Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 7:51-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God.
I belong to a very new mission congregation in my city. We have a regular attendance of about twenty people. On Easter Sunday, our biggest service ever, we had nearly three dozen. Our building, a suite in a strip office building, might hold about fifty. I had a dream the other night that we had an overwhelming attendance one Sunday, not just a few dozen but thousands! The building somehow miraculously grew and people were worshipping in several rooms, including a very large warehouse which doesn’t really exist in our current space.
It is exciting to think that our little congregation might grow to be that large, but the dream wasn’t all rosy. The large crowd was overwhelming for us. We didn’t know how to deal with the logistics of so many people at one time. The leaders disagreed about how to deal with everything, getting angry because everyone thought they had the best answers. To add to the issue, we were having some sort of meal that day, and there was no good way to organize the people so that everyone would get a plate or a drink or a place to sit to eat. The dream ended before there was a solution, and I was left with this feeling of anxiety when I awoke. What would we do if we had such sudden growth that we outgrew our ability to minister in a day?
Think about this: the first followers of Jesus probably numbered a few hundred. At the beginning of Acts we have the eleven and then Matthias. Matthias was chosen out of a group of about seventy other men. There were also women who were committed and faithful followers. The number who gathered in the Upper Room during the wait between Ascension and Pentecost may have been about a hundred and twenty. They were joined together constantly in prayer.
Compared to the megachurches of today, a couple hundred people is a small number of believers, and yet it is a good size. Small churches allow that no one gets lost in the crowd. Food is shared and no one is left out. Problems are not hidden in the anonymity of a large group. It is obvious when someone is missing on a Sunday, and we are sure to call to find out if everything is alright. We can easily rearrange the space to accommodate disabilities and we can assure everyone that their voice will be heard.
It was easy, too, because the congregation was made up entirely of people from the same community. They were all Jews. They all had the same religious practices. They all followed the same dietary and cleanliness laws. They all spoke the same language. The situation changed dramatically on the day of Pentecost when three thousand people suddenly believed. Those who believed were from many different places. While at this point the Christians were still mostly Jews, they spoke many different languages. The Hellenists, for example, were Jews that lived in the Greek culture. The addition of three thousand must have been overwhelming, but we heard in last week’s passage from Acts that people were being saved daily.
At the beginning of today’s first lesson, Luke tells us that the number of disciples was growing so much that people were getting lost in the crowd. The Greek widows were not receiving the help they needed. It is really not that surprising, and definitely not a purposeful slight against the widows. But imagine how hard it must have been for those first leaders. They had to make sense of everything Jesus taught them. They had to figure out how to share His words with people from many different places. They had God and the Holy Spirit to help, but there were a million things to do. They could not possibly know every person who had come to faith in Christ. They had to find a way to meet the needs of the new Church while ensuring that the people’s individual needs are met.
Ask any pastor, of a small or large congregation, how hard it is to accomplish everything they need to accomplish! Some congregations depend on their pastors for everything, from preaching to scrubbing the toilet bowl. I recently had a conversation with a pastor who was dealing with a difficult situation at his church. The people expected him to put in a forty-hour day doing the things they thought needed to be done. So, they asked him to put on paper his schedule and to document his work. He included time for prayer. His members were taken aback: “You pray on the clock? Shouldn’t you do that on your own time?”
Notice how the twelve respond to this problem. They know that the work they are called to do is important. They tell the disciples to choose seven men to administer the daily business of the church. “But we will continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.” What comes first? Prayer.
See, they were doing something new and they knew that they could not do it on their own. It required God’s help. They knew that they could not push forward and make decisions without first listening to God’s guidance. Sadly, we make a lot of decisions in the church these days without seeking God’s help with the matter. We think it is more important for our pastors to clean toilets than to pray. We want them to fill their calendars with busy work that we could accomplish, when they should be spending most of their time in prayer and ministry of the Word.
