Presbyterian Church of the Eternal Hills
10 AM Virtual Worship premiere
June 14, 2020
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Amazing Acts of the Apostles: The Gift of Courage
Theme Verse: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Acts 2:43
Today’s Theme: In chapters six and seven of Acts of the Apostles, we hear about an extraordinary young apostle named Stephen. His faith leads him to preach and teach courageously to the court and he is sentenced to death by stoning. Even with his last breath he prays, “Forgive them, Lord.” Can we let our faith lead us to live courageously and forgive radically?
We have been looking at the extraordinary gifts bestowed upon the first followers of “The Way.” Last week we heard Peter step up to the plate and speak with such authority, that all the gathered listeners returned home to share the good news with their families — and the gospel on one day left Jerusalem in the hearts of 3,000 families!
This week our message is difficult to hear. Stephen, considered the first Christian Martyr, preached a sermon that summed up the entire history of the Israelites and presented the penultimate conclusion?
Here is it — I wish I could write conclusions like this:
‘You stiff-necked people,
uncircumcised in heart and ears,
you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit,
just as your ancestors used to do.
Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?
They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One,
and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.
You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels,
and yet you have not kept it.’
Acts, end of Chap 7, emphasis added
Of course, it did make the religious leaders so angry they stoned him then and there. If it was anything, it was the line about being uncircumcised in heart and ears. Stephen was addressing the most righteous of God’s people — the leaders of the Temple! How dare he call them “uncircumcised?” This language hearkens back to the prophets calling God’s children back into Covenant with sincere worship. Stephen was a remarkable leader, who was raised as a Hellenist Jew (of Greek descent, but Jewish as he was born from a convert mother and circumcised on the eighth day; this was a minority of Jews, but from his sermon we hear a proper education in the Torah). Earlier in Acts we read that he called the Temple leaders out for not caring for the widows and orphans as the Law demanded. The Apostles created the ministry of διάκονος, or what we call Deacons. Stephen was ordained as one of the first! They were called to the task of being servants — we say “the hands and feet of Christ.” It was the passion of the first deacons to care for those who fall through the cracks of the big Temple politics.
Stephen was speaking at a time that was a pivoting point of all history. We use the birth and death of Jesus Christ to divide our known time. This portion of history was known as “Anno Domine” or Year of Our Lord, which definitely shows how everything changed with the Christ event. Now children are taught about the “Common Era,” which doesn’t make it Christo-centric at all (BC, which I learned was history Before Christ, has now become “BCE” or “Before Common Era”).
The change in the way we annotate the era in which we live should be a wake up call that the days of Christendom are over. No longer does the Church (note the capital C on Church, which indicates the Church Universal — the entire Body of Christ) hold the reverence and esteem it once held in communities across the globe. No longer do we depend on people to immediately seek a church for membership when they move from area to area.
But we continue to operate things as if we are living in Christendom. What can we learn from the courage that Stephen showed as he stepped up and shared a stunning sermon? He wanted the leaders to hear that Jesus was the Righteous One who had been promised by the prophets — and they couldn’t hear it. Their hearts were not ready for it.
What message is difficult for us to hear? We too live in a pivotal time in history. Never in our life times has there been a global crisis like Co-Vid, and during this time of isolation and grief (so many things to grieve) we are crying out to “Just go back to the way it used to be.”
I’m sorry to let you know that we will never return to the “Way it used to be.” Nor should we. The Church had gone so far astray from what Christ has demanded of us that we too need a wake up call. Together I believe we can discern and seek out Christ’s Way forward. We may have some teeth-gnashing and our stiff necks may get whiplash, but together, I truly do believe we can find that way forward, when we can honestly pray, “THY kingdom come; THY will be done — on earth as it is in heaven.”
May it be so!