Acts 7:2a, 51-60

Receive My Spirit

Easter 5A

May 18, 2014

We all like to be a part of a winning team. Up to this point in the book of Acts, the church was the winning team. Yes, there had been arrests and there had been threats. However, the believers were bold, public preaching was well received, and the harvest was bountiful. If you remember from a few weeks ago, we heard in Acts 2 how 3000 people believed and were baptized when they heard the Peter’s Pentecost Sermon.  Then, those new believers had everything in common, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayer.  So far, the church was making great strides.

The nature of “winning” for the church changes with the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Stephen is mentioned in Acts chapters 6-7 as one of the seven deacons appointed by the Church to provide for the needs of the poor in the Christian community in Jerusalem.  Because of his powerful witness to the Gospel, Stephen was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin, where he boldly confessed Christ.  Infuriated, the Sanhedrin took him outside of the city and stoned him to death.  Stephen was the Church’s first martyr as he died for the faith.  He is remembered for commending himself to Christ in death when he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and for forgiving those murdering him with the words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).

The text gives us two words that form Stephen’s response—grace and power. Notice the event begins with, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

We are told that Stephen had great power. Yet in this tragic event, he does not seem to be very powerful. There are no great signs and wonders to persuade anyone. There are no thunderbolts from heaven to terrify the enemy. In fact, he is taken outside the city like trash and put down like a sick animal. The picture hardly fits the world’s standard of power. Yet there is no greater power than confidence in God’s word to work through our weaknesses. While miracles would continue, increasingly power among the believers would be understood as a bold witness of Christ in the face of persecution.

Grace is the second word that formed Stephen’s response to persecution. Notice two things about Stephen’s example of grace. First, he had no trouble calling the people out for their sins. He pointed out how their ancestors had rejected God’s prophets. He calls them out for trusting in Solomon’s temple, rather than the God who had made his dwelling among his people. He pulls no punches calling them “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised.” This would hardly seem to be the words of a “grace-filled” servant of the word. Yet we are reminded in God’s word that we have been called to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Grace spoken with his dying breath gained greater significance because he laid the foundation of sin with the law. Stephen called them out for their sin and then released them of their guilt with his final words of intercession.

Finally, notice God’s grace in persecution. Jesus foretold of his death with these words from John’s gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Stephen scattered the seeds of God’s word even as the people spilled his blood. A young man stood nearby as a witness, Saul. God would transform Saul the persecutor to Paul the apostle. Through Paul’s preaching, the Gospel would go forth to the Gentiles.

The church’s response to persecution mirrors Stephen’s response.  This text challenges us to understand our strength in the face of persecution.  None of us here like to be persecuted, ridiculed, disliked because of anything, much less our faith in Christ.  How would you hold up to this kind of persecution?

So where do we go for strength in such things? Do you just dig down deep to find the courage and strength to stand against such things?  Our strength is in the power of God’s Word. We make use of that strength when we are bold to witness to Christ. Have faith that because Christ has died, because Christ has been raised, because Christ now reigns, your life, and your death, are secure with Him.  We pray in Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayer, “For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul and all things
” This is what we are praying each morning and evening in these prayers.

We ought to be humbled by Stephen’s boldness. Think about the times you have been silent in your witness to Christ. Certainly, there were times when your witness was not needed. However, there have been times when you were simply afraid, afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of offending others, afraid of getting into a fight, afraid of being on the “losing” side of things.  Well, I hate to tell you, to the world you are already are.

Such is the way with God’s reigning in Christ and His work of redemption.  To the world, Jesus lost with His death on the cross.  In the losing of His life, He gains eternal life for you, He forgives your sins.  Winning is not found in the glamour and prestige of the world, but in the cross of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

This text challenges us to let God’s grace define our witness; grace that speaks the truth in love, grace that calls a thing what it is, and grace that sows the seeds of forgiveness. In the martyrdom of Stephen, we are reminded that God’s word is always active and effective and the winning team. We may not see positive effects of the gospel seeds we sow, but the promise is there. By the power of the Holy Spirit, when the time is right, that seed will sprout into faith.