Do you think that they just get up to the pulpit and speak without preparation? Even those pastors who seem to ‘wing it’ on a Sunday morning do so after spending hours studying the text. They do research. They compare texts. They check the Greek and Hebrew. They read commentaries. They do this with constant interruptions from parishioners who want them to account for every minute of their work day. I put in several hours of research and prayer for this devotion on Wednesdays, and I barely touch the surface of what the pastors are doing in preparation for their sermons. On those occasions when I do preach, I more than double the time I spend organizing my thoughts on the texts.
So, we are reminded by this text that our pastors need to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word without being tasked with jobs we can do. The twelve looked to the disciples for help. It is likely that men like Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus had been around for awhile. They may have been in the groups of disciples sent out to preach and heal while Jesus was still alive. They were probably in the Upper Room on that first Easter night and on Pentecost. They were not part of the twelve, but it is likely that they had heard and seen Jesus with their own ears and eyes.
The thing to note with these seven administrators is that they did not just wait tables. They were gifted with the power of the Holy Spirit which manifested in both word and deed. Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. His opponents could not debate against his wisdom. It is not surprising that the disciples would find opposition, after all, Jesus did and He told His disciples that things would be no different for them. There are always people, even in the fellowship of believers, who do not quite understand the truth or accept the power of God.
Stephen’s opponents manipulated the situation by getting others to make untrue statements about Stephen. The leaders took Stephen to the pit, the place where they tried and stoned those who were guilty of blasphemy. This was not a chaotic moment in time; it was a trial, carried out with order and purpose. There were dishonest witnesses, but Stephen did not try to overcome them. He simply told them the story, their story, and reminded them of God’s promises. He accused them of being just like their ancestors who ignored God’s judges and prophets. His speech infuriated the crowd, although they could see that his face looked like the face of an angel. God’s Spirit was upon him, and Stephen had no fear. The stoning in the pit was so much like Jesus’ own crucifixion. Stephen looked to heaven and saw Jesus at the right hand of God. He had no fear; he had only peace. Then he asked Jesus to receive his spirit and to forgive them. He died in faith, willingly standing firm in God’s Word even unto death.
I know that many of my readers do live in a time and place where physical persecution is a very real possibility. My Christian brothers and sisters in Nigeria and China are being beaten and their churches destroyed. There are many other places where Christians are beaten and killed because of their faith. Even in American, some Christians have been rejected and harassed because they are willing to stand up for their principles. Sometimes it seems like it is getting worse.
God often calls us to do things that we would rather not do. He calls us to share the Gospel with our neighbor, but we are afraid we’ll sound like a Jesus freak. He calls us to feed the poor, but we don’t want to give money to someone who will use the money for drugs or alcohol. He calls us to rebuke or correct a brother, but we think, “Who am I to do this? I’m not perfect or intelligent enough to do what God wants me to do.” We ask God for confirmation, for a clear sign that it is Him that we are hearing. We put off the task because we fear recrimination or we have doubts of the calling.
Jesus told the disciples, “Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.” Whatever we are called to do, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us.
The words of Jesus are some of the most comforting of scripture. He is preparing a place for us; one day we will be with Him. This is the promise of eternal life. In this world, leaders choose helpers based on their very human qualities. We try to hire employees who are qualified, who fit a certain expectation, who have the right education and experience. But when God chose the disciples He picked a motley crew of misfits. He did this for a reason: to show us that He doesn’t choose those who are perfect, but that He perfects those who are chosen. Stephen didn’t accomplish what he accomplished because he was particularly good or wise. He was good and wise because God gave him the power and the words.
He gives us the power and the words, too. As a matter of fact, the promise in today’s Gospel passage is as much for us as it was for those first Christians. Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do.”
As I read these words, I often wonder why the Church is not doing the same miraculous things Jesus did. I think there are many reasons. First of all, we have forgotten that God gives such miraculous powers. Perhaps we are afraid to ask for these things, out of fear that we will look foolish or that we will be disappointed. God has given doctors and nurses the ability to heal scientifically, so we do not look toward the supernatural for healing. When a Christian dies, why bother bringing them back into this world of sin and evil when they have gone home, where we all long to be?
