Ascension, 7th Sunday of Easter
To Him who loved us and freed us from our sins by His own blood and made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. In the name of Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, dear friends in Christ,
It’s kind of scary when you think about it, isn’t it? He was a young man who grew up in a God-fearing family. His parents taught him to know God’s Word, the Bible. They told him about how God promised to send a mighty hero to rescue them. Day after day they taught him what God wants His people to do – to do good to those around them and to love God. He grew more and more in his knowledge and insight. In fact, he decided to dedicate his entire life to learning God’s Word and teaching it to others. People all over looked at him and said, “This is what a believer should look like.” Who is he? You met him in our text this morning. His name was Saul and he was helping people… murder Stephen. And we’re told right after this text that not only was he giving approval to Stephen’s death, but then began to destroy the church, dragging men and women off to prison.
This text is a sobering reminder, isn’t it? And it’s not just because it reminds us that people can be so full of hate and violence that they can essentially lynch another human being, we get those reminders all over our world. It’s also not just that we’re reminded that there may come a time when we will have to lose our life because of our faith. No, what makes this terrifying is that someone who has grown up hearing God’s Word and being very religious could still end up being a Saul. So, what makes the difference? What is it that makes the difference between a Stephen and a Saul? Saul knew a lot about God, talked a lot about God, but couldn’t be further from the true God. But Stephen was different. So what made the difference?
Stephen wasn’t a teacher or a preacher, we don’t know that he sat at the feet of great teachers or not, he was simply a believer and was chosen to hand out food to poor widows. He helped and he served. And wherever he went he shared his faith. In fact, Saul probably would have done the same things, but with one difference: Stephen told people about Jesus. Saul didn’t really know Jesus. Yes, Saul looked forward to a promised deliverer. But the savior he was looking for was nothing like Jesus. He was looking for a Savior who would come and help the good people like him and destroy all the bad and evil people. He wasn’t looking for a Savior who would actually die for the evil people! And that’s why Stephen is where he is in our text. He was arrested by the Jewish rulers, accused of blasphemy, and then he gave speech and all the while we’re told that his face shone like that of an angel and it’s almost like the people were caught in a trance while Stephen traced God’s faithfulness from the time of Abraham and ended his speech calling all the Jewish rulers to repent because they had betrayed and murdered God’s promised Savior when they killed Jesus. But they didn’t react the way that he had hoped. “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him…covered their ears and yelling at the top of their voices they rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”
You see, Stephen was full of true Christian love. And it wasn’t so much the fact that he had helped out poor widows in giving them food or said nice things to people. You know, Saul probably did very similar things. But we’re reminded here of an important truth: the best measure of love isn’t so much how you treat those who need you, but it’s actually how you treat those who hurt and hate you. Did you notice what Stephen did? “While they were stoning him…he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He prayed for them. Really?
So, how do you know if you have authentic Christian love? It’s not just looking at how you try to find ways to help those who are in need, or at how you faithfully work to provide for your family, or at how you cook meals or take care of your children, or at how you try to be nice to your spouse. Rather, look at how you treat those who hurt you – and don’t just think about those who are critical of your faith and values or those who persecute and kill Christians. The truth is, you don’t have to look too far to find those who hurt you. Maybe we’re ready to just lay into that lazy coworker who makes our work even harder and give them a piece of our mind. Or that same child whom I think I’m so good at taking care of and yet there are times when I’m ready to lose my temper with? Or my spouse whom I think I’m so good at loving and yet our marriage is full of times when I think our marriage exists to satisfy MY wants, MY needs, what I think is best for ME. I’d sure like to think I look like a Stephen, but all too often I think I’m more like Saul. Saul was lashing out at his enemies while Stephen was praying for those who were hurting him. Which are you more like? Which am I?
So what’s the difference? What made the difference between Saul and Stephen? They both talked a lot about God, they both read the same Bible, the same Old Testament. What’s the difference? Notice Stephen’s prayer once again, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Sound familiar? That’s very similar to another prayer that someone else prayed while people were putting Him to death. While Jesus was on the cross He prayed for forgiveness for those who were putting Him to death. That’s who made the difference, Jesus made the difference. And just before Stephen was killed what did he see? Not just heaven, not just God’s glory, not just paradise, he saw Jesus, Jesus with the nail holes in his hands, nail holes that Jesus has kept in His risen and glorified body as proof that He went to a cross and died for us. That’s the God that Saul didn’t know. A God who loves us so much He didn’t come to crush sinners; rather, He came to be crushed by us and for us. God doesn’t love you because you love Him; he loves us even when we hate Him, even when we hate others. He loves us even when we’re Sauls!
There’s a ton of people in the world and many who attend churches who when asked why they think they’ll go to heaven will respond by saying, “I’m a pretty good person, I’ve done a lot of good things, I’m better than most.” Saul would have said the same thing. But the real difference between Stephen and Saul doesn’t come from who we are or what we’ve done, it comes from Jesus. We live our lives, we try to fight temptation, we try to stay rooted in God’s Word, we try to do those things God wants us to be doing, but the reality is, we still fail so much. There are days when we look a whole lot more like Saul than Stephen. So what do we need? Stephen “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” See Jesus. See that you have a Savior in heaven who died to take your sins away. See that you have a Savior who took all your bad on Himself. See that you have a Savior in heaven who lives to watch over you. See Jesus, and you’ll see the difference that He makes as He leads you to live in His love.
In a way this text is terrible, it’s terrible to see a Christian die for his faith! But it’s an important reminder. As we live our Christian lives, sometimes it will look as if God is failing you or like His promises don’t really apply to your situation in life. You know, Stephen loved Jesus, believed in Him, but Jesus didn’t send an angel to stop the stones, no one came to raise Stephen from the dead. God didn’t do anything to intervene and stop it.
And you’ll see that in your own life, too. You do selflessly care for your children, and they take you for granted. You do put your spouse first, and they just take and take. You do share your faith, and you get rejected too. And God doesn’t seem to do anything! I think there’s one more reason Jesus showed himself to Stephen. It was as if to remind him: Stephen, don’t forget your goal. Stephen, this pain isn’t going to last forever. Stephen, I know it looks like I’ve failed you, but I haven’t. Do you see the difference that makes? While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. We don’t live our lives as if saying, “If I do this or that, God will love me.” Rather we say, “I know that God loves, and this is the difference it makes: since I know Jesus will receive my spirit in the end, I’m not afraid –even of death.”
There are some days when I feel like a Saul. Maybe you do, too. But this isn’t the last we hear of Saul. One chapter later, Saul becomes a man who starts talking about the truth and living Christian love. Do you know what made the difference? He saw Jesus. When you feel like a Saul, go back to that same Jesus. You’ll see that He loves even Sauls, He gives you the peace to die like Stephens, and more than anything, He gives you the love to live like Jesus. And that makes all the difference. Amen