5th Sunday of Easter 5 “Scenes of God at Work”
May 7, 2023 Acts 6:1–9; 7:2a, 51–60
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
When you’ve asked your young child to count from 1 to 100, did they ever say, ‘one, two, skip-a-few, 99, 100!’ That’s what came to mind when I saw our first reading today. Acts chpt. 6 vs.1-9, then chpt.7 vs.2, and then skip-a-few, vs.51-60. I think our reading Elder missed a few verses in there! The reason for this is that the Stephen’s story is quite long. It’s very much worth your time to read; but for this morning, we just get some important highlights.
We do this for other things: we read a summary of a book first to see if we want to buy it or check it out at the library. Or we watch a movie trailer before we rent it or go watch it at the theater. With a movie preview, they often take a few of the most powerful scenes of the film & weave them together so that you have an outline of what the story is about.
For example: the preview begins with a scene of a pregnant woman driving when her car veers off the road & rolls in the ditch. Then the husband is by her hospital bedside weeping & there’s a brief glimpse of the hospital nursery. The next scene is of the husband, older now, in the stands at a NBA game watching his son sink the winning shot. Now you know the movie is a drama about a father & son overcoming life’s hard circumstances.
In our reading from Acts this morning, we have the account of Stephen = but it’s just excerpts; certain scenes have been spliced out of his story, mostly what’s skipped is how he recounts the history of God’s rebellious people – Israel.
First, we see Stephen, a man full of faith & of the Holy Spirit. He’s set apart in the church, overseeing food-care for the needy. Next, we have the scene of him doing more than distributing food; he’s doing great signs & wonders. Then suddenly he’s seized by some religious leaders. Next, we hear Stephen begin a sermon. The story cuts-out & back-in after about 50 verses, when we hear his big conclusion & righteous condemnation. At this point those leaders are boiling mad, & lay their coats at the feet of a man named Saul ==in movie terms that’s called a ‘foreshadowing’. And then Stephen looks up, and gives us a glimpse of Jesus in His heavenly glory as God’s right-hand-man; at this the leaders explode with anger, and stone Stephen to death.
So, what’s all in this movie? There are == Faithful Apostles & believers; /care for the needy; /miraculous powers; /a history lesson; /murderous threats; /an impassioned speech; /a glorious shining in the heavens, /& then blood flowing on the earth. And yet, over all the good & the bad, this movie shows God governing His people = His Church, & His kingdom.
This is the larger story we want to see this morning. We want to see God at work in the ordinary, and in the extraordinary, and in our own lives today.
The Holy Spirit is having Luke write of the ‘actions’ or the ‘Acts’ of the Apostles.
But in chpt.7, Luke wants us to focus on Stephen to help us see a particular example of God-at-work. We are used to seeing God at work among those handpicked Twelve Apostles as they went around preaching Christ & even doing a few miracles. But this focus on Stephen helps us to see that God was also at work among those other ‘ordinary’ believers, as they were doing things like feeding the poor widows of the day.
We know that the ordinary serving of believers was also the special work of God because the Holy Spirit records this scene in Scripture for us to read about, and we’re told that it was important that the HSp was evident in those seven men, even tho they were just doing some ordinary tasks, referred to as ‘serving tables.’ We certainly assume that Stephen must have the HSp to do those unnamed signs & wonders he was doing; but we might overlook the fact that all seven of those men needed to be full of the Spirit & wisdom to simply distribute food to the poor. God is at work thru all His servants.
If Luke was telling OUR story like this, we would see servants in their various roles. There would be a scene of the pastor studying the Scriptures, crafting a sermon. And then there would be scenes of one of our quilters quilting, the organist practicing, a greeter greeting, an usher ushering, someone making coffee, and another person gathering items for the food shelf, & the OrGrTr, & the ABC Sale. Here Luke is reminding us that the Holy Spirit is involved in ALL these ordinary things, & in ALL of God’s people. The same Spirit who enables the saving Gospel to be proclaimed, also empowers all the little routine acts of service for that gospel. God is at work in all His people. That’s why we hear of these seven & of Stephen.
It’s important for us to know that we all serve with the Spirit.
Likewise, when the very Son of God came into our world to bring about salvation, His works were both marvelous and mundane. Yes, He walked on water, & gave sight to the blind, & raised the dead to life = marvelous! But His life was also very ordinary: He welcomed children, talked truth with those who disagreed with Him, He befriended the outcast & the downhearted; He resisted the biases of the day when He visited Samaritan towns & spoke with the woman at the well.
It was a big thing that He once overtured the money-changers tables in the temple; but don’t forget that -every week- He worshipped, prayed, obeyed Scripture, & talked to others about faith-things. In this way, the Bible reminds us that God is at work in both the miraculous & the routine; the big things & the small. God keeps track of the whole world = nations & peoples; but Jesus also said that ‘Every hair of your head is numbered.’ God appoints important kings to rule nations; and Jesus also said that ‘not a sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing it. …and you have more value than many sparrows.’ (re Mt 10:29–30).
