Following Jesus

April 30: Acts 6:1-7:2

Here is the audio:

Here’s the text of the scripture and the sermon:

Acts 6:1–7:2a, 44-60

6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” 2a And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. 44 “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, 49 “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’ 51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” 54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

What does it mean to witness to the gospel?

In our story today, it seems the easy answer would be “well, you preach in such a way that you get killed.” Which would then empty most Christian churches in a second, right? If that’s what it means to follow Jesus is to die? If that’s what it means to share the good news? Or, in other words, what does it mean to you to believe in Jesus and then live your life like you actually believe in Jesus? How is the good news of Jesus Christ alive and well in how you live your life?

You would think Easter took care of this problem, right? Jesus rose from the dead, for crying out loud. But the reality is, the people that handed Jesus over to be killed are still around. His death and resurrection has not driven them out or squashed their influence over the people. Their hearts have not been transformed. They are alive and well and continue to follow this Jesus movement to try and drive it out. They are present all throughout the book of Acts.

The book of Acts depicts the earliest days of the Christian church. When the book first starts out, we read in chapters 2 and 4 that things are going well:

They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Great awe fell on everyone, and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles … Day by day they were all together attending the Temple. They broke bread in their various houses, and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and standing in favour with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being rescued.

The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common … and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. (Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-34)

Yet by chapter 6, it seems to have all fallen apart and there is division and leadership that seems weary and out of touch. Nobody seems to want to do the work of the church – I mean, who is going to take care of the widows so we can preach and teach?

A little clarification here: the Hellenists and the Hebrews were both groups of Jewish people. The Hellenists most likely were raised away from Jerusalem and were more familiar with Greek living and ways of that world. They probably spoke Greek. The Hebrews were probably local folks. So there is a language divide. A cultural divide.

So they decide to form a committee and Stephen is one of the people chosen to tend to the widows. And, did you notice, he is arrested not for this service of aiding widows but for his preaching and teaching instead. It seems he didn’t follow his job description. He is arrested under false pretenses, they accuse him of speaking against Moses and God. They accuse him of being anti-Temple:

For 2 minutes, let’s look at this section of the scripture together. What about it confuses you or stirs you up?

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” 54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen preaches the longest sermon in the book of Acts, most of which we skipped today. And his sermon ends with accusing the people – you killed Jesus. And then the horrifying stoning happens.

Often, the book of Acts is viewed as the book that tells us how to be church. Yet, as we can see, Acts quickly becomes less of a blue print for how to be church and more of a mirror. It’s a mess. They are fearful. We are fearful. Yet, God does not give up. The Holy Spirit is crazily at work throughout the book. Just as the Holy Spirit is alive and well in our lives today, in the church, in our daily lives.

What does it mean to witness to the Gospel? What does it mean to follow Jesus and to live your life as if you actually believe it? Well, it means you are called to take care of the most vulnerable – the widows, the trans kid, the hungry, the jobless. And your reputation might take a hit. Most likely, you will not suffer as Stephen suffered. But, in truly showing up for the needs of others, well, it can get you into hot water.

Or maybe for you it looks like showing kindness to a student you know has awful conditions at home, you pray for this kid during school and at home, and you cut him some slack. It means you say no or say yes to your kid when it is excruciatingly hard to say it, to help them grow into a thoughtful adult. It means you make hard decisions or say unpopular things. It means you spend your time on things you care about, that benefit others, not just your own self.

A life of following Jesus will always call you to work outside of yourself. A life of following Jesus will always have you looking out for the needs of others. It’s not about your own personal Jesus. It’s about the risen Christ, the one whose message will change your life.

 

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