Summary: On Good Shepherd Sunday we consider how the first martyr Stephen not only heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, but followed him: in charity, in witness, and in forgiveness.
Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a,51-60
4th Sunday of Easter – ILCW Year A
April 17, 2005
Peace to all of you who are in Christ (I Peter 5:14b). Amen.
Judge Lynwood Smith asked Eric Rudolph, “Did you plant the bomb that exploded at the New Woman All Women clinic here in Birmingham on January 29, 1998?"
In a forceful voice, Rudolph responded, "I did, your honor."
"And did you cause that bomb to detonate?" the judge followed.
Rudolph’s voice seemed to swell with pride. "I certainly did, your honor."
In his 11-page manifesto explaining his actions, he explained that he had planned to detonate five bombs on five successive nights at the Olympics "to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand." "By the grace of God," he wrote, "I am still here -- a little bloodied, but emphatically unbowed."
He would call himself a “martyr,” following the voice of the Good Shepherd. But do his actions really fall in line with the Shepherd, who leads his sheep to pasture?
Remember Peter’s words from our epistle today: “How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (I Peter 2:20-22).
Let’s look at a real martyr this morning. He was the first Christian martyr… his name was Stephen. He shows us that: HEARING THE SHEPHERD MEANS FOLLOWING HIM I. In Charity, II. In witness, III. In forgiveness.
I. IN CHARITY
In what situation do we first see Christ calling Stephen to serve (Acts 6:1-9): “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
What wonderful days for the Christian Church! It was growing by leaps and bounds. People were so moved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, that they were selling much of their possessions and sharing them with those who were less fortunate. But even with all of that good will floating around, discontent surfaced. The Grecian Jews (those born and raised outside of Israel) complained that their widows were being slighted. Did you notice how the leaders of the church reacted? They didn’t respond, “Oh, those foreign-born Jews are NEVER satisfied! They are always looking for something to complain about.” Instead they took them seriously and worked to correct the problem. There was some guilt and prejudice involved. Coming to faith, didn’t mean that the Christians instantly became perfect. They were still making decisions that were affected by the sinful flesh.
The apostles did not want this problem to hinder the growth of the church, nor did they want the solution to hinder the spreading of the Gospel. Charity, as a fruit of the faith was important, important enough to call a meeting of all the disciples, so that it could be handled responsibly. But it did not hold precedence over the Gospel, as the apostles pointed out: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). The main purpose of the church is not to right social injustice and remove poverty from the earth. It’s main goal is not set on fixing the momentary problems of this sinful existence here, as Eric Rudolph seemed to think (and no wonder he wandered so far from the truth). The true purpose of the church is what we are doing this morning, proclaiming the Word of God, so that you, then, as Christians, might follow the path of Christ, hear his voice, and act charitably in your own lives… first and foremost by caring for the poverty of the soul, and then also by caring for the lesser needs of our fellowman – their body.