Acts 7:51-60 (Fifth Sunday of Easter—Series A)
“Faithful Unto Death”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
May 18, 2014
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the First Reading from Acts 7:
[Stephen said,] “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” 54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
In three weeks, on the Day of Pentecost, three young men of our congregation (Connor, Eric, and Thomas) will be received into communicant membership in the Rite of Confirmation. As candidates for confirmation, they will, as Confirmands have done for centuries, acknowledge the gifts God has given to them in their Baptism, confess the Christian faith in the one Triune God, and make their solemn promises to continue steadfast in this confession of faith. These promises are weighty and serious. They are also the promises that every Christian makes with his or her confession of faith. As Christians, we promise by the grace of God to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death! We promise by the grace of God to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it! Are you willing to suffer death because you are a believer in Jesus Christ? Are you willing to be killed rather than renounce and abandon your confession of faith in the one Triune God? Stephen, the first martyr killed for his faith in Jesus, was.
How seriously do we take our Christian faith? Stephen took it so seriously that he paid for his faith in Jesus with his very life. Is that how important and valuable your faith in Jesus is? Do you take your faith in Jesus and your public confession of that faith in Christ so seriously that you would be willing to die rather than give up this faith and say, “I don’t believe anymore”? Oh, it’s so easy to sit here in our safe pews in our comfortable church building and say with all pious intentions, like Peter, “I will never deny you! Even if I have to die, I will never disown you.” But what about when push comes to shove, and shove comes the sword or pistol pushed in our face, “Deny Christ or die”? Will we then be so bold as we are now, or would Peter’s denial also be our own?
Of course, these are things we don’t have to worry about, right? That kind of persecution doesn’t happen in this country. Yet. I believe that we are some steps away in this country from the kinds of suffering and persecution for our Christian faith that so many of our brothers and sisters around the world face day by day. Jesus said to His disciples in Matthew 24, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. . . . And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”(Matt. 24:9 ESV)
While this was true of the first apostles, all of whom died a violent death for the faith except St. John, this is also true of God’s people in Christ throughout history. Consider, since Egypt’s revolution in 2011, nearly 100 Coptic Christians have been killed, more than in the previous 10 years combined. Radical Muslims have retaliated against Egyptian Christians, killing a priest and others. They have painted marks on Christian-owned businesses to indicate potential targets during attacks, and they have warned people not to purchase from Christians. Many Christian shop owners have been forced to close their shops, and Christian women and girls have been forced to stay inside to prevent being attacked or kidnapped. Evangelical Christians in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, face prejudice, harassment, and expulsion from their villages, attacks against their churches and private property, threats of sexual assault, imprisonment and murder.
In our country, we can be very thankful to the Lord that the severity of persecution and fear of death for being a Christian has not reached those levels yet. But you can be certain that the devil wants to devour our faith in Christ. He wants us to deny it and to abandon it and the roaring lion that he is, Satan will use suffering and persecution to seek to destroy the Church of Christ. We already see the subtleties of that persecution in this country. One our members here shared with me that he and some co-workers were have a discussion about Christ and Church in the break room at work when they were told by a human resources employee, I believe, that they were not allowed to be having that conversation at work. Someone might be offended.
A few weeks before Easter, as we were discussing Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers in Confirmation Class, I asked the class how prayer could be a witness to their faith in Jesus to others. I was crazy enough to suggest that they take a moment and say a prayer of thanks to the Lord before they ate lunch. This was met with a hearty and emphatic, “We can’t do that. If other kids see us folding our hands and bowing our heads and praying, that would make us targets for getting beat up.” A couple of our students shared that they had seen it happen.
And just back on May 5, a story broke that a Florida school teacher humiliated a 12-year-old boy in front of an entire class after she caught him reading the Bible during free reading time. The teacher, at Park Lakes Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, ordered Giovanni Rubeo to pick up the telephone on her desk and call his parents. As the other students watched, the teacher left a terse message on the family’s answering machine. “I noticed that he has a book – a religious book – in the classroom,” she said on the recording. “He’s not permitted to read those books in my classroom.”
The subtleness of these persecutions are the devil’s tools to persuade us not to publicly confess or live out our Christian faith. Under the threat of getting beaten up or bullied, or humiliated, or at the risk of somehow offending, we are being told to keep our Christian mouths shut or face the consequences. The question for you and me remains, however, are we willing to suffer all—beatings, loss of friends, punishment, humiliation—even death, rather than give up our Christian faith and being a witness to Christ?
If Stephen were sitting here with us today, how would he answer that question? It’s probably not fair to even consider that since his actions speak for him. Whatever he might have said in the comforts of a church, Stephen remained faithful to Christ and to the witness of Jesus Christ even unto death. “He did what he could to spread the word about Jesus. . . . He healed, and he preached, and he talked about how his own life had been changed, and it wasn’t long before the Jewish authorities called him on the mat to defend his far-out views as best he could. . . . Stephen made them a long speech, the gist of which was that from year One the Jews had always been an ornery lot, “stiff-necked,” he said, and circumcised as all get-out in one department but as . . . mean as everybody else in all the others. They’d given Moses a hard time in the wilderness, . . . and there hadn’t been a saint or prophet since that they hadn’t had it in for. The way they’d treated Jesus was the last and worst example of how they were always not just missing the boat but doing their [best] to sink it. The authorities were naturally enraged and illustrated the accuracy of Stephen’s analysis by taking him out and stoning him to death…. Stephen was the first person to shed blood for the new faith he loved more than his life.” (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)
And the reason that Stephen could be faithful unto death was because Jesus Christ had first shed His blood on the cross for Stephen. Jesus, the completely innocent, sinless Son of God, suffered the humiliation, the beatings, the mockery, and death for Stephen and for all of us. Jesus died on the cross and won our forgiveness and everlasting life so that no matter what kind of death we die, we have a place with the Lord in the glories of Paradise. We have, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading, a place which He has prepared for us, a place to which He will bring us when He comes again and raises our bodies from the grave—a whole new creation where we will be forever with the Lord.
Stephen remained faithful to His Crucified and Risen Lord and Savior even in the face of death because he knew that his sins were forgiven in Christ and that, even should he die, yet should he live. And because Jesus had died, risen, and ascended into heaven, Jesus poured out His Holy Spirit upon those who were baptized. Stephen, we are told, was full of the Holy Spirit. In the power and strength of God the Holy Spirit, Stephen proclaimed Christ as Lord and stood firm in His faith until death.
And what of us? You and I too are full of the Holy Spirit. He has created saving faith in Jesus in our hearts in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. He has delivered to us in Baptism, in the Gospel, and in the Supper of Christ’s Body and Blood the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation which Jesus won on the cross for us. Through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament the Holy Spirit empowers us for the faithful living of the Gospel in our lives and strengthens us to make the good confession of our faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior even if we should face persecution, humiliation, violence, or death because of it. Hear the words of Jesus to Church in Smyrna, from Revelation 2, “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich). . . . Do not fear what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”(Rev 2:18b-10 ESV)
Jesus is faithful to us unto death, through death, into the rooms of the Father’s house, to the day of resurrection and the new heaven and the new earth. Jesus is faithful to you. He is with you through His Holy Spirit no matter what you face in this life. The Holy Spirit enables you to be faithful to Christ in word and action, no matter what suffering and persecution you might face because you belong to Jesus. By the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, may each one of us truly fulfill our promise with all sincerity and confidence, “I will suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from Christ.” And so, like Stephen, shall you and I remain faithful to the Lord even to death. Amen.