God Speaks Through Difference: A Sermon on Acts 6:8-8:3 (The Sermon and Stoning of Stephen)

As we work our way through Acts we are starting to get a hold on what was going on with the very first Christians. This is a well articulated story of how this news of Jesus dying and rising again has spread to the entire world. It started with Jesus telling his closest friends, to the group of disciples to three thousand people and then it never looks back. This news is just too good to contain it and it starts to spread. But with this good news comes all sorts of complications. Such as that this very good news also seems to mean bad news for a lot of other people. It’s bad news for anyone who is in power. It’s bad news for anyone who abuses those who are weak. It’s bad news for anyone who thought salvation was through keeping the law. So Acts becomes this storybook of how good news spreads and all the problems that good news seems to cause.

So last week with Joe, we saw how this good news wasn’t translating as far as it should of. We saw that some people were being favoured over others. Some Jews were more important than others and weren’t being taken care of in the same way. The good news said that the oppressed were being freed and the poor were blessed, this wasn’t the case with everyone. Seeing this as a problem ahead of time, they decided that they would choose certain men, men that were known to live out the values of the Kingdom and be wise, and give them the responsibility to make sure that the widows were being taken care of. Isn’t it so interesting that the first job delegated from the twelve disciples was to take the seven best men they could find and make them responsible for living out the good news?

One of these men, his name was Stephen. And this is who we will talk about this morning. So let’s jump right into the middle of Acts 6 and find out who this Stephen character is.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)-Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia-who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

So here we go again. The first Christians stirring up all sorts of trouble with the established religious authorities of their day. Now remember from a few weeks ago we talked about these religious leaders and the kind of authority they had in their context. The Sanhedrin was the highest ruling body in Judaism that day. It was powerful. It was known. It was the equivalent to our supreme court today. They are the ones that can choose to put someone to death. So Stephen is dragged to these men and put on trial. These are the same people that Jesus would have had run ins with and would have eventually put him to death. It’s the same powerful people that are trying to control this situation, not let word get out and manipulate others into getting the results that they want. Stephen, being a man of grace and power, was not making this easy. He was doing signs and wonders, drawing attention to himself and this other guy that they already killed and they needed to squash it immediately. So this is the scene that Luke sets up for us leading into chapter seven.

We need to keep in mind here that Luke is an ultimate story teller. He fuses imagery and history into this beautiful flow of story that tells a lot more than just the surface words. Acts 7 is pretty long so I bolded some lines that I thought were important and wanted to focus on so we can pull a few specifics out of this speech by Stephen.

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 3 ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’

“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

“Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.

As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.

“At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.

“When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’

“But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.

After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’

“This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt-we don’t know what has happened to him!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon.

“Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him- you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Sorry that was so long. Well I’m not that sorry, if anyone should be sorry it should be Stephen. He was only asked one question, “Are these charges true?” Instead of just giving a simple yes or no, he goes on this rampage and starts storytelling. Now we need to keep in mind that the people that he was talking to were Jews. They knew the Torah, they knew God’s story inside and out. None of this was new. It was all the same characters and same stories. So Stephen is preaching to the choir here.

However, if we thought that you could only look at stories one way, or that you could hear a story once and then know all you needed to know, then we wouldn’t be Christian. Christian and Judaic history prides itself on it’s diverse past of seeing the story differently as to highlight different points. Remember when we studied the parable of the prodigal son and then slowly as the sermon went on we became to see the story entirely different, so much so that calling it the prodigal son would no longer do it justice, we wanted to call it the parable of the loving father and his two sons? Sure we can read the story one way and see that it’s about forgiveness and coming back to God. Or we can read the prodigal son and see themes of grace, bitterness, glory, retribution theology, jealousy, salvation and partying.

This is what Stephen did. His listeners knew the story, but they didn’t know the story like this. Stephen retold this story with an entirely different lens that highlighted and pointed to certain things that would give the story they all knew brand new meaning.

Q: Do you see what the angle is that Stephen is taking when he retells the story this way? What kind of lens is Stephen looking at this through?

