Easter 4a

Preached: May 15, 2011

Stephen Lived Life to the Full
Acts 6:1-9; 7:2, 51-60

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus is Acts 6 and 7.

In those days as the number of disciples grew, those who spoke Greek grumbled against those who spoke Aramaic. Their widows weren't getting aid each day.

The Twelve called together all the disciples. They said, “It's not good for us to neglect God's Word to serve tables. So, brothers, look for seven respected men among you, full of spiritual wisdom. We will put them in charge of taking care of this need. We, then, will devote ourselves to prayer and serving the word.”

The whole congregation liked these words. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. They also chose Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a convert from Antioch. They presented them to the Apostles, and after praying, they laid their hands on them.

The word of God grew, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem greatly increased. Even a large number of priests were listening to the faith.

Full of grace and power, Stephen was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Now some opposed Stephen. They were from the synagogue called Freedman, who were from Cyrene and Alexandria and also from Cilicia and Asia. They kept arguing with him.

Stephen said, “Brothers and fathers, hear me …

“O you stubborn people with unbelieving (uncircumcised) hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit! Just as your fathers did, so do you! Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One. Now you have become his betrayers and murderers -- you who received the law at the direction of angels, but did not guard it!”

Hearing this tore into their hearts as they gnashed their teeth in anger against him. But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into the sky. He saw God's glory and Jesus standing at God's right side. He said, “Look! I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at God's right side.”

Screaming out loud, they covered their ears. Altogether they rushed at him. They threw him outside the city and began to stone him. The witnesses had laid aside their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul and were stoning Stephen. He was calling out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” Kneeling he shouted aloud, “Lord, don't hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 6:1-9; 7:2, 51-60)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10 NIV1984), Jesus said in the Gospel today. What did he mean? Is a full life pursuing your dreams, pushing to the next level, reaching for the stars, being all you can be? Is that what Jesus meant? Is a full life seeing the wonders of this world, experiencing what life can offer, achieving your goals, living it up, finishing your "bucket list"? Maybe the true fullness of life is in the love of family, the reconciliation of past hurts, the passing of life to the next generation, shared laughter and tears, hugs and kisses, the warmth and care of home. What do you think?

"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10 NIV1984). What is Jesus promising in these words? Rather than reading our own ideas into them, let Jesus illustrate his meaning through the life of Stephen. Stephen lived life to the full. Have you?

A. Life full of the Holy Spirit

We meet Stephen in Acts 6. The early Christian church has been rapidly growing in Jerusalem. You remember how it started, don't you? Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus ascended. Ten days later on Pentecost, he poured out the Holy Spirit on his disciples. They boldly proclaimed the Gospel: "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:32, 36, 38 NIV1984). Three thousand believed and were baptized. And the numbers continued to grow.

The Apostles kept preaching in Jerusalem. As time passed the administration of the growing church became too much for them. In those days there was no government welfare or Social Security. You took care of your own when they were in need. But widows had no husband to support them. And when they had joined the followers of Jesus, they left behind the support system of the synagogue and often their parent's family as well. So their new brothers and sisters in Christ provided for them.

But like you and me, these early Christians still had a sinful nature that got in the way of this Christian charity. Charges of favoritism surfaced. What were the Apostles to do? Were they to take time away from their testifying about Jesus, affirming their eye-witness account, work which Jesus himself had sent them to do? Were they to neglect that work in order to make sure food was divided up fairly? Listen to their answer: "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, chose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4 NIV1984).

Notice these men were to be full of spiritual wisdom. Leadership in the church, even in the business side of the congregation, requires spiritual wisdom. Stephen had spiritual wisdom. He was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:4 NIV1984). Are you starting to understand what Jesus means by life to the full?

Many kinds of spirits fill our world. Many people claim to have spirit and promise to make you feel spiritual. But how does God the Holy Spirit fill us and bring us life to the full? Think of what Jesus said in John 6. "The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life" (John 6:63 NIV1984-footnote). In John 10 when he talked about having life to the full, he says that the sheep don't listen to the strange voices (John 10:8) but to his voice (John 10:16). In John 14 Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth (John 14:17) who reminds the disciples of what Jesus said (John 14:26). Do you see that the Holy Spirit comes through the Word?

Stephen cherished God's Word. In Acts 7 in the verses omitted in the reading today, Stephen proclaims God's Word as he stands on trial. He knows the Bible well. Through the Word the Holy Spirit had filled Stephen. He lives life to the full, a life full of the Holy Spirit -- the Holy Spirit, who speaks through the Scriptures.

