 22nd, 2011):
- Acts 7: 55-60
- John 14: 1-14
- 1 Peter 2:2-10
- Psalms 31: 1-5, 15-15
From Manciple to Martyr
Maybe you’ve heard about the guy who walked across the Niagara Falls on a tight rope. When finished, he asked the crowd of astonished onlookers “Do you believe I can walk a tight rope across the Falls?” Of course, having just witnessed the spectacle, they all replied “yes”.
Well, he then got back up on the tight rope, with a wheel barrow, and pushed it the whole way back across the Falls. When he was done, he asked the crowd on the other side again “Do you believe I can walk across the Falls pushing a wheel barrow?” This crowd also said “Yes”, they believed he could.
Then he gets his friend (the things you’ll do for a friend!) to sit in the wheel barrow, and pushed him all the way across the Falls on the tight rope sitting in the wheel barrow. When he was done, he asked the even more astonished crowd, “So, do you believe I can walk across a tight rope across the Niagara Falls pushing a wheel barrow with a person in
Once again, they all said “yes”, to which he replied “So, who’s next?”
Today, I want to talk about the “next” guy: Stephen. This is the man that was willing to follow Christ to the death for his faith – the first known Christian martyr.
Everything that we know about Stephen can be found in just two chapters of the Bible: Acts chapters 6 and 7. Stephen was a Jew, but a Grecian Jew. While many of us might have interpreted this to mean that he was Jew that lived in Greece and had moved back to Jerusalem, it’s more probable that he lived beyond the borders of Palestine, and therefore
had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture.
Stephen is introduced to us in Acts 6, verse 5, and by the end of Acts chapter 7, he’s dead.
If he were to play a part in a sit-com like CSI, he would have just had a cameo appearance for one episode only, with his character being dying at the end of the episode and the producers moving on to characters with “higher” ratings.
And yet, this character that only appears for 2 chapters of the 1,189 chapters of the Bible, has an incredible impact on the growing church and he still continues to influence lives today!
If I were to choose an Apostle or early Christian mentioned in Acts of the Apostles as the “icon” for Balboa Union Church, I am convinced I would choose Stephen as our model; not Peter, not Paul, not John. Stephen would almost indelibly be my choice.
So, who and what was Stephen, before he became the 1st Christian martyr?
Acts 6, verse 1 (setting the stage for the entry of our hero into this episode):
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. This could be a scene from any church or group today – someone is being more favoured than others. So, the twelve get ALL of the disciples together and say:
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.
This proposal pleased the whole group.
So, here we have it: it could have been any business or charity organisation. In my office it would have been something
like this: “The receptionist is out sick today, and while a receptionist is absolutely essential to my business, I don’t
think I should be the person sitting at reception answering the phone, taking messages and opening the door for visitors.
We need someone to volunteer for that job, so that I can do my job as lawyer and taking care of client’s legal needs, while someone else answers the phone and takes messages.”
The twelve disciples have their instructions from Christ:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has be given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…”
“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. … and these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons, … they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well”
This doesn’t really seem to include taking care of the widows and orphans. And yet we know, from Jesus’ ministry, that showing this love to the women and children was vital and was an essential demonstration of God’s love. Someone needed to do it.
We also know from Acts chapter 2, verses 42-47, that all of the believers were devoted to learning, to breaking bread together and prayer, with everything being shared in common. They were selling their possessions and good, and each received according to their needs. They were living together in community, and yet some of the widows and the fatherless were being left out, because they had no man to ensure that they were looked after.
So, at the meeting, it’s decided that 7 men are to take care of the administration and ensuring that no one is left out.
The requirements for the job are simple:
You must be KNOWN to be:
- Full of the Spirit; and
- Full of wisdom
Stephen is the first man listed, and he’s described as “a man FULL of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. I often wonder, what did he DO that Luke would single him out as being full of faith of the Holy Spirit? Most of us judge others by their actions, not their words. Being full of the Spirit was obviously a measurable and visible description of character! It wasn’t the subjective reality of Stephen (“I think I’m full of the Spirit”). There was obviously evidence in his character and life choices.
Full of the Spirit:
To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by the Divine Spirit and not by “self”. If we are under the influence of the Spirit, we talk and act differently – our minds are renewed, our thinking is controlled, and our speaking and acts
change. We know that the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.
While there may be many different gifts of the Spirit (such as speaking in tongues, Divine wisdom, knowledge, a special faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophesying, etc.), the fruit of the Spirit are the same. Irrespective of what gifts of the Spirit someone may or may not have, the proof that they are filled with the Spirit is not the gift, but the fruit. Jesus warned that “by their fruit you will know them”. And so, we can be sure that Stephen was a man that was filled with love for others, he had joy like a fountain, he had peace like a river, he was patient and kind with those he served, he was a good man, faithful in his stewardship, humble and meek (not puffed up by his position and responsibilities) and demonstrated self-control irrespective of what trials he may have been faced with by the responsibilities he was given.
