Sermon Title “Act of Sacrifice” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! This is the last Sunday of our sermon series on Courageous Acts. We have been looking at the story of the apostles and the early church and the work of the Holy Spirit as told by Luke in the book of Acts. There is a lot of territory in Acts which we are not going to cover: Acts has 28 chapters, and this series has focused on chapters 2 through 6. I’ve shared about the Spirit’s act of communication on the day of Pentecost; the first believers’ act of care for one another; the act of healing which got Peter and John arrested and testifying in front of the Jerusalem council; their act of boldness in speaking about salvation in Jesus Christ; and the act of faith of the Pharisee Gamaliel, who recognized that if these men were speaking for God, they would be unstoppable. This morning I want to talk about an act of sacrifice by an early believer, not one of the twelve disciples (now eleven after the death of Judas). This is the account of a man named Stephen.
I have a man named Stephen in my family, and we have a couple of Stephens here at Creekside. You are probably familiar with the story of your namesake. The beginning of Acts chapter 6 gives us some context for his character and why he is important to the early church. As anyone who has been around church for any period of time will recognize, Stephen is called to step into a group of people who are complaining. The church has been increasing in number and is increasing its assistance to widows and orphans. The Hellenist, or Greek widows, are complaining that they are not getting the same amount of food as the Hebrew, or Jewish widows. I have no doubt that all of these women were in need, but it just goes to show that people who are getting free stuff can be quick to complain if they don’t think they’re getting as much free stuff as those other people who are getting free stuff. It takes wisdom, diplomacy, patience, and discernment to step into a situation like that. Fortunately for the church there are seven men to lead that effort, and fortunately for me, Stephen is foremost among them, so I don’t have to say Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas for the rest of this sermon.
Acts 6:8 says that Stephen is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, which is as high a praise as you can get from Luke, the author of Acts. Because of this ministry to the widows of Jerusalem, church history has come to identify Stephen as the first deacon, or the archdeacon. You probably know that both Stephen Barton and Stephen De Pue are deacons here at Creekside. Luke is not done heaping praise on Stephen — astute readers may wonder if something bad is going to happen to this guy. Chapter 6 verse 8 says Stephen is full of grace and power — another terrific combination — and verse 10 says his detractors in the synagogue could not stand up to the wisdom and the Spirit [that’s a capital S as in Holy Spirit] with which he spoke. Of course, gifts like that are going to get you noticed and land you in trouble. Jewish apologists don’t like being out-argued on their home turf of the Temple. So the Jewish religious leaders get some false witnesses to claim that Stephen was committing blasphemy — don’t miss the irony here — in order to get Stephen falsely convicted of speaking against the law of Moses, those Jewish leaders have to enlist folks are willing to break one of the laws of Moses; the one which says Thou shalt not bear false witness. Stephen is arrested and brought before the Jerusalem council. They look at him intently and see that his face is like the face of an angel.
I have never seen the face of an angel, and Luke does not unpack what that simile means, but here are some things which it could, and probably does mean: Stephen is a messenger from God; Stephen is filled with power from the Spirit; Stephen is innocent; Stephen is not long for this world. At the beginning of chapter 7, the high priest asks Stephen if the charges of blasphemy against him are correct, and the rest of Acts chapter 7 is Stephen’s testimony. He goes through Jewish history, emphasizing how the Jewish people resisted God and persecuted the prophets who spoke for God. He quotes the book of Exodus and the prophet Isaiah, and he ends with this blistering indictment in verses 51-53:
‘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? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
Now Stephen has done it. He has poked the bear; accusing Jewish religious leaders of not keeping the law is a terrible insult. I can’t think of an appropriate contemporary analogy to uncircumcised hearts and ears, but Stephen is accusing them of intentions and convictions which are impure and an unholy disregard for God’s will. And to make it all worse, Stephen is correct.
I want to hit the pause button on this narrative for a moment, because what happens next needs to be understood in light of what has already happened. Having people mad at you does not make you a godly person. Making people angry or upset is not a gift of the Spirit; people do it all the time. I make people here at Creekside upset without even trying. Having people angry at me is not necessarily a sign that I’m doing God’s will, or even that I’m doing a good job. Maybe people are mad because I was out-of-line: thoughtless or mean or stupid. There are lots of ways to be wrong. What got Stephen in trouble is that he was full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and he was filled with grace and power and the wisdom of the Spirit. That is the definition of good trouble, but good trouble can have bad consequences.
Stephen’s story marks a turning point in the book of Acts, where suddenly the new church of Jesus Christ is facing serious, coordinated, and brutal opposition. That opposition is headed up by a gifted and misguided Pharisee named Saul who “ravaged” the church (you can find that word in Acts 8:3) by going house to house and dragging out men and women and putting them in prison. That is scary stuff. Stephen’s Spirit-filled sermon to the Jerusalem council means trouble for him and whole lot of other people.
You are probably aware that almost 2,000 years after these events, the church of Jesus Christ is in decline in most communities in the United States. One of the freedoms we uphold and celebrate on Independence Day is the freedom to practice whatever religion we wish, or no religion at all. Where Christianity is making the greatest gains is in countries in the global south where there is resistance and even persecution. New Christians in those countries and people who work in mission with them are making sacrifices we may not be able to imagine. The greatest challenge for the church in our context may be apathy or indifference. Sacrifice means giving up something of value to gain something of even greater value: it means trading up. I can think of lots of examples, but the first to come to mind are parents of infants or young children who give up sleep, personal time, employment opportunities or resources for childcare in order to invest in their child’s health and growth. Athletes have to make sacrifices to train for their sport — even if it’s a sport they love. If we don’t see or aspire to the value of Christian faith, why would we give anything up in order to believe it and practice it?
In the church we talk regularly about Jesus’ sacrifice: an innocent man – a sinless man — who allowed an unjust government to sentence him to death and torture and kill him. What makes that situation unique is the character and person of Jesus Christ. There have been other people who have been unjustly executed — Stephen is one of them. He is stoned to death after his fiery speech to the council. What is noteworthy about that, as I mentioned earlier, is not the Pharisee’s anger, it is that Stephen was such a righteous and Spirit-filled person. Sacrifice is not an end in itself — sacrifice is the means to a greater good, and if we practice acts of sacrifice, we must keep that greater good, that greater goal in sight.I know that many of you have made sacrifices for the church and for this congregation specifically: sacrifices of time and money. I also know that I am mostly unaware of specific sacrifices you make — I don’t know what it costs you to be here and participate, in-person or on our livestream, on a Sunday morning. I hope you are here because something about Creekside is worth it, and I don’t assume it’s me. The fellowship of believers, proclamation of the Word, prayer, worship, singing, coffee . . . it is the commitment of each one of you which makes this a rich experience for all of us. We are unlikely to be killed, in this country anyway, because of our witness to the power of Jesus Christ, but there are sacrifices we are called to make, and that sacrifice has meaning when we dedicate it for the good of Christ and the church.