Thus far in Acts we’ve heard a lot about the Apostles – the guys that were the leaders in the church – the guys that Jesus promised the powerful Holy Spirit – the guys that Jesus hand-picked to spread the Gospel around the world. These men were integral to the Early Church.
But…what about the rest of the church?
What about the “ordinary” Church member?
Today we are going to look at an “ordinary” church member named Stephen. As we do that, we’ll learn some things about ourselves as “ordinary” church members here in Raleigh. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The “Ordinary” Church Member named Stephen
The majority of Stephen’s story come from Acts 7. But before we get there, I think we should actually start with a phrase from Acts 5:29:
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
Stephen didn’t say that.
But I imagine that phrase bounced around in his head as the sharp tip of a spear pressed against his lower back directing him to an angry mob of Jewish opposition.
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
The phrase had first been uttered by the Apostle Peter. While Stephen didn’t exactly hear it from Peter’s mouth, it had become somewhat of a rallying crying for the Early Christians. In fact, it played a key part in bringing Stephen into the Early Church. Yes, he was first intrigued by the message of Jesus – full and free forgiveness because of Jesus’ death at the cross, but then, it was the conviction that drove him to being actively involved.
The apostles were willing to obey God and teach the message of Jesus…
…Even when others opposed them.
…Even when they were put on trial.
…Even when the opposition threatened death.
…Even when their backs were torn to a bloody mess by the violent lashings (floggings) as a result of their preaching the Gospel.
“We must obey God rather than men.”
That’s why Stephen had signed up.
That’s why Stephen had gotten into this mess.
A few weeks earlier the Apostles had requested some help. The church had been growing so quickly – which was a blessing. There were over 10,000 people who confessed Jesus as Savior. But since it had grown so quickly the work had gotten beyond the scope of 12 men and some of their ministries had started to be neglected.
Case and point – the distribution of bread for the widows. There were quite a few widows in the church and, at the time, widows were treated as the bottom rung of society. They couldn’t get jobs. They couldn’t make money. They were usually in poverty.
The church had been dealing with that by setting up a mobile food bank. Members were to give contributions of money; Christians that worked in the bakery would make some bread, and the disciples would grab a big old cardboard box, stuff some bread into it, and deliver it to the widows in need.
But…the program had gotten too big.
The disciples had other priorities.
Some widows had been forgotten.
Doubly unfortunately, the issue had gotten racial. The widows that were Greek began to complain that they were being ignored because they were Greek and the only ones to receive bread were the widows that were Jews…because they were Jews. Granted, that wasn’t what the Apostles were doing; they were simply too busy preaching and teaching. Still they did recognize that racial tensions and divisions were not a good look for a church whose entire premise was “Jesus died for everyone.”
So…the Apostles made a plan. They decided to choose seven men to help them in the distribution of food. Seven men who would deliver the bread and visit the shut ins. Seven men who could share the message of Jesus as they went; and free the disciples up to share the message of Jesus all day long.
One of the men they chose was Stephen.
And Stephen accepted the appointment.
And Stephen was awesome at it.
He loved seeing the smiling widows answer the door.
He loved helping them restock their empty shelves.
He even enjoyed it when the older widows squeezed his cheeks, told him how they wish they had a grandson like them and gave him a Werther’s for his trouble.
And that’s what Stephen did.
He did the ordinary job of delivering bread.
He did the ordinary job of sharing Jesus with those he met with.
He did the ordinary job of sharing what he was doing and why he was doing it with the people he met with.
And that – was why he was arrested.
By the same men that had arrested Peter.
He was arrested for delivering bread and teaching the message of Jesus.
So, he stood.
Hands cuffed behind his back.
A spear implanted into his lower back.
A room filled with vicious, angry, violent opposition.
And they were telling him to stop.
Now they were telling him to never mention Jesus again.
Now they were telling him to shut up or die.
He wasn’t an apostle….
He wasn’t trained for this…
This wasn’t in the job description!
“We must obey God rather than men.”
There was that voice again.
And Stephen couldn’t help himself:
“Brothers…friends…well trained and high respected scholars of the Old Testament Scriptures!”
Ya’ll are Old Testament scholars, so can I ask you a few questions about the Old Testament?
Do ya’ll remember Abraham? God made a promise to him to move to a country he’d never heard of and he’d bless him. People rejected that message. But God fulfilled that promise.
And do you remember Joseph? God promised him in a dream that he would one day be a ruler. His brothers rejected that message and threw him into slavery. But God fulfilled that promise.
And do you remember Moses? God promised to leader Israel out of Egypt through him. The people rejected Moses and didn’t believe him. But God fulfilled his promised. He performed 10 miraculous plagues. He split the Red Sea. He brought them out. And then…they still rejected Moses and worshipped a golden statue of a cow.
And do you remember Elijah? And Elisha? Isaiah? Jeremiah? Joel and Habakkuk? God prophesied through them. But the people rejected them. They beat them, imprisoned them and killed them.
Friends, that’s what our ancestors did.
And that’s what you are now doing.
You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears; you always resist the Holy Spirit. (7:51)
You always resist God’s truth.
You are resisting the very Savior God sent for you – Jesus Christ.
And with that…the room erupted.
There were loud shouts.
There were swear words.
There was tearing of clothes and clenching of fists.
There were stiff-necked, with uncircumcised hearts and ears; resisting the Holy Spirit.
And Stephen dropped to his knees.
He looked up.
And he smiled:
“Look, I see heaven open and I see Jesus Christ standing at God’s right hand.” (7:56)
And the men charged the floor.
And they grabbed Stephen.