He was full of wisdom:
When you think about it, a man put in charge of purchasing all the food and distributing it to the widows and others according to their needs, MUST be a person filled with wisdom. Like Solomon, he must have a sense of justice, of knowing intrinsically what was right or wrong, and not simply having a rule book to follow.
James 1: 5 tells us
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all… and it will be given to him”
And so Stephen, a man full of the Spirit and wisdom, takes on this mundane and unheroic task of serving the Christian community in temporal and charitable affairs, with some minor religious office. Like I said, he’s a manciple: A waiter; Perhaps the Maitre-D’. The steward. But nothing more.
He wasn’t on stage – he was in the back room. He was the coffee-lady.
So, how does one go from manciple to martyr?
We don’t have to read much further in Acts 6 to find out!
“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose… from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen… These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”
So, we find, Stephen, while he’s not one of the 12 disciples, and he has humbly undertaken the task of serving tables, he is a man full of God’s grace and power, just like the disciples did great wonders and miraculous signs. And got noticed.
Stephen must have been a powerful orator if these men felt they couldn’t stand up to his wisdom or the Spirit by who he spoke. They felt inferior to him. Their pride was pricked. They probably felt he’d made a fool of them in their own synagogue. Enough of this!
And so, they got a couple of convenient witnesses, with obvious selective amnesia and memory to say that they had heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.
Jesus had warned
“Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings… But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be your speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. …. Men will hate you because of me… So do not be afraid of them…”
And so we find Stephen, the man called to wait on the tables of the widows and those in needs, falsely accused before the Sanhedrin of blasphemy (just like Jesus). So… who’s next?
Do you remember what Peter said to Jesus before He was sentenced to death?
“I will lay down my life for you”
And yet Peter, when asked if he wasn’t one of Christ’s disciples, wasn’t really ready, and denied even knowing Christ 3
times. And so, when the cock crowed the third time, and Jesus turned and look at Peter, he remembered his Lord’s
warning, and ran out and wept bitterly. It’s not until we REALLY know ourselves, when we’ve been to that lowest point, and seen the WORST of ourselves, that we can really become followers of Christ.
Like Peter, many of us would like to think we are ready to serve, but are we really ready to be humble?
Stephen, a man described as being “full of the Holy Spirit, and wisdom, full of God’s grace and power”, was willing to serve tables. He was REALLY feeding the poor. He was actively involved in healing the sick!
As Jesus said in John 14:
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these… And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
And Stephen wasn’t afraid to ask God, in Jesus’ name, to heal the sick, to perform miracles, and to give him wisdom to speak and debate the scriptures in the synagogue. Even when faced with false witnesses, he was still more concerned with the salvation of those listening to him, than he was about his own life.
Chapter 7 of Acts begins with Stephen recounting the Jewish history, starting with Abraham being called by God to leave his country and his people, and go to the land which God would show him. Stephen relates throughout Acts 7 the unfaithfulness of the children of Israel to God, how they rejected Moses and wanted to go back to Egypt, how they made idols and turned to worshipping what their own hands had made (rather than the Unknown God); how they worshipped
heavenly bodies (such as stars and planets)… and how man has tried to put God into a man-made house (such as a
church), rather than understanding the true greatness of God.
Stephen reminds the Sanhedrin:
As the prophet says: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind
of house will you build for me? Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?
Stephen (almost reminiscent of Jesus’ words) goes on to say:
You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers. You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?…
And so, the Sanhedrin members were furious when they heard this. He added insult to injury
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. … At this, the Sanhedrin covered their ears, yelling at the top of their voices, … dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”.
Then he fell on his knees and cried out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Like Jesus, his last breath was forgiveness of those who persecuted him. H really was ready
to be “next”, following in Christ’s footsteps!
Each one of us in Balboa Union Church has been given different gifts. Some of us are natural speakers; others prefer to be serving at the tables. But all of us are called to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom”, full of God’s grace and power – no matter what we are comfortable doing in our service of God and the church.
Some of us, like Stephen, like to ripple the waters, questioning those who are set in their beliefs, and asking whether faith is really faith! But the true measure of our faith is the fruit of the Spirit. That love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control that can be measured and objectively seen in our lives by those around us.
As Peter says:
As you come to Him, the living Stone, … you also, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.
We show this by the fruit which are apparent in our lives: the acts of charity that we undertake daily, without looking for praise and gratitude from those we serve, but rather understanding that we are serving a Master whose reward we will receive in heaven.
And so we pray the prayer of St. Stephen:
Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of Thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of the first martyr, St. Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to Thee, blessed Jesus. You who stand at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.