Scripture Readings: Acts 7:55–60 | Psalm 31:1–16 | 1 Peter 2:2–10 | John 14:1–14
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
What does it mean to be a success in the Kingdom of God?
Over the past few weeks, as we have been moving through the season of Easter together, our readings from the Book of Acts have followed the remarkable sermon St. Peter delivered at Pentecost. That morning, filled with the Holy Spirit, St. Peter offered to God’s people a dramatic call to repent, resulting in the eager reception and open hearts of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean world. As far as sermons go, this one clearly made an impression, and we’ll say a bit more about its significance when Pentecost comes around in a few weeks. But by all accounts, St. Peter’s first message was a massive success! A dramatic and dynamic first step for the Church of the Risen Christ.
But then today in our reading from Acts Chapter 7, we heard about a very different sermon in the early days of the Church with a very different result.
We heard the end of a message from St. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the Church, who had boldly proclaimed the truth about the Risen Lord Jesus to his fellow Jews in Jerusalem, only to be stoned to death by them… accused of blasphemy and murdered by an angry mob.
It's hard to imagine a more opposite, not to mention undesirable, response, especially compared to St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon, where thousands of people responded in faith. And yet, the public witness of St. Stephen about the Good News of Jesus, the Risen Lord, has, from the very beginning, been seen by believers as a massive success as well.
But in order to see why it’s a success, we need to get a better sense of the bigger picture… and wrestle a bit with what it actually means to succeed in the Kingdom of God. Let’s start with a closer look at the speaker who gets rejected: St. Stephen.
As I mentioned before, St. Stephen was one of the first deacons… set apart for the ministry of service within the Church, and caring for the practical needs of Christians, so that the Apostles could focus on preaching and teaching. And yet, even though it was not his job, so to speak, the Book of Acts recounts how God’s Holy Spirit empowered Stephen to speak about the Good News of Jesus in ways that many responded to… helping them come to know the Risen Lord through Stephen’s words and his deeds… but also drawing the attention of those who stood opposed to this message. Acts 6:8-14,
“Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 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. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 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. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things 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 handed on to us.’”
Because of his Christian ministry, St. Stephen got into conflict with some of the Jewish factions in Jerusalem, who seized on his connection to Jesus in order to drag him to court to silence him. They claimed that St. Stephen and his message about Jesus was a threat to the Temple of God, and to all they held dear… and that he was promoting blasphemy, and so was deserving of death.
What’s clear is that St. Stephen had challenged their understanding of what it meant to be faithful to the Living God… calling them to change course… to reconsider what they believed about God’s Kingdom, and how to live in it.
To be fair, that was also what St. Peter had said to the crowds in his sermon on Pentecost. He didn’t mince words in an attempt to appease his audience, or worry about the backlash he might receive… he simply told them the story of Jesus’ betrayal, unjust arrest, and cruel crucifixion… rejected by the very people He had come to save.
St. Peter had boldly proclaimed that God’s people had failed to believe in… to trust in their Messiah, rejecting the Saviour God sent to them, and so they all shared in the blame for His death.
Sounds like a harsh sermon. But remember: no one would know more about failing to be faithful to God’s Messiah than St. Peter, who had been so close to Jesus, and had even bragged about remaining steadfast by Christ’s side, even if he would have to die with Him… and yet, before the night was over, St. Peter would betray His Lord three times over.
St. Peter knew all about failing to follow the Way… failing to trust in the Truth, and failing to cling to the One who is truly Life. Yet he had also come to know the forgiveness and the freedom that the crucified and Risen Christ offers to all: he knew that God calls everyone to repent… to turn around and turn to Jesus in faith, and find in Him God’s Way, God’s Truth, and God’s Life… no matter how lost, deceived, or dead in our sins we may be.
St. Peter’s message was that despite everything we have done to mess things up… Jesus Christ has died and risen again to pardon and to save us all. To turn us all around from our old lost ways, and all of the lies that bring death… and to lead us into life instead.
This is the Good News the first Christians dedicated their lives to sharing with those around them: retelling the story of Jesus the Risen Lord with their words and with their lives.
And this is what St. Stephen had dedicated his life to as well… putting into practice the self-giving love of God he learned from his Master, and helping others do the same… living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ… even if others would end up rejecting him for it too… which is of course, what happened.
