A Provocative Church: Courageous At All Costs
Acts 6:12-15, 7:54-8:1
When we think of the names of those who helped to shape the early Christian church, we tend to think of names like Peter, and John, and Paul, and Barnabas. Not often do we think of the name Stephen. That’s a shame. Because, in a way, Stephen may have had the greatest impact of them all. He was the first martyr of the Christian faith. He died tragically, stoned to death for his courageous faith, and yet, his all too short ministry and his martyr’s death provided the inspiration and the courage others needed to create what we know today as the Church of Jesus Christ.
Stephen was one of the first seven to be elected deacons in the early church, and he gave himself to a ministry of love and healing. He was so effective in his work for Christ that enemies of the faith began to conspire against him. However, knowing full well the risk in doing so, Stephen preached one of the greatest sermons in all of the Bible. It is recorded in Acts 7. In that sermon, he declared that those who were opposing him were opposing Christ. When his enemies heard that, they were enraged and ordered Stephen to be stoned to death. Yet, even as the stones were slamming into his body, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, with his last breath, he looked at those hurling the stones at him and prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
The parallels between the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus are plain for all to see. Stephen, quite obviously, patterned both his life and his death after the life and death of his Savior. Now, as we look at this amazing man and his equally amazing courage, I want to share with you three little one-liners which, if you incorporate them into your life, will bring you strength and courage. I want you to make note of them, so I’ll help you to find them as we go.
First Point: Stephen’s courage arose out of his powerful faith.
In Acts 6:5, we read, “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” The world declares that seeing is believing, but faith is defined as believing without seeing. Stephen could not see the Holy Spirit, yet still he believed; still he was full of faith.
At this Thanksgiving season, we remember the faith of the Pilgrims. It was on September 16, 1620, that they boarded their little ship, The Mayflower, and set sail for this land. They had no idea what they would face in the future, but still they launched out in courageous faith. Sometime later, William Bradford, the first governor of Massachusetts, wrote of those Pilgrims, “They committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed. They were moving out onto a sea where none of them had sailed before. No member of the crew had ever crossed the ocean which lay before them, and they were moving to a land which none of them had seen before. But, in the face of all these things, they had a deep, profound faith that they were moving in the love of God, and though they had not seen, still they went ahead.” They, like Stephen, were courageous because of their belief. So, mark this down. Here’s the one-liner: What we believe in life is what we become in life.
I take that from a great line in James Michener’s novel, The Source. A woman is standing by the door of her house, weeping because her husband is taking their newborn son to the temple to be sacrificed. In those days, they believed that that was required to gain approval of pagan gods, but, deep down, this woman knows it is not right. Later we see this same woman standing by the same door, again, weeping. Why? Because, her husband is going to consort with the temple prostitutes, another accepted practice, but, deep down, this woman knows that it is not right. Then, Michener has her say a terribly profound thing. Speaking of her husband she says, “If he had had a different god, he would have been a different man.”
It does make a difference what we believe, doesn’t it? A huge difference. Stephen believed in Jesus Christ, though he could not see Him. Stephen believed, though he could not prove it, that whether he lived or died, he could not be pulled from the loving arms of God. Stephen’s courage flowed out of powerful faith. Remember the one-liner: What we believe in life is what we become in life.
Second Point: Stephen’s courage arose out of his knowledge of the Bible.
Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is, in essence, the story of the Old Testament in miniature. He took the great message of God’s love in the Bible and applied it to those people who were attacking God’s love in Jesus Christ. Stephen not only knew the Bible, but he knew how to apply the Bible to life and the world around him.
