Acts 7:55–60. Disruption
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Our reading today is from Acts 7:55–60.
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.
Recently, we’ve been talking in these times about the importance of disruption, how it can be a horrible thing, and how it upsets our way of thinking, and of being, and of doing the way we do things around here. Sometimes, perhaps, we need to see any kind of disruption as a way of reviewing how we do those things, and here we are in the light of them. We often see the Book of Acts in the Bible as one that is triumphant, where the birth of the church has everyone living together in unity, and it’s all lovely. Like we had at last week in our reading when everybody followed the teachings of the Apostles, they gave, they prayed, they broke bread together in their own homes.
It all seems like a really lovely story, but then disruption occurs. Reality hits. Today, we will be looking at the reality of one person’s experience of what happened as a result of disruption. We will also start to discover what happens as a result of it.
One of the hallmarks of community during the coronavirus has been how many people have stepped forward to help their neighbours. I believe over 600,000 people have volunteered to be NHS helpers. Those who would happily phone people who are stuck in their homes during this period, or to do a regular shop for such people being shielded for 12 weeks or more in order to let the virus pass. As you know, here in Frodsham, a group of local folk came together to ensure that Open Hands did the job independently of the army of NHS volunteers, showing again what a wonderful community we are really a part of. It is exactly this kind of a role that Stephen initially stepped into. If we look back into Acts 6, the main leaders who felt their role was to teach the good news of Jesus and to pray, wanted to parcel out specific job roles to enable this new and burgeoning community of believers to flourish, whilst keeping the importance of prayer and teaching of Jesus central. And so twelve others were called upon, twelve others who are filled with the Holy Spirit, and grace, and all those other good and godly things that are helpful to a great relationship with God. Stephen was chosen as one who would deliver food parcels to widows or orphans. His job was to be a deacon, literally to serve at table. That’s what he signed up to. The role of someone like that is so important. Imagine if we didn’t have hundreds or thousands of people willing to help their neighbour during this present crisis. Imagine them just ignoring us if you’re stuck at home. Who would fetch my food? What about the daily newspaper? Perhaps food distribution was always one of the central roles of the church.
Stephen was one who stood up to be counted as one who was happy to take a food delivery around to his neighbour. I’m not sure that he signed up to be pelted with rocks until he was killed, yet we see with Stephen that there is a godly story. He’s got a back story. We only read a mini portion of his story a moment ago. It was at the end of a preach that he had made when he’d stood up in front of a crowd who were not liking this new community of faith after all. Stephen, we are told, is full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. He is not just the bread delivery man. He has a deep relationship with God, he has a heart to serve, and he knows his Bible. Early in Acts 6, he has been accused of the crime of blasphemy against God and the Old Testament prophet, Moses. Why? Because the people hearing him don’t want to hear that Jesus is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard Peter’s preach in our service, looking back at some of the Old Testament promises that God was making about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Peter had interpreted the day of Pentecost when he and the other Jesus followers had received the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of those Old Testament prophecies. The response of the people was that they had to repent, believe, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. That day, 3,000 people were added to the community.
In today’s message, Stephen was just as sold out to the message of God as Peter. The Holy Spirit seems to have galvanized him. He didn’t seem afraid of his accusers following his arrest and being brought to trial. Stephen explains what he knows from the Old Testament to show that what he is doing and saying as a Jesus follower is precisely another swathe of fulfilled promises from the Old Testament, but this time, he’s not talking to the common people. This time, he’s addressing the Sanhedrin, the high-level Jewish council that made decisions about lots of things of life, and faith, and equity. Stephen has been arrested for the crime of blasphemy and he uses his time to defend what he is doing, sharing with people who ought to know about their Messiah because of their Old Testament learning. Stephen goes on to summarize in Acts 7 what those movers and shakers of the Old Testament have done in order to obey God. Stephen was prepared to give an account for who he believed and why, and his defence turns into an attack, similar to Peter’s explanation that it had been the Jewish people who had killed the Messiah, Jesus.
