A sermon idea based on Acts 7:55-60.
The Big Idea
There is the way of violence, in which we are committed enough to our ideals to utilize power, force, and even violence to protect them. Or there is the Way of Jesus, who showed us that there is a love worth sharing even if it means laying down our very lives in the face of violence.
Acts 7:55-60 NRSV
 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.  Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
In preparation for preaching from the story of Stephen’s death, it’s good to remember the tension surrounding the scene. We get a glimpse of an emerging faith (what would come to be known as Christianity) clashing with its religious surroundings and roots (Second Temple Judaism).
There was tension surrounding the issue of race (Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, and who should be welcomed into the Kingdom of God). There was tension surrounding Hellenism and Roman rule, with many still resisting being Westernized and others welcoming it. And there were theological tensions about the ways in which the apostles kept bending the Hebrew scriptures to point to Jesus as Messiah and King.
Stephen had preached a lengthy sermon about the history of the Jewish people, and up until the end, everyone was probably in agreement. But then, he had taken the story in a direction that made the Jewish leaders very uncomfortable, pointing to the crucified rebel, Jesus, as the risen leader of God’s kingdom, enthroned by the Father himself.
This was just too much, and so they stoned him. It wasn’t the first incident of religiously-motivated violence and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. And Stephen’s death as one of the earliest Christian martyrs points out that there are two ways we can hold our most cherished beliefs.
Way #1: We can give our lives to ideals worth protecting with violence.
Way #2: We can give our lives to a love worth sharing to the point of death.
It’s interesting that the author of Acts, just two chapters later, records Saul referring to the early Christians as “followers of the Way” (9:1-2). Jesus had declared to the disciples that he himself was “the Way.”
The Christian faith is not about an acceptance and affirmation of a particular set of beliefs or the practicing of a collection of rituals. The Christian faith is ultimately a Way – a pathway on which we get to walk with the Triune God.
The first few generations of Christians walked a pathway that put them at odds with their surrounding culture, so much so that the faced various waves of persecution. Later, after Constantine’s vision in 325 ad, the Christian religion found itself enjoying the protection of the state and its majority status, even if its growth was due in large part to coercion by various state powers over the centuries.
It was also in the fourth century that the major councils of Christian leaders defined Christian doctrine more particularly in the major creeds of Christendom. And then came the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and our modern conundrum in which the Christian faith is at a crossroads.
Will we be a people who, like earlier generations, were willing to use power, privilege, position, and even violence to protect our turf and or majority status? Or will we be a people who walk a pathway worth the laying down of our lives in order to win the world over to Jesus?
The idea that modern American Christians might resort to violence in defense of their beliefs and values might seem preposterous, but it was just a few years ago, during a hotly-contested presidential election, that I was approached in the lobby of our church with a disturbing question.
A young man wanted my opinion on whether or not he should join a particular organization that was making news for its involvement in various protests around the country. And their involvement was not in protesting against systemic injustice but in attacking and beating those who were doing so.
Could it really be that someone who had been attending an evangelical Christian church for some period of time had gotten from the teachings of Jesus that he was being led by God to, in his words, “fight to protect our nation and take back our country?”
His confusion highlights the point. Today, there is a popular version of Christianity that has wandered from the Way of love and nonviolent resistance to corruption and injustice and has, instead, chosen the way of power.
Stephen died at the hands of those who used the power of the state even to the point of violence to suppress those whose beliefs threatened their way of life. When we, as followers of the Way (of Jesus, that is), must resist every temptation to be like them.
There are people who hold their ideals so dearly that they are willing to defend those beliefs against any competition, even if their tactics lie in direct contradiction to the love and the values Jesus taught. Jesus calls us to a higher understanding of God’s will that moves us to live in love toward all people and to lay our lives down in the face of violence, if necessary, to protect those who suffer.
About the Cover Art: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.
- Sprinkle, Preston (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 304 Pages - 04/01/2021 (Publication Date) - David C Cook (Publisher)
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