Stephen, Full of Grace and Power

Text: Acts 6-7
Date: St. Stephen, Martyr + Christmas I X 12/26/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

It may seem strange, even odd, that on only the second day of our joyful celebration of Christmas the liturgical calendar seems to want to dampen our spirits with three days marking the histories of the deaths, today the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr both in will and in deed, then tomorrow St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, a martyr only in will and not in deed as it is said he died a natural death in Ephesus ages 98 years, and finally The Holy Innocents, those baby boys in the region of Bethlehem who were murdered by Herod’s forces as he tried to wipe out the threatened rival called the newborn King of the Jews, martyrs all in deed though not will. However, as with the Church’s commemoration of all the saints, these days are said to be the actual day of their deaths, or, better, their “heavenly birthdays,” all of which, of course, preceded the Church’s choice of the twenty-fifth December for the celebration of the incarnation and birth of Christ. Yet whether by happenstance or some other plan this fact does call us to remember that the true celebration of Christmas, much less of any part or doctrine of the Christian Gospel, must be done in faith. Such faith needs to be confessed before one another and the world. And the record of the New Testament and the saints and martyrs teach us that such confession of faith will always be an offense and challenge to the world of people who do not accept salvation as a gift of God but prefer to attempt to be saved, if at all, by the accumulation of their own good works.

This was at the heart of St. Stephen’s witness. As Stephen faithfully and powerfully preached the salvation of God by faith in Jesus, he made it very clear that Jesus had (1) fulfilled all of God’s Law for the world, on our behalf, because no one can be justified by our imperfect keeping of the Law. In addition he mentioned (2) the ending of the house or temple God had commanded to be built in Jerusalem as His promised place of locating Himself for His people. For the temple and its sacrifices only pointed forward to their fulfillment in Jesus. Now God would no longer locate Himself in a building but in the body of Jesus and, by faith, in His people. There would no longer be any need or use of temple animal sacrifices because the one sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood on the cross is the all-sufficient payment for the sin of the whole world.

Now all of that sounds good, true and right to our Christian and Lutheran ears. We welcome that preaching of Jesus Christ and the clear distinction of Law and Gospel as pure and true doctrine. The people to whom Stephen was preaching, however, found what he was saying as pure blasphemy, false, even offensive to their ears. They accused him, saying, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God…. This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” A serious word of warning, by the way, for all newly called and ordained pastors: be very, very careful and do not presume to “change the customs” the people are used to until you have been their long enough to have earned the right to do so!

If we stop a moment and think about it, you can begin to understand if not agree with the rage and anger Stephen encountered. Concerning the temple, they certainly had to agree objectively with Stephen’s words “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.” For Solomon said the same thing, saying, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you [God]; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). The apostle Paul said the same to the Greeks of the Areopagus, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24). So do we sing:

Surely in temples made with hands
God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling…. [LSB 645:2]

Yet think about it a moment. The temple. This is where they had intimate fellowship with God for ages. They were familiar with the scheduled round of sacrifices and had offered those sacrifices faithfully themselves. This is where Jesus was brought by Mary and Joseph for the required sacrifices and circumcision, and where Jesus would ultimately return to fulfill everything written about Him in the Law, the Psalms and the prophets. There was just something about the sounds and the smell of the place that made it feel…well, holy… godly. So any talk of abandoning the temple much less destroying it was just too much to bear. Maybe you have fond memories of a time and a place and a particular sound of a particular voice that comforted you and just felt spiritually rich or real or reliable. But there is a thin line between love for God’s house, His commands and Word and His appointed preachers on the one hand and making even those otherwise holy things into an idol!

And then to say that God’s holy Law had been fulfilled, completed by Jesus so that you didn’t have to worry about carefully following God’s Law was to these folks just rank heresy! Of course, Jesus never said you don’t have to “worry about” the Law, as He said he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. There’s a difference. Christians still pray earnestly the words of Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” The Law of God continues to reveal our sin, to bring us to daily repentance and faith in our Savior, and to teach us the ways of a godly life. But it is no longer by a legalistic, slavish obedience to the Law that we hope to be saved. That faith and hope is to be in Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Law for us, and makes us to live in the forgiveness of sins.

But so blind is the fallen, sinful nature to the ways of God that these folks just couldn’t think anything other than that Stephen was encouraging outright sin against the holy temple and Moses and God’s holy Law. That Law required any blasphemy of false doctrine like this to be dealt with decisively, that the heretic and sinner be put to death. Therefore they drove Stephen out of the city to stone him to death.

But as the people’s rage grew in intensity, “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And he told them what he was seeing. Out of sheer Christian love, even when he was being stoned to death, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and prayed for his persecutors saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” echoing the Lord’s own cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Martin Luther comments on this, saying, “here is also a great comfort. Saint Stephen saw heaven standing open and then he fell asleep. By this we shall take note that our Lord God stands with us as we believe. Death is not a death for those who believe.”[1]

Of the newborn Christ it was St. Simeon who prophesied, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Lk. 2:34). That opposition is borne by all in this world who faithfully confess the Gospel of Jesus. Mary’s heart was pierced with grief as she witnessed her Son’s crucifixion. Each of the holy apostles suffered at the hands of an unbelieving world. It should not come as a surprise, then, if you and I should endure rejection and worse for our faithfulness to God’s Word and Sacraments. In a similar way, as much as we love God’s Word and Sacraments, we remember and look forward to the fact that there is coming a day when sacraments shall cease, when we will finally be ushered into the direct fellowship of life with Christ in the eternal feast of heaven.

God no longer locates Himself in a building of stone and brick. As much as our little congregation wishes we had a physical place to call our own, set apart for the Word and Sacraments and prayer, it is among us in our fellowship and in our confession of faith in the Word and Sacraments and prayer that He lives. So even our temporary worship space reminds us that we have here “no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Christ has opened the heavens and stands at the right hand of God, interceding for us and welcoming us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34).

[1] Baseley, Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, p. 163.