7th Sunday in Easter | Acts 6-8 (selections)

Acts 6:8-14, 7:54-8:4

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us."

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 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. 56 "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 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. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 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.

1 And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.

SERMON    More Than Maintenance

In many ways, this is the sermon I most feel a need to preach, not just here in my role at Bethany, but for the whole Church in the United States of America … or in “the West,” in what has long been considered Christendom—that 1500 year period in which the Christian faith functioned as something of a global empire, dominating geo-politics, culture and media. 

It wasn’t always the case that Christians outnumbered people of all other religions; that becoming president of the global superpower required a public profession of Christian faith. There was a time when Christians made up a tiny, powerless and even persecuted minority—no grand buildings to maintain; no corporate structures to argue over; just a small band of people who believed that neither empire, nor ethnicity, nor religion, nor class determines human destiny, but that God alone is the Sovereign over history. 

It may come as a surprise, but this fundamentally Christian belief is really not very popular in a world full of powerful, proud and ambitious people, despite the fact that 1/3 of the world’s population are Christians. Where the belief is popular, however, is among those who suffer—those who hunger and thirst; it’s popular among those who lose in such a world as this. Which explains a lot of what we read about the early church in the book of Acts. 

See, because it appeals to and empowers the powerless of the world, the Christianity recalled in Acts is an inherently risky endeavor, frequently found to be at odds with those people and institutions which hold significant worldly power and are therefore threatened by the empowerment of others.

In other words, quite unlike the church of Christendom—the church many of us remember from our youth and long for—the early church—the prototypical church—is tattered and scattered, on the run … not in retreat so much as in pursuit of the next fertile soil in which to plant its gospel seeds—to evangelize. But to what end? What is the desired outcome of our evangelism? And how will we know if and when it has succeeded?

If the goal of their evangelistic efforts was anything like modern “church growth” or “institutional advancement” initiatives, the apostles and early Christians were complete and utter failures. They won as many enemies as converts, and their enemies had a lot more power. 

And so we get these stories like the stoning of Stephen, which appears to be a case of people who in one moment were captivated by Stephen’s preaching the gospel, suddenly realizing that their associating with this man and his message put a big target on their own backs. By the end of the scene, Stephen is killed at the hands of a once-friendly crowd turned lynch mob. As he is dying, the evangelist prays forgiveness for his murderers, and almost blissfully commends his spirit to God. 

And we recognize this kind of death. It is no accident that Luke’s account of Stephen’s death reads just like his account of the death of Jesus; the early church expected its adherents to meet the same earthly fate as Christ, and to meet that fate with the same grace and confidence in God’s resurrection power. 

But as its own worldly power and prestige increases, the Church of Christendom largely looses sight of the possibility of its own death, and subsequently lets slip its reliance on the power of God to bring out of death, new and everlasting life. 

Today, the church has grown accustomed to having its own power; to being safe and secure in the world—to the idea that being a good Christian is synonymous with being a good citizen or even a patriot. We’ve come to rely on the fact that our American culture has long made it a no brainer for people to join the church—and as a consequence, we rely on the inherent stability of the religious institution … as if it were itself eternal; as if the Church—not the resurrected Christ who is its head—were the object of our devotion.

When this happens, evangelism becomes something it was never intended to be—evangelism becomes recruitment; evangelism becomes church growth; evangelism becomes institutional advancement

And when the cultural tides turn, as they have in these last few decades, and the masses neither feel any obligation to join nor find any benefit from joining, evangelism becomes institutional maintenance—a way to stem the decline by getting a few people back in the pews, and a few bucks back in the bank account.

We’ve been in this sermon series on evangelism since Easter, and while technically it ended last week, this morning’s sermon is kind of like an epilogue. Over the course of the series, the argument was made that evangelism which seeks to embody the good news it proclaims is an appropriate and necessary means of our being the Church. Today’s sermon is intended to help prevent us from using evangelism as the right means to the wrong ends. 