Stephen’s retelling is through the lens of God fulfilling his promise and his people rejecting his messengers. If we go back and look at the parts that I bolded (so I pretty much gave you the answer), then you can see very specific points that Stephen is trying to highlight. It’s the story of God sending a prophet and God’s people rejecting the prophet. What Stephen is doing here is creating a fundamental critique of of power and the people of God and how they refuse to listen to the prophets of God. When you tell a story with a different perspective all sorts of new truth comes out.

We tend to hate to see the world through any other perspective but our own. We think that the way we see things is the way it is and everyone else is wrong. Remember when the whole Janet Jackson fiasco happened at the Super Bowl? Moby, a well-known artists said this

“a lot of time Christians seem to have their priorities all wrong – they seem to be concerned about things that shouldn’t merit that much attention – take for example the superbowl incident with Janet Jackson. I hear people say that they are more offended with the direction our culture has taken. And I’m like, well why not be offended by the super bowl? Why not be offended by the crass commercialism – that buying a new car is going to provide you with happiness and salvation? Why not be offended by the notion that grown men who beat the s- out of each other get paid $15 million a year, while schoolteachers in the inner-city get paid $24,000 a year? That’s offensive. If we are going to start talking about things that are offensive, a bare breast is at the bottom of the list. – Moby”

We tend to look at stories and history from the perspective that helps us the most. What Moby points out above is that Christians have understood their faith and morals with a specific slant. Janet Jackson revealing her breast on stage is massively offensive and how dare you be subjected to that kind of horrific display of depravity. What Moby states here is that there is plenty more ways to look at the Janet Jackson incident. There is lots of different perspectives to understand this story. There is a lot more going on here that you could be offended at. Yet many of us are unable to look at the situation any differently and just hate the fact that their kids saw a breast on stage.

This perspective dodging happens with all sorts of things. Morals is just the beginning. Ask any right wing republican if the government should allow a Mosque to be built close to the site of 9.11. Those opposed to the mosque being built next to ground zero are unable to see the world from any other perspective. At one hearing where the decision was being made, a women said
“it would be a terrible mistake to destroy a 154 year old building in order to build a monument to terrorism”
Really? A mosque is a symbol and its only meaning is that of terrorism? Not a worship place for a God that we once called our own for a religious community that is as old as our own?

What we see here is actually a classic example of story after story of someones perspective being challenged and then their response after. It is usually anger, bitterness and rage. Perspective is all a lot of people have. The way they see the world is solid truth and they need to control that and keep proving it over and over again to themselves and their kids. For instance, there was a conflict this week with a friend that was an employee. So I went to the store to help try and resolve a conflict with her and the boss. The boss was convinced in her mind that her employee had stolen things from her. She had an entire story made up in her mind about how her employee had stolen all these things. She knew that her employee had done all these things because one time she saw her daughters plastic sunglasses fall from the scarf of this employee. I’ve never seen anything quite like it actually.

When I tried to simply point out that she was jumping to massive conclusions and making assumptions with no real proof she got even angrier, made more accusations and got more petty. As the conversation moved along and the other perspective was laid out on the table, it only served to agitate because this boss already decided on what was the absolute truth in this situation was. At no point did she want to hear another perspective or understand it from a different side especially one that would paint in any sort of light that she was the crazy or wrong one. Anyone who was telling her any different was instantly her enemy. We eventually got asked to leave the store as she stormed off in a rage because we would dare state that the thefts that she claims happen, didn’t happen. It was all quite weird. We weren’t really sure how to handle it. The same sort of situation sort of happened with Stephen. He retells the story of God to these people who know the story off by heart, but he offers a different perspective.

Stephen criticizes the temple setup, and the sacrificial system and the law that the held on so tightly too. But really what caused the break down was that Stephen faced right into a story that people were comfortable with and disrupted it. Not only that, he flipped the story on their heads. He showed time after time how God sent a message through prophets and no one listened. Then he tells them that they haven’t changed, they are still like that. They still aren’t listening and they are missing out on what God has for them.

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

These folks are angry! Gnashing of teeth? That’s the same language that the Bible uses for what Hell was going to be like. Can you picture it now? The top law makers and judges in the country all with their hands over their ears yelling at the top of their voices. It’s all quite childish, but this happens all the time. I saw it happen first hand this week with this boss and employee, but I think it happens in more subtle ways in our own lives.

Q: In what times do you put up walls against hearing things from a different perspective?

