Hope is Possible

May 07, 2023

Sermon 5-7-23
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It is just not the type of story one expects to hear in worship during the joyful celebration of the Easter season. To have a reading end as the one from Acts did today seems incongruent with today’s Easter hymn reminding us that, “love is come again like wheat arising green.” Life triumphs! Hope wins!
     Yet, I chose to focus on Stephen today, partly because he is important enough for at least two ELCA congregations in the area to be named after him. Also, we often overlook this text for the very reasons I already mentioned – martyrdom does not fit with resurrection. Yet, perhaps there is more here than meets the eye. We must begin, though, with a bit of context.
     We are introduced to Stephen when seven deacons are selected by the Apostles to take on day-to-day matters in the new community of faith, including the distribution of food to widows. Stephen is signaled out in the listing of the Deacons as a “man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” He also is described as full of grace and power and as one who did great wonders and signs among the people.
     When he was challenged to debate in the Synagogue, his opponents could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke, so they instigated rumors, accusing Stephan of blasphemy against Moses and God. Their lies led to agitation among the people and that led to Stephan being brought before the Jewish Council where false witnesses proclaimed that he, “never stops saying things against the holy place and the law.”
     As the Council stared at Stephen, his face was “like the face of an angel”. When he was asked, “Are these things so?” he launched into a speech (or sermon) that in the New Testament is 53 verses. Who knows how long and detailed it might have been when spoken? He gave a review of redemption history, focusing on Abraham, Moses and the Temple that culminates with a sharp condemnation of the authorities, particularly, but also his fellow Jews, in general.
     He accuses them of being unfaithful saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” And then, “You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
     It’s not too difficult to imagine why, when they heard this, his opponents became enraged, But, it is what happened next that is the tipping point from anger to violence. That’s all context; this is where we began reading today.
     Stephen gazes into heaven, sees the glory of God, and Jesus, and then announces his vision, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” There are two huge problems with this, as far as his opponents are concerned. One is that it is blasphemy since he is proclaiming that Jesus is equal to God. The second is that, if he is speaking the truth, if the vision is legitimate, then Jesus is alive and is the Son of Man, and his enemies, not Stephen, are wrong.  
     Commentator Stan Mast writes that if Stephen had not loudly witnessed to what he saw in the heavens, he would have lived to preach another day. But he had to speak; this is the first appearance of the resurrected AND ascended Jesus and the Lord is standing there next to God, as if ready to act, perhaps even return. How could Stephen not proclaim such good news?
     His enemies tried not to hear him; they covered their ears, shouted, rushed him and drug him out of the city. So it is that Stephen was violently murdered, committing his Spirit to God and forgiving his enemies in his dying moments, just as Jesus had done. Thus, he became the first Christian martyr.
     That’s that we might be tempted to say, but there is more. Because of Stephen’s death, wide-spread persecution of Christians began in Jerusalem. So, the believers scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, and the Good News spread as they preached the word wherever they went.
     Some would say it was for that reason that Stephen died, as if his martyrdom had been planned. I would put it a different way, which is this: in the midst of Stephen’s unjust death and its consequences, the Holy Spirit was at work so that, inspired by Stephen’s witness, the mission to non-Jews (Gentiles) outside of Jerusalem began.
     We are even introduced, as the violence unfolds, to the Pharisee Saul who is transformed into the greatest Christian missionary, but at this point approved of Stephen’s murder and guarded the coats of those who witnessed it.
     Stephen’s death brought new life to the developing church. It’s an example of tragedy being transformed into triumph. Quoting Commentator Mast, “Great loss became great gain to the glory of God, because of the Risen Christ by the power of the Spirit. That’s what this text is finally all about – the first non-apostolic preacher, the first martyr, the first time the church left the confines of Jerusalem, they first witness to the Gentiles, and the first step in the conversion of Saul, the missionary to the Gentiles. All of it driven by the Holy Spirit who turned ordinary people into world changing witnesses to the Risen, Reigning, Returning Christ.” (1)
     It’s important for us to remember that whatever challenges we face, the Holy Spirit is present, and although it may not be obvious how, redemption is possible. That does not discount the suffering. Stephen’s suffering was real, he experienced a horrendous death, yet he kept his eyes on Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit forgave his enemies. His loved ones mourned his death, no doubt asking why; perhaps they too were followers of Jesus, or joined the faithful because of his witness, and fled Jerusalem to proclaim the good news beyond the city. And the persecution of the early Christians brought with it pain and change; yet, inspired by Stephen’s courage and the Holy Spirit, they boldly set out and witnessed to the power of the resurrection. In other words, the spread to the Gospel that followed these tragedies helped redeem the suffering.
     These are not easy concepts to grasp. As I reflect on our world and consider the violence that harms, or even kills, innocent people in our world, on the suffering caused by unexpected loss - a death, or broken relationship or natural disaster and the unjust persecution of and prejudice toward the righteous, I’m tempted to say that it is all futile and hopeless. Yet, while I am not one to say that everything happens for a reason, I do believe that even the worst circumstances can be the ground from which hope grows. This was true in Stephen’s story. The more we expect the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the more we will see that life triumphs and hope wins. You see, this is an Easter story after all. AMEN
  1. “Sermon Commentary for Acts 7:55-60” by Stan Mast, May 10, 2020, www.cepreaching.org