Using the story of Stephen, the HSp does not want us to fall for the devil’s lie that you & me ‘ordinary’ people don’t count in God’s Church & kingdom. In many simple regular tasks, God is at work in our lives. And ultimately, this is a gospel reminder. It reminds us that when Jesus suffered for our salvation on the cross, His mercy was truly for every sinner, great & small; no one was overlooked. Jesus is able to bring us all into God’s kingdom, where we have His grace & Spirit in the ordinary & routine parts of our living.
Of course, every Bible-believing Christian acknowledges that God works in extra-ordinary ways, even tho the most of us have never seen a ‘miracle’ of the Scripture variety. While we might not count the death of Stephen as a ‘wonder’ or ‘miracle’, with his death
we can still see God at work in a marvelous way.
If Acts 7 was a Hollywood movie, we would expect God to come in at the last second with a mighty deliverance. God, the superhero, would shield Stephen from the rocks, so he would go on to preach, & maybe even be promoted to be the 13th Apostle. But, God did not intervene like that; and He also didn’t just do nothing. God did a work, but in a way that the marvelous & the murderous are woven together. And this is a lesson found thru-out the Bible: God works wonders in the suffering of this world.
Let’s look at this scene again. Stephen is dragged out of the city & stoned. But he doesn’t just fall to the ground; Luke says he fell to his knees. Stephen kneels in reverence to God. It is a miracle of faith when, during suffering, a Christian will give themselves into the hands of God’s safekeeping. In this scene, Stephen is not just being knocked to the ground, he is kneeling in prayer to his Lord ~ Jesus.
In the same way, as Stephen is dying, he cries out. And what sound does Luke have us hear as this man is being hit with stones, the scream of pain? No. He is calling out in a prayer of faith. He says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” As Stephen dies, we hear that echo of Calvary, when Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Finally, when Stephen breathes his last breath; when it appears that Stephen dies from stoning, Luke -instead- tells us that he ‘fell asleep.’ That’s a death, not of rocks, but of faith.
As Stephen’s story is told, the HSp is teaching us lessons about our God & Savior.
Nothing is beyond God’s reach & will. Stephen is opposed & mistreated, stoned & bloody, he suffers & dies. And yet, God is at work in a particular way. God is able to enter into our conflicts, into our sufferings, & into our death, and nothing can stop His work of saving grace.
Jesus entered into this world threatened & opposed; He suffered & died in order to remove from us the condemnation of our sin, so we would share His eternal glory. And in rising from the dead, He proves to us that He has conquered all those ungodly & fearsome things that threaten us; He has broken death itself. There is nothing left to separate us from God’s love & our future.
God is at work in the world. Critics say that there can’t be a God when there’s so much wickedness; skeptics think God’s out there, He’s just not involved & we’re on our own. Misguided believers imagine that if you have real faith, God will rescue you from all suffering & give you success. Stephen’s story says different. Our God is present; He’s always present, in the good times and the bad. And the faith of His people is far deeper than in earthly things; their trust in God is like the trust of the Son in the Father, which is able to confess: ‘Father, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.’ That is the story of Stephen’s life of faith. By his suffering, this ordinary believer, with his ordinary serving, is joined to the cross & death of Christ; which means he is also joined to the glory & life of Christ. So, this is the story of your own life in Christ.
When you read the speech of Stephen, you will hear how he focuses on the wonderful work of God thru His people, thru history. He talks about God working thru Abraham in Mesopotamia, Joseph in Egypt, Moses at the burning bush, & Israel in the wilderness. God’s history is in calling ordinary people to live in faith & obedience to His Word – all their days & in all they do. And when persecution came or suffering happened, as it always does, God was at work: bringing His Savior into the world, & pointing the world to His Savior.
So, this is one way to view our first reading today from Acts 6&7. It’s a highlight reel, meant to encourage us to go & watch the whole story. And in the story of the life of Stephen, there is the lesson to see that God is at work in your life.
I imagine that on that day, when Stephen woke up that morning, he had no clue that his simple task of serving tables & living the gospel would stir up the religious leaders to arrest & threaten him, which would lead to an impassioned speech & call to repentance & faith in Jesus as the Christ. And he didn’t know that that day would end with him seeing Jesus in the heavens, & being dragged out of the city, and stoned to death. He only knew that morning that he had a faith to live, & some people to help, & a Savior to share with those around him for another day.
Since God has called you thru His Word of the Gospel of Christ Jesus; since He has washed you as His own in holy baptism & given you His own HSp; and since He has gifted you in certain ways to walk in this faith & serve those around you in support of His Church, so He has also promised to always be with you & to give you purpose in His kingdom ==
in good times and in suffering.
When we are caring for children, talking with those who are shunned or outcast, offering food or clothing or help to those in need, when we are speaking God’s truths to a world that doesn’t know it’s right hand from its left hand, & when we are willing to speak a word of forgiveness to those who don’t realize what they are doing, then With Stephen, whether in ways marvelous or mundane, we are serving God’s purpose as a faithful disciple; and nothing can separate us from His love & future in Christ. That is how God is at work each day.