And they threw him outside.
And they began to throw stone after stone, rock after rock at Stephen.
Eyes swollen, mouth bleeding, lungs gasping for breath, said one last thing:
“Jesus, receive my spirit and don’t hold this sin against them.” (v.59)
And then, he died.
II. Lessons from Stephen about being an “Ordinary” Church Member
I think Stephen’s story is one of the most powerful in the entire Bible.
I think it’s incredible because Stephen was your average everyday church member with an average everyday church job.
Yet there are some incredible lessons that we can learn from this ordinary Church member. Here are a few things the ordinary Christian does…
(1) “Ordinary” Church Members Serve (Even when It’s Delivering Boxes of Bread)
Because that was probably not the most glamorous job.
It wasn’t that job that got your name in lights.
It wasn’t a job that would get you on a social media post.
It’s not the kind of job that develops its own hashtag: #ServingBreadIsAwesome
But Stephen did it anyway.
Because service is key.
Jesus said, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:28)
Stephen remembered how Jesus served him (by dying on the cross for his sins) and was motivated to serve others.
Here’s the thing – we have a lot of people that are a part of our church community.
And some of ya’ll are very smart. I know which ones I shouldn’t have a conversation about medical terms and which ones to avoid talking about computer coding with because the conversation will quickly go over my head.
Some of ya’ll are smart enough to do top level, top notch, sophisticated stuff…
…We need to be like Stephen.
We need to be willing to do the less glamorous jobs.
We need to be willing to humbly serve others…whether we have a master’s degree, a college degree or a high school diploma.
We need to be willing to deliver bread, to serve cookies, to water plants, to pick weeds, to change the classroom hamster bedding.
That’s the heart of service.
It’s the heart Stephen had.
It’s the heart Christ wants us to have.
(2) “Ordinary” Church Members …Knows God’s Word is MOST Important
That is why the Apostles came up with the position of bread deliverers.
And its why Stephen took the job.
Because God’s word was most important. And the Apostle’s needed to be spending their time doing that.
It’s why Stephen took advantage of the personal conversation and opportunities he had to share the message of God’s Word.
It’s why Stephen refused to compromise on God’s Word – even when faced with death.
Again – this is a key point of us today.
Because sometimes the things that we volunteer for at church don’t seem to be related to God’s Word.
There are things that are easy to relate – preaching, teaching, worship music playing, eldering….
…But other things are harder to see the connection. Things like: weed pulling, coffee making, website maintenance, and watching kids in the nursery.
In the bigger picture, these things free me up to share God’s Word. They free up Precious Lambs teachers to teach God’s Word. They free up guests and visitors to focus on God’s Word. They are absolutely, important and integral to a congregation’s Planting the Message of Jesus in the Heart of North Raleigh.
May I take a brief moment to free up all of you Stephens out there. To thank all of you who have been serving throughout this past year – as we grow, and more things are on my plate and more things are on our plans – thank you for your service to keep God’s Word as most important.
And a brief what now – consider ways you can continue to do that. Keep your eyes open as you serve for ways that you can share Jesus on a personal level.
Whether it’s talking to a fellow volunteer while trimming weeds…
Or welcome a visitor while you greet.
Or simply not complaining – like the people were doing – to help us stay less focused on complaints and more focused on our Savior Jesus.
(3) “Ordinary” Church Members …Suffer for their Faith
Because Stephen didn’t do anything wrong.
Stephen was simply delivering bread.
He was helping the sick.
And he was telling about Jesus.
But he suffered. He suffered even giving his life over to death.
Here’s the reality. Sometimes church Members, even “ordinary” church members suffer for their faith.
In fact, I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more often? Because Pastors deal a lot with church people.
Pastor have to spend a good amount of time in God’s Word prepping a sermon.
Pastors often get to teach people on their turf.
You work in the world.
You live in the world.
You have friends and family in the world.
You do life among the people that reject His Word and sometimes –reject you for following Jesus.
Expect to suffer.
A mean comment on Facebook.
A tension at work.
An angry speech from a family member.
Expect to suffer for following Jesus. Because honestly, it’d be extraordinary if ordinary church members didn’t suffer for their faith.
It’s entirely ordinary for ordinary church members to suffer.
And that’s ok.
It’s ok, because of our final point:
(4) “Ordinary” Church Members…Receive the Extraordinary Crown of Life
That’s the message that empowered Stephen to be willing to die for his faith.
He knew his Savior.
He knew that Jesus conquered death.
He knew that Jesus promised that he too would conquer death.
And then – after his sermon – after the crowd is already angry – Stephen looks up and sees Jesus’ standing in heaven.
That’s really interesting.
Because usually in the Bible, God is presented as “sitting on his throne.”
But here Jesus is standing.
You have to picture the same thing.
You have to picture the same thing, because it’s truth.
When you are suffering, when you encounter opposition, when you are struggling to maintain faith in an opposing to faith world, see Jesus standing and calling to you.
Revelation 2:10, Jesus says this, “Be faithful even to the point of death and I will give you the crown of life.”
That’s an extraordinary promise.
It’s an extraordinary promise to even ordinary people like you and me.
And it’s true.
When you cling to that extraordinary promise, God will work through ordinary you to do extraordinary things.
Isn’t that what happened with Stephen? His story is written in Scripture. His passion is recorded for us to read. His confident holding to God’s Word motivates us to stand up for God’s Word.
The “ordinary” church member – through whom God worked extraordinary things.
Brothers and sisters may our God do the same through you.
May he work extraordinary things as we work to Plant the Message of Jesus in the Hearts of North Raleigh. Amen.