Co-Laborers For The Kingdom
Acts 6:8-15 (6:8-7:60)
Rev. Dr. Terrell Carter, Pinnacle Affiliate
One of the enduring things about any good story is that for every good hero there must be an equally powerful villain. But have you ever wondered why some characters becomes villains? In the Wizard of Oz lore, the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t always a bad person. She started out good, but due to people misunderstanding her motives and intentions, and spreading lies about her, her life took a turn for the worse. Darth Vader, originally a good Jedi knight, became a bad guy after a painful struggle between the light and dark, good and bad, sides of the force.
If your life was a story, how would you be described? Would you be the hero or the villain? An even more interesting question could be would it be possible for you to be described as both a hero and villain based on what part of the story is being told? Some could say that the story told in Acts 6-7 is a story of good guys and bad guys. The good guys were Stephen and the other disciples. The bad guys were the Temple and synagogue leaders that eventually led the crowd to stone Stephen. But, is that the only way to view this passage?
Sometimes a bad guy is a person who sincerely thinks they are doing what’s right. They may be standing on principles they truly believe in and they experience a legitimate conflict with someone with whom they disagree. Have you ever done that? Have you ever fallen out with someone who you previously had a good relationship with because you both saw something from two totally different points of view? In a sense, I think we can read what happens in Acts 6-7 that way. Something about life in the Hebrew nation had changed and everyone had a decision to make related to it. Would they follow the new thing God was doing, or try to live as they always had?
Tension is a given in any community. Tension isn’t bad. It’s a natural byproduct of living among other humans during a season of change. The primary conflict in Acts 6-7 surrounds the idea that one group believed God was trying to do something new for God’s people through the man named Jesus while another group failed to see this change and sought to keep things the way they had always been. The more I learn about the importance of the Temple, the more I begin to understand why the Temple and synagogue leaders were in an uproar about this new Jesus movement. They sincerely believed that God wanted the Temple to serve as the ultimate place of worship for the people. Based on their shared history and the teachings of the forefathers of their faith, the Temple was to be understood as the place where God interacted with humankind. It was the place where heaven and earth, the holy and the human, intersected.
But Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of what the Temple represented. Jesus taught that he was the person that best symbolized the meeting of heaven and earth. He taught that he was the bridge that covered the gap between the holy and human. If Jesus was right, it would be understandable that those who ran the Temple and synagogues would be afraid of what this would mean for them and all the traditions they held as important. If Jesus was truly the Son of God, then he was challenging those beliefs.
How would you respond to something like that? Seriously. Think about it for a moment. If I stood here today and told you that something your great-grandparents, and grandparents, and parents, and cousins, and aunts and uncles, and everyone else in your family had believed was true wasn’t, how would you respond to me? The Temple and synagogue personnel did what we all likely would have done. Despite the evidence that showed us we were wrong, we would likely fight to continue to believe what we had always thought was true.
When faced with the evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God, and God was now doing something new and marvelous through Jesus’ disciples, the Temple and synagogue personnel decided to continue to follow their old ways instead of getting on board with the new thing God was doing. They chose to fight to keep things the way they were. Specifically, they chose to fight against Stephen, a man, whom we learn, was doing good things for the sake of God’s kingdom.
They couldn’t imagine God doing something different from what they were used to. So, they convinced people to falsely accuse Stephen of heresy. They said that he taught that God wanted to destroy the Temple and get rid of the law of God altogether. We know that wasn’t what Stephen or any of the other disciples taught. They taught that Jesus was the fulfillment of both those things. Jesus even said it himself. But, again, if this was true, then those who had enjoyed lives of power and influence over the people would be out of jobs and authority.
They brought Stephen before the religious council and asked him if any of the charges against him were true. In chapter 7, Stephen delivered the longest sermon in the book of Acts. In that sermon, he gave clear parallels between how Jesus’ arrival and ministry was like the experiences of Abraham, Moses, and Joseph. These were leaders whom God used despite how people fought against them. The Temple and synagogue personnel couldn’t get past their traditions to see the truth of the new thing God was doing. They stuck to their long-held traditions and said that anyone who went against them deserved to die. And that’s what happened to Stephen. Before Acts 7 ends, Stephen is killed.
The Temple and synagogue personnel made him out to be their enemy. They told enough convincing lies that the people who just a few days before had been marveling at all that God was doing through Stephen and the church grabbed Stephen and stoned him to death. What an unceremonious ending to a life that was so effective. When Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7 is told, it’s usually about how he was faithful even with death staring him down. It’s framed as Stephen being the church’s first martyr, the first person in the young church who was willing to die for his faith. People lied on him, framed him, and set him up for the ultimate downfall. That is the story of Acts 6-7. But, is that all this story is about? I don’t think so.
Typically, when sermons are preached from Acts 6-7, Stephen is the hero and the Temple and synagogue personnel are the villains. Stephen is the model that all Christians should follow. Stephen is the model for what it means to stand strong when someone challenges you to not live into your faith. I believe that is one of the ideas that we can take away from this passage. When we are challenged to turn our backs on Christ, we should stand strong, no matter the consequences.
Stephen is the example of standing in/on your faith even when it leads to conflicts with those who hold power and influence, and those who prefer tradition over change. Stephen is the example of understanding that faith in God can be costly. Sometimes when we stand strong in our faith in God, we are victorious, and God delivers us from the people and circumstances that seek to overcome us. But, sometimes God allows us to suffer for our faith. Sometimes God allows us to be inconvenienced due to our faith. We are challenged to stand firm in our faith, nonetheless.
But, that’s not the only way to understand these two chapters. The people that brought charges against Stephen were doing what they thought was right. They obviously went about it the wrong way, but they thought their job was to defend their faith as they understood it. They couldn’t fathom the thought that they may have been wrong. They couldn’t see that God was moving on to a different way of being in relationship with them and everyone else.
If I were to be truthful, I would have to acknowledge that most times I’m less like Stephen and more like the Temple and synagogue personnel. I’m more likely to be the person fighting to keep things as they are and not willing to understand that God’s plan is bigger than me and what I think is best, even though I’m just trying to be faithful to the way we’ve always done things. Like the Temple and synagogue personnel, I make enemies out of people who should be my allies. Do you ever find yourself in that position? Fighting to protect your territory, your history, your point of view, or your way of doing things? That was the challenge the Temple and synagogue personnel faced, and they failed that challenge miserably. Stephen and the early church suffered greatly because of it.
When God begins to do something new, we face the same challenge. Will we welcome God’s work or will we fight against it? Will we listen to those whom God sends, or will we stand against them? Living in community with other human beings means living with tensions. When God begins to do something new amid how we are used to living, the tensions that are already present are ramped up dramatically. As humans, we tend to retreat to our separate corners, mark lines in the sand, defend our point of view, and make sure our history/our way of living is not forgotten. One of the questions this tendency raises is, is this what God wants from us?
I think this question is significant for most congregations as we seek to stay alive and keep our traditions relevant in a rapidly changing world. We think that anyone who wants to change tradition is an enemy who doesn’t respect our hard work over the years. We fail to see God trying to do something new in our midst. One of the questions we face is do things have to stay the same or will we trust God to birth something new through our efforts? Will we seek to keep things the way they have always been, or will we welcome what God is inviting us to do? Will we see the new thing that God welcomes us to participate in as something to embrace or something to be feared? Will we hold on to past experiences or will we welcome each other as co-laborers and work together for the building of God’s kingdom?
That is one of the primary challenges we all face today, tomorrow, and for the anticipated future. The challenge of trusting God and each other as we seek to participate in God’s kingdom building work. The question we must answer is how will we respond. Amen.