If there is one thing that we can learn from this story, it is that we need to learn the art of embracing and listening to other people’s perspectives. Even if it is offensive and hurtful and flies in the face of everything that you have ever believed and thought. This is a difficult place to be in, but the alternative isn’t that nice either. God speaks through difference. He speaks through contrast. Just look at the offensive stories Jesus tells. Whores and thieves, party boys and Samaritans are the major players all through the gospels as the good examples and the way to live in the Kingdom of God. This is a mind altering understanding of how the world works. If there is one thing that we have repeated over and over again at theStory it is that we need to look at things differently. We need embrace other people’s stories as legitimate as our own. The hard parables and the messages of the Bible we dive into head first because we see value in being challenged. The rules of dialogue that we have on our walls behind us are a reminder that we dialogue, we listen, we talk, we learn, we educate others. It’s all part of how people grow and how the kingdom grows. We listen and embrace other perspectives.

Stephen didn’t have the luxury of dialogue. What he had to say was so offensive and angered so many people that it was this point when the entire church started to become persecuted.

And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

I think that one of the places that Christians will find themselves in a lot, is facing head first into stubborn people. Christians speak truth, face into oppressive systems, expose unhealthy directions – Christians throughout history have been on the front lines of social change.

Back when I was a kid, there was always this story going around about these masked men who came storming into a church one Sunday with guns. They yelled at the top of their lungs that anyone who wasn’t willing to die right now for Jesus to leave. A number of people scurried out of the room. We heap guilt on people that we need to be willing to stand up to gun men and claim out loud your faith in Jesus. This is the best way we know how to explain standing up for our faith and being persecuted. The best part of this story though is after they scared away all these so called Christians, they ripped off their masks and said “allright, now we can worship with the true Christians.”

There is this odd understanding in today’s western world of persecution and opposition. On my Ghana trip, I was having conversations with Canadians who were feeling persecuted by the government because it was left leaning at times and they were allowing Muslims to pray in schools but they weren’t allowed to call Christmas Christmas. Persecution somehow now means that if someone opposes you, you are being persecuted. But here we are staring at the life of the first Christian martyr ever, and we get a very different picture of what was happening. Stephen was martyred because he stood up for justice and faced into the corrupt power systems of his day. When you face into power and expose them for what they are. You get killed. Christians like us don’t get killed because our words and our lives go along with the power systems, we don’t face into them. We think they are normal, should be expected and we just go on living out our lives. This is why we don’t get killed.

Luke tells this story in a very specific way. This is why I highlighted what I did in the verse. The language of angels is used a lot. At first we read that Stephen had the face of an angel and we see that as meaning with a halo and bright and angelic. But really, after reading to this point. We can see that angel in this context doesn’t mean our regular understanding of angels. An angel in this point is someone who is telling the truth about what God is doing and is going to do. Stephen keeps referring to an angel who God’s people rejected. An angel through a bush, an angel on a mountain, and God’s people kept rejecting him. Luke says Stephen face was like an angel. Luke is telling this story in such a way that we see the same story unfolding in the same way. God’s people are rejecting yet another one of God’s prophets. Stephen’s version of the story is that God kept coming back to his people, kept sending prophets to them and God’s people kept rejecting it, and continued to refuse to see the world any differently. Then Stephen lives out this story in the same way that he tells it. Through their anger they fulfill the inevitable end that they would become just like everyone else with how they respond to God’s call. Within moments, the guy whose face was like an angel lay dead on the road.

So we end today on kind of a downer. Stephen is dead and Saul is running around killing anyone else that is saying these things. He’s trying to squash this news before anything else gets out of hand. So let’s pray together and then we will eat.

A prayer based on Acts 7.

Merciful God,
We need a new perspective
We need to accept that our perspective might be wrong
We need the courage to see live through the eyes and ears of the other

Compassionate Father,
Give us love for those who aren’t like us
Remove our hands from our ears and silent our voices
Take the stone out of our hands

Loving Saviour,
We repent for the times we did the wrong thing
We repent for the times when we did nothing
We repent for the times we don’t care

Righteous Judge,
Give the angels in our midst courage and strength
Let us not kill, ignore or disregard them
Give us willingness to live like angels