Stephen causes disruption among the Council. They hate his message of accusing them of killing the Messiah. Once more, as we have seen in recent weeks, there comes disruption. Stephen has rocks hurled at him because of his faith. As a result of this, the Jesus followers mourn his loss. It needs to. He was killed maliciously and they’d lost one of their own. The group had to process its shock, and grief, and anger, and disbelief, and fear, and muddledness. Similarly in our own situations, perhaps we must allow ourselves to grieve what has been and what we are going through. Each has different ways of responding. There is never a good time for our lives to be disrupted. We can’t plan for disruption. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be disruption. What we can learn from it is that we have only now, this present moment. The future, or the future as we had planned it, is not guaranteed. Stephen was going about his deliveries, serving the faithful. He knew what he was letting himself in for when he addressed the Sanhedrin. Yet, galvanized by the Holy Spirit to speak those words, he spoke honestly. The truth wasn’t easy for those ears to hear. Acts mourns the death of Stephen and it records it as him being the first to die for his faith, which in itself acted as a catalyst for more persecution of the new believers in Jerusalem, until recently, seemed to have gained favour with those around them, showing the way of fellowship, koinonia.
Following Stephen’s death, there is even more disruption which leads to a scattering of the faithful outside the wider city. It’s not what the fellowship wanted or had planned. Looking back, it fulfilled the request of Jesus to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. That’s from Acts 1:8. We don’t like disruption. We don’t even have to welcome it, but perhaps we are called to do something about it and respond to it when it comes. Do I curl up into a ball and let it overcome me? Am I able to do something to help resolve it even if it doesn’t completely make the issue go away? Can I even venture to believe that God is with me in this disruption?
Someone sent me a lovely encouragement a few weeks ago. It said this. “Your pastor has never pastored a congregation through a pandemic before. Pray for him.” I have no clue how to really pastor a scattered congregation. I’m probably making huge mistakes or massive gaps in ministry. If I am, please let me know. I’m not perfect. Yet, amidst the upheaval, I’m learning to do new things, perhaps different things, so that together, we can cope. Perhaps, over the last few weeks, I’ve become more of a deacon, more of a table server in these weeks, supporting those who can’t get out. Sometimes, that feels like it’s at the expense of other parts of ministry, which is why, perhaps, maybe our Sunday services are a little bit shorter.
As we learn, perhaps later this evening, Sunday, of the government’s plans for easing the lockdown, beginning to ease the lockdown, it might mean more disruption for some. Perhaps we’ve become used to this new weird way of living. Perhaps we even like it, compared to two months ago. Perhaps we still hate it and we can’t wait for the Prime Minister to offer something positive, albeit slowly, offering us hope and a possible way out. Disruption has occurred. Again, the church has been scattered because of death. Over 30,000 deaths. The message of Jesus has gone online, to our neighbours, through letterboxes, on email. It may be some time before places of worship can re-open, and it is very unlikely that our worship times will ever be the same.
As we go through more transition and more disruption, let us not see this as persecution. Let’s see it as another way of being the missional church that God had always planned for his people. At the start and during the wait, we may well have to grieve the what was, and we may well struggle with what will be, whether it becomes the new normal or whether we just stagger our way through trying to find whatever we are becoming, but part of the formation of the new normal for the church is that journey of becoming. I want to ensure that whatever becomes of us as a fellowship presently scattered, just like those following the death of Stephen in Acts, that we do this together and that we do this as much as we can. Journeying and experiencing new things together, just like the apostles had to lead a new group of fearful, sporadic, scattered people, which wasn’t in the plan, that’s what it feels like to be a church leader – doing the best we can, feeling our way along. We’re going through uncharted territories just like the people of Israel did when they were in the desert for forty years waiting to enter the promised land, but yet they followed God. i
As the new church was scattered from Jerusalem, so they faithfully preached Jesus through their lives, through their words, and through their actions. I think, for many of us, this means to be a missional church, to act our calling: to love one another, to love our neighbours, to love God, to remain in fellowship, to commit our own learning of God whilst getting encouragement where we can gather, even if that is just by a phone call, or a letter, standing on a doorstep. I don’t know yet what the future of the church will be, whether it will be more community-focused, smaller groups looking out for one another, being prepared to work with other faith and community groups with an intentional focus on being able to support the more marginalized or debt-ridden or workless.
What I am convinced of at this moment is that we remain the church. Gathered and scattered, we remain the church. This will always be the case, but it may be that we are being forced into change that we don’t want. Perhaps we need to start thinking in future about our church buildings, what it will be like. Of course, more than the building is our role in the face of persecution and disruption is to remain faithful, filled with the Holy Spirit and of grace. This was the key to Stephen’s life and his loss, his following the Jesus way. Even in the same way that Jesus prayed, as he was being crucified, that his enemies would be forgiven, so Steven did the same.
Throughout our time of disruption, when we are asked to consider what and who we are becoming, the core of that remains the same. We are the body of Christ and, through it, all we can say is that it is worth following Jesus.
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