Jesus said we would do miracles and even greater things. What are the greater things? He did not only heal the sick and bring life to those who had perished in flesh. He brought hope to the lost, love to the lonely and forgiveness to those who sin. By His death on the cross and resurrection into new life, He gave us all eternal life in Him. Though we should be open to the great and wonderful things Jesus can do through us for the glory of God our Father, we are still doing those greater things. By sharing the Gospel message with the lost and lonely, we bring them true life and spiritual healing.
God sees perfection from a much different perspective than human beings. In God’s mind, perfection is not judged by outward image. God recognized Jesus’ perfection by His perfect obedience. Jesus willingly became the cornerstone, suffered death and was buried, He allowed His blood to flow for the sake of everyone who would eventually believe. All things are measured and aligned by the life and ministry of Christ. One by one we who are His bricks, the saints from past, present and future, are laid on the foundation that is Christ.
Christians are called to something greater than the world expects. We are called to a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. According to John’s Gospel, the greatest sign, or miracle, of Jesus was His death on the cross, because there He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through His forgiveness. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We are called to take Jesus Christ into the world, to share His grace and His mercy. There is a chasm between God and man much greater than we ourselves can cross. We try to do so with good works, even following the example of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. We do the work of the church, like Stephen, feeding the widows and offering comfort to those who hurt. We are merciful to our neighbor. But there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God. We have no assurance that we have done enough. Anything of any value is done by God through us.
Stephen fed the hungry and met the needs of the poor, all the while sharing the Gospel of grace. Even at the point of death, Stephen cried out to the Lord to forgive those who were about to kill him. Jesus said we will do greater things, and that is what Stephen did. He is remembered as the first martyr, and so he was the first to follow Jesus into death. Yet, his martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven or a reward of eternal life. That was won at the cross of Christ. Our mission is not just about living the example of Christ in the world; it is about sharing the forgiveness He brought to the world through His death on the cross. There God is truly glorified.
We need not be afraid. We have the same Spirit that gave Stephen the courage to stand trial against liars. We have the same Spirit that gave him the grace to heal and preach. We have the same Spirit that will allow us to see our Lord Jesus Christ as He is, standing at the right hand of God our Father in heaven.
Martin Luther said, “All heaviness of mind and melancholy come of the devil; especially these thoughts, that God is not gracious unto him: that God will have no mercy upon him, etc. Whosoever thou art, possessed with such heavy thoughts, know for certain, that they are a work of the devil. God sent his Son into the world, not to affright, but to comfort. Therefore be of good courage, and think, that henceforward thou art not the child of a human creature, but of God, through faith in Christ, in whose name thou art baptized; therefore the spear of death cannot enter into thee; he has no right unto thee, much less he hurt or prejudice thee, for he is everlastingly swallowed up through Christ.” (From Table Talk)
We stand as a testament to the work of God in this world. He is glorified in our life together. We are built on that cornerstone that is Christ. Jesus was rejected; they did not see what God knew to be true. He was faithful. He was obedient. He was truly perfect in every way and God made Him the foundation of the kingdom He would build. He continues to build, lining us up, carefully placing each one of His children as part of the Church on earth. We can see the buildings we build, but it is much harder to see that Church which God is building. It is in our life, our service, our hope and our faith that the world can see God glorified. One day, perhaps, the world might even see God through the faith which allows us to stand against our opposition who seeks to destroy and possibly even kill us.
God is the Lord God Almighty, and our hope is found in Him, through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to live in hope no matter what circumstances we face. In faith we can join with Stephen in crying out to God our refuge; we can dwell in His presence today, tomorrow and always. And in faith we are sent out to share the hope of the promise of forgiveness with all those who cross our path, even those who oppose us. It is in the words of forgiveness that all people will be reconciled to God and welcomed into His presence forever. When we speak the words, we will truly see greater things happen because Jesus stands with the Father in heaven so that we can have His Spirit to do His work in this world.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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