“Witness, Mercy, Life Together: The Case of Stephen” (Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60)
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: This is an emphasis right now for our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since the work of our national church body can be gathered under these three headings. In connection with this, our synod is using the New Testament Greek words associated with these aspects of the church’s life: Martyria, “Witness,” the bold testimony that Christians give to their Savior, often in the face of hostility and persecution. Diakonia, literally “Service,” but especially, service in the form of works of “Mercy.” And third, Koinonia, “Fellowship,” or to put it another way, the church’s “Life Together.” Martyria, Diakonia, Koinonia: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.”
Now on these Sundays of the Easter season, we’re reading the lessons from the Book of Acts, and we’re seeing running through them these three themes, Witness, Mercy, and Life Together. Many of these readings show the church bearing witness to Christ’s death and resurrection–Martyria. In some of the readings, we see the church’s service of mercy to those in need–Diakonia. And some of the readings give us a picture of the church’s life together–Koinonia. Now the interesting thing about today’s reading, from Acts 6 and 7, is that in this one lesson, all three themes come together. They come together specifically in and around a man by the name of Stephen. And so today’s message, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together: The Case of Stephen.”
You’ll recall from last week that we got a glimpse of the early church’s life together. In Acts 2 we read: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This was all very good. This is what a church should look like, a close and caring, loving community. Koinonia, Life Together.
But even in the best of congregations, problems can and will arise. And so we see such a problem come up here in chapter 6: “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.”
What was the problem here? It was a conflict between two different groups in the big and growing Jerusalem church, a conflict between the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews.” Who were the “Hellenists”? The word “Hellenist” means “having to do with the Greek language and culture.” Many of the early Christians there in Jerusalem, even though they were Jews, were used to speaking Greek, which was the international language of the day. They came to Jerusalem from places where they had adopted some of the Greek ways and customs. This caused something of a cultural divide in the Jerusalem church, because others there were more “true-blue” Jews who spoke Aramaic, the Semitic or Hebrew-type of language that the locals spoke. They were the “Hebrews” mentioned here. A conflict arose between these two groups over how their widows were being treated. The Greek-speaking international Jews thought that their widows were not being treated as well as those of the Aramaic-speaking local Jews. Their poor widows were being neglected in the daily food distribution, it says.
Now imagine that: a cultural divide within a congregation. You know, I don’t think we have any conflict here between groups, but I can see a couple of different components to our own congregation. On the one hand, we have many of our members who came to Bonne Terre from St. Louis. You retired down here. You’re lifelong Lutherans, you grew up going to church every week, you’re familiar with the ways and the customs of the Lutheran church. You “speak the language,” if you will. On the other hand, we have many of our members who are locals. You grew up here in St. Francois County, a hunting and pickup truck-type of culture. You speak with a bit of a twang. Perhaps you were not brought up in the Lutheran church. Less than an hour between St. Louis and Bonne Terre, but a noticeable difference in culture. And then on top of that, you’ve got a pastor who grew up in Chicago, a northern urban guy who says “cahr” instead of “car,” “Gahd” instead of “God,” and he even roots for the Cubs! How in the world can we all get along?
Well, if the Jerusalem church could do it, so can we. For what binds up together is far greater than our cultural differences. We are one in Christ. We all are people who have received and know the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Savior, who died on the cross and rose again to win forgiveness for our sins and give us everlasting life. This is far more important than anything that might divide us. It is the gospel of Christ, the common faith that we share, the gifts of God in which we all partake–Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the preaching and teaching of God’s Word–we all share these gospel blessings in common, and that is what makes us a koinonia, a fellowship, a real community. Our life together is bound together by the love of God in Christ.
And so God gave the Jerusalem church the grace also to resolve the problem that arose. The apostles gather the church together, and they say, “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.”
Here we have the Greek word diakonia, which means “service” or “ministry.” And it occurs here in both of those senses. There is the diakonia or service of “serving tables,” that is, administering the distribution of food to the widows. And there is the diakonia or ministry of “preaching the word of God.” Both diakonias are important, both are needed. It’s just a question of who does what. The pastors are called to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” and they cannot be sidetracked from that. But the widows cannot be neglected either. So you the congregation, you pick some wise and spiritual men to take care of that important service of mercy. And so that is what they do. Here the church’s life together, their koinonia, leads to them being able to attend to beautiful works of mercy, diakonia. You see how these aspects of the church’s life can intersect and overlap.
And so our man Stephen was appointed to this the first diaconate, offices of help and assistance in the life of the church. It’s not the pastoral ministry, yet it is service nonetheless. We have a counterpart today in various lay offices that a congregation may have to help out in various forms of service–church council, lay elders, trustees, social ministry, and the like.
Then it came about that Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” “full of grace and power”–Stephen had occasion to bear witness, bold witness, to the truth of God. It came in the face of bitter opposition–anger, hostility, even murderous rage. The type of Jewish religious leaders who came against Jesus and had him put to death now come against Stephen, and with many striking parallels–unjust trial, false witnesses, whipping up a mob mentality, etc. But Stephen does not shrink back in fear. Rather, he speaks up with courage and power and great grace from God. This is true martyria, witness.
We don’t have all of chapter 7 in our reading today, but suffice it to say, Stephen’s speech is powerful and bold. He reviews the history of Israel for these hostile Jewish leaders. He shows them that they are just like their fathers, the wayward Israelites of old who had opposed God’s prophets and rejected God’s word: “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.”
Look, this is not the way to get people to like you, confronting them with their sin like this. But Stephen spoke what needed to be said. He needed to bear witness, and in this case, to bear witness against these stiff-necked people who were rejecting God, really. Faithful witness is not always pleasant, but it does need to be faithful and true. And that is what Stephen did. And that is why Stephen died. The outraged enemies of God pick up stones and stone God’s witness to death. Stephen becomes the first Christian to die for the faith, and so we call him the first martyr.
Notice that. We think of a martyr as someone who suffers death for the sake of the gospel, and well we should, for that is what the word has come to mean. And we honor the martyrs of the church who have shed their blood for the sake of their testimony. But a martyr, really, originally, is simply someone who bears witness. The term “martyr” comes from that word martyria, “witness” or “testimony.”
And so, like Stephen, you too can be a martyr for our Lord, that is, you can be a faithful witness, whether or not you suffer death for it. God is watching over you, and he will take care of you, even if you should die. Just be faithful. Don’t be afraid to speak. God will give you courage and the words to say.
Witness, Mercy, Life Together: Martyria, Diakonia, Koinonia. These things came together in the life of the early church, as we see in the case of Stephen. And, my friends, they will come together in the life of the church today. Our God is the same God as he was back then, rich in grace, empowering his church for their calling as his people. The God who makes us one and orders our life together as a fellowship, koinonia . . . the God who moves us to lives of compassionate service, showing mercy to those in need, diakonia . . . the God who opens our mouths to speak his word, no matter the cost, martyria . . . the same God is with us today. May God empower and direct our Witness, Mercy, and Life Together, to give honor and glory to his most holy name. Through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.