Filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] 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 there 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.
We are continuing in our sermon series through this great Easter season on the book of Acts. The glimpses of the early Church throughout the book of Acts show us it was filled with the Holy Spirit. Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted by something to remind you of the enduring power and constant presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember where it is? The red banner on the east wall. Every time you look at this banner, pray for the Holy Spirit to fill your heart and to blow through our church with flames of power.
Last week, we began this series with this: the Spirit-filled Church is unified. Christ’s followers are called to unity, and the Holy Spirit enables us to seek unity and love even with the people we find disagreeable and difficult to love. Today, we continue investigating aspects of the Spirit-Filled Church. May we pray.
The Spirit-filled Church is prophetic – not pathetic, prophetic. Most people think the word “prophetic” is about telling the future. Yesterday, for example, was supposed to be the end of the world, at least according to some. I am not going to take a cheap shot; I don’t doubt the sincerity of their convictions. I simply remind all of us that Jesus himself said he didn’t know the time, which means, in all likelihood, neither do we.
However, being prophetic has less to do with being able to see the future than it does with simply being able to see. When we say that the Spirit-filled church is prophetic, we mean that truly being prophetic requires vision – God’s vision of a preferred present and future. Or, to state it another way, being prophetic is the call to see things as they are, to see things as God intends, and to call attention to the distance between the two.
This won’t make everyone happy. A prophet comforts the afflicted, but also afflicts the comfortable.
Today’s Scripture recounts the violent reaction of a mob to a sermon by the first ordinary Christian to follow his shepherd to the slaughter. Earlier, the apostles appointed servants to the everyday task of distributing food. Stephen was supposed to be waiting tables, but as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Once he had hands laid on his head, all the grace and power that poured into him spilled over as signs and wonders” (“Blood of Martyrs,” Home by Another Way) and persuasive, prophetic, Holy Spirit power led him into the pulpit.
Stephen’s first sermon is given before the Jewish high council, who have dragged him in on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. And Stephen doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut; the sermon is a long, rambling, theological hodgepodge covering pretty much the entire salvation history of the people of Israel. You guys think I ramble on sometimes; in one sermon, he covered over 3000 years of religious history!
Stephen preached before the very Council who had ordered Jesus’ execution. They were angered by the clarity with which Stephen articulated God’s vision, because they realized just how distant from it they were. In his sermon, he re-told the collective story of his people, reminding them of their long history of ignoring the prophets, from Moses to Jesus. He pointed out the worst moments in history when the people were far from God, and said, “Today, you are doing the exact same thing.” He finished his sermon with these convicting words: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels; and yet you have not kept it” (7:53).
His sermon is an indictment of pious religion that serves only to preserve and perpetuate itself rather than faithfully follow after the living, moving, still-speaking God. He calls religious folks to get unstuck – unstuck off themselves, unstuck from the way it’s always been done, unstuck from blind adherence to traditions without any sense of what God might be doing in the here and now. He calls for an end to all of this, to getting unstuck, to having our eyes open to where God’s Spirit is leading and getting on board with that.
His sermon is an indictment on returning to the familiar when God calls us somewhere new, from resisting God’s messengers who show us something we don’t want to see, from religion that is decent, respectable, and under control, to one that is wild, a little scary, and unpredictable.
His sermon is an indictment on treating Scripture as a set of infallible rules instead of the living Word of God, turning it into an idol which usurps the place of God, so that those who idolize and worship Scripture instead of the God revealed in Scripture actually reject the claims of the Gospel and crucify its Lord. He calls the people, then and now, to remember that all Scripture points to its source, the one single authority, God, who seeks the liberation of all his people. Where the Scripture has been used as a blunt weapon instead of the gracious, healing, welcoming Word of a God who desires relationship, where it has been used to burden people rather than liberate them, Stephen, ever the prophet, calls it what it is: idolatry, and empty religion that is far from the God revealed in Scripture.
Stephen sees things as they are, he sees things as God intends, and he calls attention to the distance between the two.
And did the Council thank him for showing them the error of their ways? No, they ordered his death, keeping with the indictment already leveled against them: “Which one of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” (7:52a). With echoes of the death of Jesus, Stephen prays for forgiveness for his murderers and commends his spirit to God. Mark Twain said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The stakes for truly following in the way of Jesus are high.
Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he was prophetic. Likewise, the Spirit-filled Church is also prophetic. A Spirit-filled church is called to honestly see things as they are, to see things as God intends, and to call attention to the distance between the two. That won’t make everyone happy. Religious people abused and killed the prophets for what they did and said. Religious people killed Jesus. Religious people killed Stephen, too. Even so, he was so clear about what he had seen, he was willing to die for his vision.
We need more visions. We should dare to dream dreams and to follow visions, even when those dreams and visions threaten our comfortable way of life. We are called to give up ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.
In the Spirit-filled Church, we are called to be prophetic. Each of us. So, be a prophet today. See things as they are, see them as God intends, and call attention to the distance between the two. You will draw attention to God, who bids us to come and die to all the things, even our religious convictions, that separate us from God. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.
When people look at your life, when people look at our church, what will they see? Let the whole world see the light and love of God shining through, and may our lives be the constant song of God’s glory. This is life in the Spirit-filled Church!