(Notes for sermon preached on 9/7/2017 – not followed exactly in the actual preaching! A podcast of the sermon can be found at cromer-church.org.uk)
This series is about sharing Jesus, and we’re looking at how the early church did it. Today we’re looking at Acts 6, which tells the story of the appointment of seven people to deal with a practical issue, and then focusses particularly on one of them, Stephen, who was so effective in sharing his faith that he ended up in deep trouble – we’ll see the end of the story next week. Today I would like us to look particularly at what got into Stephen to put him in the position he found himself.
Several times in this passage Stephen is described as ‘full’. He was one of those chosen to serve because he was full of the Spirit and wisdom (v3). He is then singled out as being full of faith and the Holy Spirit (v5). In v8 he’s described as full of God’s grace and power, and we see how these things overflowed in action. Stephen was a remarkable man; but the Bible teaches us that God wants all of us to be full. Jesus came to bring us life in all its fullness. James tells us that if we lack wisdom to ask God for it. Paul tells us to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit; he prays for the Ephesians that they would be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God, and he prays for the Philippians that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. God wants us to be full!
The passage begins with a problem that needed to be sorted. The church in Jerusalem wanted to look after its members so there was a daily distribution of food to those who were in need; but it was growing so fast that they couldn’t manage the distribution fairly: the native Aramaic speaking widows tended to be favoured and the Greek speakers neglected. The Apostles realised that in a growing church they could not fulfil the work God wanted them to do if they had to get involved in the equally important pastoral work, and so they delegated that responsibility: ‘Choose seven people full of the Spirit and wisdom.’ That brings us to Stephen, but before we leave the apostles let’s notice first, the importance of the word of God and prayer – nothing must detract from that ministry, not even looking after the poor widows. Second, notice that they didn’t choose the seven themselves but trusted the whole Church to do it. Interestingly, the church didn’t seek to make the seven a representative group but chose people with Greek rather than Hebrew names. The Aramaic Christians bent over backwards to make sure the Greek speakers did not feel neglected. There are occasions when we need to deny ourselves our rights in order to build up the church, and a bias towards the poor and the marginalised is a good thing to have. When the early church put things right, rapid growth followed.
Back to Stephen. He was one of the seven who were ‘full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom’. What does that mean? Wisdom is all about knowing how to live in the light of God and what to do and say in the situations we find ourselves in. It is a very practical thing. You can be a wise builder, or a wise teacher, or a wise leader. The problem the early church faced needed wise people to deal with it. Every church needs practical people, who have a heart for making things happen, whether it is serving refreshments or working with the technology or caring for people or whatever. Let’s honour those among us with such wisdom! There are lots of them! But the first qualification was not wisdom, but the Spirit. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit living in them; but what was needed were people who were full of the Spirit. A person full of the Spirit isn’t necessarily a person with great gifts or enthusiasm. The Holy Spirit points to Jesus, and Jesus lives in us through the Spirit. So a person full of the Spirit is full of Jesus; they live no longer for themselves but for Jesus, and they let Jesus be Lord and Saviour in every aspect of their lives. Whatever they do is in his name. When we invite Jesus into our hearts it is all too easy to confine him to just a small part of our lives; a person full of Jesus has no space where h e is not allowed to rule. Do we want to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom?
Stephen is described (v5) as being ‘full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. When Paul prayed for the Ephesians, he prayed that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith. If we want to be full of Jesus that requires both belief and trust. We need to believe in God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus, and trust we are reconciled to God so that he can indeed live in us. We need to trust his wisdom and love and power enough to accept his authority in every aspect of our lives. And we need to believe that when we ask him in, he responds – we believe that Jesus is truly living in us, listening to us, and working through us – even when we aren’t paying attention to him! Do we want to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit
Stephen is next described (v8) as being ‘full of God’s grace and power’, doing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. The power is the thing that attracts people’s attention – we get excited when we see great wonders and miraculous signs – would that we saw more! But notice again the order: grace first, power next. Grace is love which is regardless of merit, love for the undeserving as well as the deserving. Jesus is full of grace – grace we have all received – and he was living in Stephen, his grace was shining out of Stephen. The widows knew he loved them with the love of Jesus. The power that was also seen was linked to that grace, as it was in Jesus’ ministry. It is possible to have power without grace; but let us seek grace first and power afterwards – power that is grace-filled and points to Jesus. Do we want to be full of grace and power?
The fullness of the Holy Spirit and wisdom and faith and grace and power adds up to what Paul describes as all the fullness of God. We would expect a man like Stephen, filled in this way to be a super-hero. The opposite was the case: he aroused hostility. I suspect the reason for that opposition was partly jealously, partly because he was speaking about Jesus and the religious people didn’t like it. We’re told that the opposition arose within Jews from outside Palestine – including from Cilicia and Asia, which is where Saul of Tarsus came from. I bet he was there. And when they engaged Stephen in debate, they could not stand up before his wisdom or the Spirit in which he spoke. Stephen must have previously thought long and hard about the faith – he would once have had the same doubts and view points that his opponents had. But he relied on the Spirit to help him say the right thing – and his opponents had no answer, just as they could not defeat Jesus in debate. And their reaction was to treat Stephen in the same way they treated Jesus. The fullness of God is no guarantee that we’ll have an easy ride. Do we want it?
Why did Stephen say anything at all? Surely he must have known what he was up against. He was full of wisdom! I think the reason was that Jesus was such good news for him. He was so joyful about this good news that he couldn’t keep quiet! And haven’t most of us received this same good news? Isn’t that why we’re here? The fact that the Creator of the universe so loved you and me that he gave his only Son, who for love of us gave himself to the cross so that we, so undeserving, could be forgiven and live with him now and for ever – that fact is still stupendous good news! We’re reconciled to God! As the Holy Spirit of Jesus lives in us, we can be filled with all the fullness of God! We mustn’t try to keep the good news to ourselves. Let’s be so full of it that we overflow!
How? I feel half empty, nowhere near overflowing. Jesus said, ‘if you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.’ And again: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit. Do we want this kind of fullness? Are we thirsty? Don’t let’s wait until we are empty! Let’s ask, and drink, now.
Let us do that, praying Ephesians 3:16-19, and believing God hears and will answer. I’ll read it through once, and then again as a prayer:
We pray that out of your glorious riches you may strengthen us with power through your Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And we pray that we, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Amen
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.