If the ends of evangelism for the apostles had been institutional maintenance or institutional advancement, you’ve got to imagine that the first time a governor or police officer or angry mob drove them out of town, they would’ve stopped what they were doing and re-evaluated how to more effectively convince their opposition to accept, or support, or even to join the church.

If we just retool the message a bit to appeal to a broader spectrum of people and not alienate anyone, we won’t have to run away from angry mobs, we could put down roots and grow in one place, and we might even get some powerful, influential people to come on board.

The Apostles are not so concerned to serve an institution, nor to create mass appeal—their’s is to serve the gospel, and give it mass exposure, fully aware that the gospel is what it is. Many people will reject it as uncivilized, offensive and threatening … but for those who accept it—or rather, who find themselves to be accepted by it—these will discover the most compelling, empowering and redeeming truth creation has ever beheld … and by this discovery, themselves become living prisms, reflecting the gospel truth across the created world … institution or no institution.

There has been some concern voiced in recent months about the future of Bethany Presbyterian Church. The budget deficit is manageable this year, but the fact of the matter is, we’re spending more money than we’re receiving, and that strategy, quite simply, has an inevitable end point.

The temptation for churches in our situation is to start thinking about evangelism—and I’m just going to assume that after the last 6 weeks of preaching, we all do think about it—in terms of church growth and institutional maintenance. How can we keep this church—which has been the community in which we and our children got baptized; got married; the community by whom our parent or our spouse was carried into the eternal Arms of God; this church which accepted me and loved me when I had nowhere and no one else to turn to … how can we keep this church alive?

And it makes perfect sense to think this way—the local church is the tangible form in which we have experienced gospel through word and table and fellowship—it makes sense that the flash point of our concern is the challenge to keep this particular form alive.

And we’re intelligent, practical, business-minded people, and so we are inclined to approach this challenge practically: Well, to keep the church alive, we need more people, so for the sake of the church, let’s convince more people to get baptized.

If the church in America today—the church of what many are calling post-Christendom—if the can learn anything from Stephen and the earliest Christians, it is not to get too worked up worrying about death. The Christian life is not a life of maintenance and preservation … it is a life of death and resurrection. 

For those of you who have been at Bethany for over 50 years, how much has Bethany changed since you became a member here? What parts of its institutional forms have died? And what has been raised up in their place? 

After Stephen’s death, we read that severe persecutions broke out against the Christians and everyone except the 12 apostles scattered. The church in Jerusalem experienced familiar death—it lost members, status, etc … but what was raised up—resurrected in its place was a church on the move—Philip follows the direction of the Holy Spirit to share the good news of acceptance in Christ with the Ethiopian Eunuch. Saul, who has been a leader of the persecutions, who oversees Stephen’s murder—encounters the risen Christ on the road, and miraculously, is accepted by the gospel community, and becomes an honorary apostle, and the most influential proclaimer of the gospel in Christian history. 

The Christian life is not a life of maintenance and preservation … it is a life of death and resurrection.

We concern ourselves not with the maintenance of institutional forms, but with faithfulness to the crucified one whom God raised from death to life.  

To quote from the Book of Order: As it participates in God’s mission, the Presbyterian Church seeks … a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; (F-1.0404). 

This is not to say that it doesn’t matter if this church or that church closes its doors, or that we should be indifferent to the possibility at Bethany. 

It is to remind us that the Life of this church and THE Church is not derived from the success or permanence of its temporal institutions, but from its eternal participation in the resurrected body of Christ. If we want to keep on living, the way forward is not to “get” new members, it is to serve those around us, to feed hungry people, and offer a cup of cold water to the parched. It is to welcome the stranger, and to empower the powerless. 

In short, it is the cross … for without the cross, there can be no resurrection. Without the Resurrection, there can be no church. Without the church, Christ has no hands, no feet, no tongue left in this world. Bethany, let us live, only as the body of Christ. Amen.