Back when I studied in Jerusalem, one of my fellow students was Bishop Robert Morgan of the Methodist Church. In his book, Lift High the Cross, Bishop Morgan tells of a woman who has a gift shop on the Via Dolorosa in the old city of Jerusalem. Her name is Frieda Hannah. She is a Palestinian Christian. She does beautiful embroidery and cross-stitch work. She has been in business at the same spot, for over 30 years, and she uses the money she makes to help suffering Christians. The years of intricate handiwork have left her eyes failing; she wears thick glasses. Yet, because of her radiant spirit, no one who visits her shop ever forgets her. One day, Bishop Morgan was in her shop when a Christian tour group came into the shop, as well. Bishop Morgan noticed that many of the group were carrying Bibles in their hands, but he also noticed that they were rather pushy and demanding, even rude. About that time, some Palestinian children came into the shop begging for money. Some in the tour group became quite indignant. One was heard to say, “They need to get those dirty little beggars out of here.” Bishop Morgan was standing near enough to Frieda Hannah so that he knew she heard. He immediately apologized to her for his fellow Americans, even though he did not know them. Frieda’s response was, “Oh, that’s all right. I learned a long time ago that many people who take the Bible literally, do not seem to take the Bible seriously.” Frieda Hannah not only takes the Bible literally, she takes it seriously. She knows the Bible and she knows how to apply it.
Mark this down. Here’s a one-liner to remember: Love this book and its truth will shine in your life. We see that so clearly in Stephen. His knowledge of the Bible governed not only what he believed, but also how he lived. Dear friends, lean upon the Word of God for it charts our journey to successful, significant living. Yes! Love this book and its truth will shine in your life.
Third Point: Stephen’s courage arose out of his magnificent love.
Please remember how Stephen, even as the large, jagged stones pummeled him, prayed for the ones who were murdering him in cold blood. He said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” What magnificent love. You know, there are some people who say that when you give yourself to a loving style of life, that life becomes easier and you do not know the hurt that you’ve known before. Let me tell you as honestly as I know how that I do not believe that to be true. What I believe is that every time you extend the circle of those you love, then whatever hurts them is going to hurt you. Mark this down. Here is a one-liner to remember: The more you love, the more you hurt, but there is power in the pain.
I am not likely to forget the day I heard Air Force Chaplain James Witt speak. He told of the time a number of years back when he was flying into Cincinnati. It was not a military flight, though most of the passengers on board were military personnel. Chaplain Witt was seated next to a young airman with whom he had become good friends. The Cincinnati airport, which is actually in northern Kentucky, was at the time, regarded as a dangerous airport. That night, as this plane approached the runway through gusty winds and driving rain, something went awry. The records later showed that the pilot tried to abort the landing, but it was too late and the plane plowed into the ground. The plane broke in half; the fuel tanks ruptured, releasing gasoline. Chaplain Witt, in the inky blackness, felt for his seatbelt and released it. He then called to the young airman sitting next to him. No response. He reached out; the young man was there, but not moving. The chaplain then unfastened the airman’s seatbelt, and managed to pull the young man up onto his back. He could smell the fuel and knew that an explosion was imminent. So, getting down on his hands and knees with this young friend on his back, he began to climb up the center aisle. I say “climb” because when the plane broke apart, the half he was in was pointed upward. Suddenly, as he was climbing, he felt himself falling. In the darkness, he had crawled through a break in the fuselage and he fell, holding onto his friend, 20 feet to the ground below. The fall shattered his right leg. Nevertheless, he struggled up, still holding his friend, and he hobbled as far away from the fuel-soaked plane as he could get. He then collapsed onto the grass, holding the young airman close to him. He took his friend’s pulse. It was weak, but the young man was still alive. Then, the emergency vehicles arrived, and, in the glare of their headlights, the chaplain looked at his young friend and he realized that the young man’s chest and most of his face had been torn away. The chaplain knew the young man would not live. In that moment, this young airman clasped the chaplain’s hand with his one hand and with his other hand, as a Roman Catholic Christian, he crossed himself where his face and his chest should have been, and then he died. Chaplain Witt sat there in the cold, driving rain holding on to the young man until help arrived. The chaplain telling that story years later said, “At the moment, when he held onto me so tightly, showing his love for me, and then with his other hand crossed himself showing his love for God—in that moment, in spite of everything else, he looked to me like an angel.” As Chaplain Witt said that, he began to weep. But, I then thought to myself, there actually were two angels there—two people loving God and loving each other. Remember, please: The more you love, the more you hurt, but there is power in the pain.
Stephen was courageous at all costs. His courage helped to shape the early Christian church even though it cost him his life. You see, Stephen patterned his life after the life of Jesus Christ and then, in his life, Stephen made a difference for Christ in this world. I call us, today, to do the same.