Faith of the Fathers June 19, 2022
God of wisdom and hope,
Your Word has offered guidance and healing throughout many generations. Send us your Spirit now, that, as we listen to the stories of your people, we may find wisdom and hope, guidance and healing, through your Living Word, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Today we’re going to have a look at the beginning of the disciple Stephen’s speech found in the book of Acts. We first heard about Stephen a few weeks ago when, because of the rapid grow of the Church, the apostles were overwhelmed with work and complaints arose over the neglect of some of the widows and underprivileged in the congregation. To resolve this problem the decision was made to appoint some men to look after the ongoing duties of the church, taking care of the physical needs of the members while the apostles would continue to concentrate on the spiritual aspects.
One of the men chosen was Stephen, described as, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” And not only was he skilled at taking care of the demands of the congregation, but due to the help of the Holy Spirit, he was also a wonderful leader in the early church, we’re told, “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.”
So, because he was full of grace and the Holy Spirit, he was able to bring many more people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But in doing so he drew attention to himself from the religious leaders who grew jealous at the popularity of Stephen and felt threatened as they saw their power over the people slipping away. So, in an effort to eliminate the problem of Stephen they had him arrested and taken before the council of the Temple in Jerusalem.
And that brings us to today. In this morning’s reading from Acts we heard about Stephen addressing the council, and not just giving his defense, but more importantly defending the Christian faith to the most powerful religious authorities of his day.
But the problem we have is that Stephen’s speech, as recorded in the book of Acts is about 1300 words long, pretty well longer than most of my sermons; too long to read and try to understand at one time, never mind discussing it all. As the expression went in the days before battery powered watches, that sermon would be a real stem-winder.
When I looked at the various religious commentaries on this speech all the authors dealt with it all at the same time. Now they certainly know a lot more about sermon writing than I do, but nevertheless it was just too much for me to handle at one time, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and to discuss it over several weeks. So, let’s begin and we’ll see how well that works out.
Our reading began with Stephen standing before the high priest and the council of elders, having been charged with blaspheming, speaking against Moses, against God, against the temple, and against the law and the customs which were handed down by Moses. The high priest demanded an answer for such charges. But rather than just denying the charge Stephen gives a bit of a history lesson of the Jewish faith, beginning from its founding.
He begins with Abraham, who is considered the founding father of the Jewish faith. Stephen says, “The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’” So, God called Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, which is modern day Iraq. It was there that God appeared to Abraham and made a covenant with him. God chose him and poured out his grace on him. And what’s important to us is that this appearance of God to Abraham was not only the beginning of the Jewish faith but of Christianity, as well. This is the incredible moment when God began his work of salvation for all of mankind.
Stephen then continues on to recount these words which God spoke to Abraham, “And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants (Abraham), would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and maltreat them for four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,” said God, “and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’”
This country, which God said was belonging to others, was Egypt. He told Abraham that his descendants would spend over four hundred years living there as slaves. But despite this God promised Abraham that he would always care for his people and at the end of their captivity they would escape, and he would give them their own land were they could settle. Imagine being enslaved for four hundred years! We thought that the two years of COVID was unbearable. But we must always remember, that just like those Israelites, God is always with us, as well. God always cares for us. God always is there for us. He just does it on his timeline not ours!
At this point Stephen traces the generations which followed Abraham. He says, “And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.” Now the word patriarch means the male head of a family or group, the female equivalent is matriarch. The twelve patriarchs Stephen refers to are the great grandsons of Abraham. The Jewish people consider them to be the founding fathers of the nation of Israel. Every Jewish person at the time of Stephen could trace back their heritage to one of those twelve.
And the best known of these was Joseph. He was the favourite of his father, Jacob. Because of this, Stephen says, “The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt.” Yet, we’re told, “God was with him, and rescued him from all his afflictions, and enabled him to win favour and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.” These patriarchs spoken of here are the brothers of Joseph, who himself was one of the patriarchs of Israel. Remember the Bible story of Joseph and his colorful coat.
Now there’s a lot more ups and downs to the life of Joseph than Stephen takes the time to tell but, in the end, after a severe famine arose in the region, his brothers are forced to come to Egypt to buy enough food to survive and there they encounter their brother, who they had betrayed and whom they thought was dead. After the brothers reconciled, they, along with their father Jacob, went to live with Joseph in Israel until the famine had ended.
So up to this point we see that Stephen sets the stage for the rest of his defense in front of the high priest and council of elders. He confirms to them that, coming from the Jewish faith himself, he has a shared ancestry with them. He acknowledges their founding fathers, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, and their importance to the nation of Israel. More importantly he confirms the supremacy of God, the same God which they all worship.
Stephen also sets the theme for the rest of his speech, which is to show how God’s people continue on in faith, despite many obstacles which are put in their way. Many are the same obstacles we face today but like the early people we must keep the faith. And in fact, this is not the only place in the New Testament where the story of Abraham and his faith is retold. The author of the book of Hebrews also uses it as an example of faith, he writes, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” (Hebrews 11:8-9) Through that passage in Hebrews, where the author recounts the history of Abraham and his descendants, the word faith is used nine times, that’s how important having faith is to Christianity.
And what’s important to us today is to remember that God is always working through people of faith and vision who dare to stand up for their faith. It is not always easy but it’s that faith which can help us on our lives today. The faith that, just like those first believers, God is with us through thick and thin. Like Stephen and Abraham, we must turn to our faith in the good times and the difficult times. As written in Philippians 4:13, let us always remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Let us Pray:
Father, we thank you for these words from Stephen, a true man of God. May we have that same faith as we go throughout our day to day lives. May we too, be given the courage to stand up and answer for our faith, no matter what the cost. Let us always remember that you are with us and let our faith always lead us. Amen