Faithlife Sermons

Who Follows in Their Train?

Eastertide 2017  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Deacons

Acts 6:1–9 ESV
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.
In the Name of Jesus, our Risen Lord and Savior. Amen.
A blessed Mothers’ Day to all of you. While we are not all mothers, we each have a mother, and we thank the Lord for this wonderful vocation. We will have a prayer for all mothers today during the prayer of the Church.
For our sermon, however, we continue our journey through the Easter Acts passages to see how Jesus’ resurrection granted boldness to His followers in both life and death. At the same time, we begin to look toward both Ascension and Pentecost, both of which continue to grant the power of the Resurrection of Jesus in our lives today by literally giving us Jesus.
In an article published in the Rochester Press in 1981, a survey was done on what people wanted in their pastors:
The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings. He works from 8am until midnight and is also the church janitor. The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 40 years experience. Above all, he is handsome. The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church. He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be handy when needed. The perfect pastor always has time for church council and all of its committees. He never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched. The perfect pastor is always in the next church over! If your pastor does not measure up, simply send this notice to six other churches that are tired of their pastor, too. Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list. If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1,643 pastors. One of them should be perfect!
And then some old chap chimes in, "only one day a week.”
We chuckle, yet there are certain true responsibilities of pastors that the Lord has given to His Church.
The main responsibility is to preach and teach the Word of God and to administer His sacraments of Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Lord’s Supper.
Everything else is an extension of this: Visiting the sick, marrying God’s children, burying God’s saints, doing the work of an evangelist even if one does not have the gift, being a presence for God’s people— and bringing the Word of God and the Sacraments to them in all of these settings as appropriate.
There were some expectations placed on the Apostles in our text that they were incapable of accomplishing. They could not both preach the Word and also “wait on tables”, that is to take care of the widows, something that the Lord’s brother, James speaks of when he says:
James 1:27 ESV
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Church had developed since Pentecost to the point where there was some structure. And along with structure comes expectations.
The Apostles realized this:
Acts 6:2–4 ESV
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
This is known as “shared ministry”. Unlike the old Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod “Herr Pastor” model, the Scriptures show us that ministry belongs to the Church, and that Ministry is so awesome, so un-containable that others are needed besides the pastors to make it work. We recognize this here- that’s why we have an Altar Guild that sets up the Altar, an LWML where women gather for Bible Study, a Food Pantry where we literally put food in the mouths of widows and orphans. We have ushers that help at Church. And, we have Deacons.
The Office of Deacon is a Biblical role. We see it unfold today with the choosing of the Seven. Many with Greek names! They would do the work that the Church was called to do, but was taking away from the Apostles teaching and preaching the Word of God.

Stephen

Among them was a Deacon named Stephen. Not only did Stephen have the ability to serve, but he was gifted by the Holy Spirit:
Acts 6:8 ESV
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
Unfortunately, those from the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” (Jews from Italy who had been freed from slavery), and others “took Stephen on” for doing his signs and wonders.
They seized Stephen.
Acts 6:11–14 ESV
Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words 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 delivered to us.”
Doesn’t this sound like something we’ve just heard not too long ago? Stephen is:
dragged before the Sanhedrin
False Witnesses were enlisted
Charged him with saying that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple
Charged him with changing the customs that Moses delivered to them.
It sounds like a repeat of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but this time with Stephen. What the disciples had feared when they locked themselves in the upper room was coming true with Stephen.

Defense

As Stephen was on trial, he offers a defense of Jesus and the Church, and calls these men out on their sin- never a popular thing to do or to hear. We have a redacted version of Stephen’s sermon- it is quite extensive, taking up the majority of Acts chapter 7. He takes them through the entire history of Israel, beginning with Abraham, showing how they always rejected God’s prophets. I encourage you to read it on your own.
Acts 7:51–53 ESV
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
As Stephen was on trial, he offers a defense of Jesus and the Church, and calls these men out on their sin- never a popular thing to do or to hear. We have a redacted version of Stephen’s sermon- it is quite extensive, taking up the majority of Acts chapter 7. I encourage you to read it on your own.
He preached:
So
Acts 7:51–53 ESV
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
The word defense in the Bible is apologia - we get our word “apologize” from this. But it doesn’t mean “I’m sorry.” It means to “give a defense.” Peter uses it when he says:
1 Peter 3:15 ESV
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,
This is what Stephen is doing. But not for long.

Death

Acts 7:54–60 ESV
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen is martyred for the Faith. He is the first martyr (other than the Holy Innocents) to give his life for his Lord. The Orthodox call him a “protomartyr” which means “first martyr”.
And, once again, in an eerie repeat of Jesus’ death, Stephen. He cries out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”, echoes of Jesus’ words, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” And his final words were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Jesus’ resurrection gave Stephen the boldness to confess Him to death.
Persecution was not just a part of the early church. It is very much a part of the Church of today. Jesus told us this:
Matthew 24:9–11 ESV
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.
And it’s happening all over the world Recent estimates show that nearly 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith last year alone worldwide. Tortured, brutalized, crucified, burned alive, drowned, all because they would not cave in on their confession that Jesus is Lord. They would not bow their knee to Allah, or to governmental prohibitions against Christianity, or whatever.
It is rare that anyone ever hears of this. And yet it is happening. And it is spreading. The hatred for Jesus and His Church today is at an all time high.
Through Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, we too are given boldness to confess Christ even under threat.
The Gospel today reassures us of this.
John 14:1–3 ESV
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
John 14:1
Peter speaks about this also:
1 Peter 2:8–10 ESV
and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:7–10 ESV
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
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