Solid as a Rock!
Rev. Elaine Graham
It is believed that the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke were written by the same person; the gospel of Luke being part one and the Book of Acts being part two.
Luke’s gospel describes the ministry and passion of Jesus, while the book of Acts describes the events after the ascension of Jesus. It is in the book of Acts where we hear stories about the early church – where we learn about the people who were instrumental in the formation of the church. It is where we learn about the travels and the challenges that the first Christians faced, challenges that came from both those who were inside the circle of faith and those who opposed the circle of believers.
There is no doubt that these were incredibly challenging and dangerous times for the early church.
The Book of Acts introduces us to the concept of deacons. Now for those of you who are not up on the roles and responsibilities of Deacons let me take a minute to share with you a little bit about the work and ministry of the early Deacons.
Deacons were very important people to the church and while it was a privilege to be a deacon, it was also hard work. And not just anyone could be a deacon, in fact in order to be a deacon one had to be "ordained" a deacon by the laying on of hands by the disciples only after the community had reached consensus about the person. A process that is in keeping with our current discernment process in the United Church.
The primary role of a deacon was to distribute food to the needy and to make sure that the various members of the community were treated equally and that all were sufficiently cared for. The work of the deacons was what you might call the hands-on work of the church. They were the ones who really knew the people and their needs, they were the ones who witnessed the injustices first hand, and they were the ones people turned to for help. A significant part of their ministry was to accompany those on the margins and give voice to the oppressed.
Scripture tells us that Stephen was the most gifted of the seven deacons who were chosen to assist the apostles. Stephen is described as "full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (6:5), "full of grace and power, [doing] great wonders and signs among the people" (6:8).
The one thing that the Deacons were not called on to do, was to preach – Stephen must have missed that memo, because not only does he take on the role of preacher, he takes on the role with passion – a passion that gets Stephen into all kinds of trouble.
Just prior to the scripture passage that we read this morning from the book of Acts there is a very lengthy sermon preached by Stephen where he gives an overview of the history of the grace and mercy that God had showered upon the people of Israel, with specific emphasis on how God had fulfilled divine promises time and time again illustrating the greatness of God – which sounds great until Stephen turned his words towards narrow-mindedness of the human race.
Needless to say, while it was a very powerful, passionate and truthful sermon, it was also a very threatening and unwelcome sermon. Following this sermon, Stephen is put on trial. Following the trial, he is stoned to death, making Stephen our first Christian martyr.
It is interesting to note here that the earliest definition of a martyr was someone who witnessed for Jesus, in other words, someone who went around telling others about Jesus. But with time, the term "martyr" has come to mean someone who has died at the hands of persecutors because of their faith and beliefs.
There is much glorification and adoration surrounding this story and martyrdom. But the reality is that martyrdom is not all that it is said to be. Some cults glorify it, some major religions speak glowingly of it, many Christians accept it as a possibility as long as they are not the one being martyred.
Personally I am not comfortable with the idea of martyrdom and I wonder how I would manage should I ever be tested in that way.
As this is my last Sunday with you folks I will let you in on something that I rarely share with people and that is that I share a birthday with Hitler which is just plain creepy and disturbing.
I also share my birthday with another tragic event and that is the shooting at Columbine. On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to school with duffle bags full of guns and ammunition. During their shooting spree they injured countless people; they also shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before turning their weapons on themselves.
It is believed that some of the students were targeted and shot because of their faith. One of those students was Rachel Scott. A few weeks prior to the attack Rachel had spoken to Eric and Dylan about her faith in Jesus Christ. A brave and bold thing for any teenager to do, but especially brave for Rachel to have approached these two particular fellows as they were somewhat unusual in nature.
It was reported by a fellow student who was injured during the attack and was beside Rachel at the time of the shooting that Rachel had been injured by the first shot. While she was lying face down on the floor, the attackers pulled her head up by the hair and asked her if she still believed in God. Her answer was "Yes, I do." They then shot her again, this time killing her. Like Stephen, Rachel Scott, died a martyr.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that God wants any of us, especially children to die like that. I don’t believe that pain and suffering is what God wants for anyone, so where do we find hope from the death of Stephen and the death of Rachel Scott?
Believe me I have been struggling with this all week, so back to the book of Acts I went to look for hope.
It is in this particular scripture reading that we met Saul, better known to us as Paul. We are told that “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
This tells us that Saul was present at the stoning of Stephen and would have heard Stephen’s final words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” We can only imagine what Paul would have learned about forgiveness, generosity and faith from his encounter with the stoning of Stephen.
Eventually, Paul would pick up where Stephen had left off in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. In a short time, Paul would find himself surrounded by people who were angry because of what he was saying. And this is where I find hope in this story.
Paul had witnessed Stephen’s faithfulness to God and his forgiveness of others. Paul had first-hand experience of Stephen’s deep commitment to his faith and the impact that that faith had had on him when he was a non-believer.
Paul knew from experience that just because in the moment of proclaiming the good news of Jesus it looks or feels as if no one is listening that that is not necessarily the case.
Paul himself was the perfect example of this, for surely Stephen’s commitment to Christ in death had a huge impact on Paul even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
And I believe that the same is true for Rachel Scott, her commitment to her faith is a story that is widely told, and her story of faith has touched the lives of countless people. Her story and her dedication to preaching the gospel lives on.
The story of Stephen, Rachel and the numerous other martyrs that have gone before us challenge us to consider what it means to live faithfully. I don’t believe that we have to die to change the world but I do believe that we need to live in a particular way and move in a distinctive direction to change the world. And I believe that we all have the opportunities to change our world.
Listening and truly loving and caring for our families and our neighbours is a start, as is shaking loose our biases and prejudices. Becoming aware of the needs of those in our communities, supporting the work of the Mission and Service Fund, supporting the foodbank, and volunteering are things that we can do as a faith community to change our world.
Educating ourselves about current issues such as domestic violence, participating in prayer chains and discovering our social justice passions will bring about positive change. You may already have a passion, follow that passion for through your passion comes hope for a better world.
We will each have our own journey towards bringing change into our lives, our homes and our communities and the good news is that God promises to be with each and everyone of us on this journey.
It has been my absolute pleasure to have been in ministry with all of you these past four and half months. I am so excited by the journey that you are on and I look forward to coming to sit in the pew some time.
I will continue to hold you in prayer confident that God will continue to your guide as you work together to build God’s vision of shalom.
Peace be with you. Amen.