5th Sunday of Easter
May 10, 2020
Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60
“What a Way to Die”
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that engages us today on the 5th Sunday of Easter is the First Lesson read from Acts chapters 6 and 7.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Death is a pretty “hot” topic these days, right? As of Saturday, there have been more than 78,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US. 1,700 of those deaths were in Florida, and nearly 60 people have died in Sarasota County. It seems like viral death is all anyone is thinking about and talking about ever since mid March. And speaking of death…
They killed him. Stephen is dead. What a way to die. Not from a virus. From rocks. The mob was loud and vicious. They gnashed their teeth – a classic expression of pure anger. They yelled. They grabbed him, dragging him out of town. He was probably half dead even before anyone even picked up a rock. But then the stones started to fly. It didn’t take long. One unprotected man against an angry mob with rocks? Forget it. Give me a virus any day! Blood, broken bones, crushed organs and torn tissues. No, it didn’t take long. Stephen was dead. What a way to die. What a way to die.
And the thing is…he didn’t deserve it. Stephen was a good man. He was a leader in the early church. He was full of God’s grace, power, and wisdom. He was faithful. He did great things for people in need. No, he didn’t deserve it, but they killed him anyway. Why? What had he done? What made them so angry?
Just this. He told others about Jesus. He spread the good news that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, who bore the sins of all people on the cross. He declared that this crucified man (what a way to die!) was the one true Messiah, the promised Savior of the world. He spoke boldly and plainly that Jesus had risen from the dead and was at God’s right hand. He confessed that Jesus was the way only to heaven, and that all other ways would lead away from God.
That was his “crime.” That’s why Stephen had to die. You see, there’s something about standing up for Jesus that brings attack: anger, hate, and sometimes even violence. Sound strange? It’s not. It’s still happening.
Facing danger daily, a nurse goes to work and wears a cross praying that she can help the sick and not infect her own family with COVID-19. Hospital administration tells her she must remove it lest it offend a patient. One worker files a complaint about another worker for harassment—the crime: having a small wooden cross on an office desk; WAY too offensive for the modern workplace. Can’t he just keep it in a drawer or something? You want to see a virtual fight erupt? Post something on Facebook along the lines of what Stephen said – that Jesus is the Son of God and only way to eternal life. Then sit back and watch the war of words begin.
Today, hostility is common for those who know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. You are attacked if you confess a belief that doesn’t agree with our social media culture. People slam you for being intolerant, insensitive, and imposing your beliefs on others when you make the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only Way to heaven. People will take offense at that. You can already guess the reaction if you tell someone they are a sinner and has done wrong in God’s eyes and they need Jesus’ forgiveness. No one wants to hear THAT. Yes, standing up for Jesus still brings attack.
So when the attacks come, look to Jesus. When your anxiety grows about the pandemic, look to Jesus. When you’re feeling helpless and hopeless and that viral death is waiting for you around every corner and on every surface, look to Jesus. Look to Jesus. Look to the One who bore your sins, who brought you forgiveness, who rose for you. Faith in the midst of distress looks to Jesus. He is the Good Shepherd watching over our souls, leading and guiding us especially in these challenging, death-filled times.
Yet…looking to Jesus is not all that Stephen does here. He also has courage to confess what he saw. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The rocks hadn’t started yet. The whole thing could have been stopped if Stephen had just quietly said what the crowd wanted to hear. If he would just go along to get along, all would be okay; just take off the necklace and drop the cross in a drawer. But he doesn’t. He says what he knows is true. He declares what he sees and believes. That took courage to confess, a courage given only by the Holy Spirit.
The same is true today. Crosses are still worn by workers. Employees find ways to witness in a work environment. We have had to totally re-think how we can “do” church if no one can come to church, and yet…here we are! The same is true for you, too. The risen Jesus gives His Holy Spirit to His people. Courage to confess comes from Christ. Especially in the face of death, the time is NOW for boldly, clearly telling others about Jesus and what He has done and is still doing for us. So, we speak out, standing up for Jesus, even when it brings attack. Maybe not with rocks, but it can bring attack. Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob…ugh, what a way to die. I prefer to think like this: Stephen saved by the Savior…now THAT’S the way to die.
Will there be more COVID-19 deaths? Of course. But we look to Jesus and find courage, we find hope, we find life. What a way to die…surrounded by life – abundant, eternal life – for which we cannot help but exclaim “Thanks be to God!” Might want to watch out for flying rocks at that point. Be strong and stay safe everyone. Happy Mother’s Day!