St. Stephen’s life and message challenged and confronted those who refused to believe that they had had a hand in the death of God’s Messiah… and who were convinced that Jesus and all who followed Him were just deceiving God’s people, and trying to lead them astray.
So, they had St. Stephen arrested, and just like Jesus, accused him of blasphemy. And there, before the court, St. Stephen was given the chance to defend himself.
But what would he say?
Would he listen to the temptations to compromise his message, twisting it around to conform to what he thought others wanted to hear? Maybe he could convince them too if he made his message a bit more appealing?
Would he listen to the temptations to make the Gospel’s claims less shocking… less challenging or confrontational, in order to get others to accept it? Maybe he could avoid risking his neck if he just toned it down a bit?
But the truth is, the Good News of Jesus can be hard to hear, because the Good News of the Risen Lord brings to light and exposes how frequently lost we are… how often we fall for and even spread lies… how much of what we think will guarantee our survival only leads to death.
The Good News of Jesus calls us all, no matter who we are, or how close to God we might believe we are, to repent… to turn around, again and again, and draw nearer to the One who is Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Gospel calls us to cling to Jesus Christ… to trust in Him, and follow Him wherever He may lead us. And St. Stephen wholeheartedly answers this call… even though it would cost him his life.
Standing in front of the court, after retelling the long story found in the Scriptures of the faithfulness of the Living God, despite the deep unfaithfulness of His people, St. Stephen responds, in Acts 7:51-60, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 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. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 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.’ ”
Like Jesus, St. Stephen was slandered and falsely accused. Like Jesus, he remained faithful in the face of temptation, and certain death. Like Jesus, St. Stephen embodied God’s great mercy and self-giving love, pleading for the forgiveness even of those who were murdering him. In life and in death, St. Stephen walked in the footsteps of his Saviour.
And because Jesus Himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life… what it means to succeed in God’s Kingdom is to stay true to Jesus… no matter how others around us respond.
That’s why St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon was a success… not because thousands of people believed it, but because by the Holy Spirit’s power, St. Peter spoke faithfully about the Risen Lord, and invited his hearers to trust in Him too.
That’s why St. Stephen’s final words in the witness stand were a success… because, even in the face of violent resistance, and incredible pressure to back down, the Holy Spirit of God empowered St. Stephen stayed true to His Lord… to remain faithful to Jesus, not just by the words that He spoke, but by the way His life, his actions lined up with those of His Lord.
St. Stephen was a success in God’s Kingdom because He entrusted His life to the Risen Lord, and stayed true to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
So, for you and I today, hear in Gondola Point, what does it look like for us to be a success in the Kingdom of God?
We won’t likely have the opportunity like St. Peter to speak to thousands of pilgrims all at once, or like St. Stephen to be surrounded by those accusing us of blasphemy, ready to strike us dead… although many of our brothers and sisters in the Church around the world do face these challenging situations.
But what are the ways that we can be tempted in our lives to step aside from the Way? Or to distort the Truth? Or to give up on the Life that we have been invited into, and entrusted to share with the world?
As individuals and as a Church family, we too face the temptations to change what we say and do to attract those around us, or to avoid suffering rejection.
We too can be easily tempted, like those who opposed St. Stephen, to try to hold onto our old ways. To resist Christ’s call to let go and turn away from the ways of life that are keeping us from staying true to Him… and holding us back from where He wants to lead us.
But even when we stumble and fail to stay faithful, Jesus, our Risen Lord remains true. He stands steadfast for us. He took up His cross, and gave up His life to bring us God’s forgiveness and freedom… and He calls us to follow Him, filled with His Holy Spirit who gives us the grace we need to stay true to Him too.
In short, success in God’s Kingdom, does not depend on the immediate results that we can see or achieve… but ultimately on the faithfulness of our Saviour, Jesus Christ the Risen Lord, and the renewal of our lives… our words and actions, to stay true to Him no matter what.
So, whether we find people flocking to our words of hope, and joining in the life of our Christian community… or if they turn against us, and we find ourselves seemingly alone… Remember what St. Stephen saw!
Jesus Himself, at God the Father’s right hand, standing up for his faithful servant… welcoming him into the joys of heaven, and reminding him that no matter what others may do, if the Living God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead is with us, our success is assured. And we too will share in the victory of the Kingdom of God forever. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School