Jesus came so that you, dear friend, may have life to the full -- a life full of the Holy Spirit as you take his Word to heart. Never divorce the Holy Spirit from the Bible. They go together. So many in our world who claim to be spiritual do not carefully listen to Scripture. Just listen to what they say and compare it to what's written, and it's clear they are not listening. Their own words condemn them. Even if they claim to have the Holy Spirit, they are deceived or are lying. They cannot have him apart from God's Word. No matter how full their life may seem, it's not full of the Holy Spirit.

But you, dear friends, fellow redeemed, listen to the words of your Shepherd. Hear his voice calling out from the pages of the Scriptures. He laid down his life for you and took it up again. Do you think that his words are going to mislead you? Of course not. So feed on his word. Drink in his promises. These are the green pastures and quiet waters that filled Stephen's heart, mind, and soul. In the same way fill your heart, mind, and soul. Feast on God's Word. Inwardly digest it. Drink in his promises. Fill your heart with them. Yes, keep on filling your heart with his words of promise until you overflow with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and all the fruit of the Spirit. That's the Holy Spirit filling you, filling your through his word in the Scriptures and the Sacraments. That's life to the full.

B. Life ready to fall asleep in Jesus

How this flies in the face of what our society means by a full life! Look at how Stephen's life ended. Rather than reaching the stars, he was thrown into the dust. No loved ones or family gathered around him reminiscing of the good times, only the hateful screams of his murderers. No peaceful, quiet slipping away in his sleep, but the brutal pain of stones hurled at him, shattering bones and bursting blood vessels. What hopes, dreams, and goals had he had that were so abruptly cut short? And what had he done wrong? He had spoken the truth, God's Word. He had testified about Jesus. And this is what happened?! If this is what Jesus means by life to the full, maybe we are having second thoughts about it.

But before you give in to those thoughts, look at the last words in the text. "He fell asleep" (Acts 7:60 NIV1984). What hope is in those words and what truth! How different from the empty platitudes like "They'll live on in your heart" or "They're watching over you"! Although good-meaning people may say such things, they have no Bible truth behind them. But how different: "He fell asleep"! In Jesus death has become only a sleep for the believer. Jesus will wake up his people, his faithful, on the Last Day.

Stephen trusted Jesus. See his faith in Jesus. See it his words. He confessed Jesus as his crucified and risen Savior as he stood before his accusers. Jesus is the Righteous One, foretold by the prophets, put to death on the cross (Acts 7:52). Jesus is the Risen One, ascended to heaven, standing on the right hand of God, ruling over all things (Acts 7:56). Stephen's words clearly confess Jesus.

Stephen trusted Jesus. See his faith as he prays for his enemies. Even as they hurled the stones at him, he cries out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60 NIV1984). How could he forgive those who treated him so brutally? Because he knew how much Jesus had forgiven him. His faith clung to Jesus as his righteousness. His faith clung to Jesus' blood as his ransom that set him free from sin's condemnation. His faith clung to Jesus' cross, which reconciled him to God. His faith clung to Jesus' empty tomb as the proof of his own forgiveness before God. See his faith forgiving his enemies because of Jesus' greater forgiveness toward him.

Stephen trusted Jesus. So he entrusted himself into Jesus' hands. "Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit" (Acts 7:59 NIV1984), he prayed. No one could snatch him out of his Shepherd's hands. So he fell asleep in Jesus. That's life to the full, life that's ready to fall asleep in Jesus.

Let your faith shine out as Stephen's did in your words and confession, in your actions and forgiveness. For no matter what others do to you out of hatred toward Jesus, they cannot snatch you out of his hands. Even the most painful death is victory as we fall asleep in Jesus for you who believe. For he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When we live life ready to fall asleep in Jesus, we live life to the full. Anxiety and worries lose their power to deprive us. For nothing can separate you from Jesus' love. Sin and death lose their power to terrorize us. For Jesus has taken your sin away and conquered death for you. Troubles and hardships lose their power to drive us to despair. For look, even the worst, even death itself, is only falling asleep in Jesus for you who believe -- ready for him to wake us up on the Last Day when he returns with his holy angels, ready to live with him in his glory and reign with him, our Savior-King. So live your life, right now, fully for Jesus.

A young man named Saul stood and watched. He too hated this Jesus, whom Stephen confessed. He would soon lead a persecution against Jesus' followers, scattering them from Jerusalem.

But later Saul would learn that it was really Stephen who had life to the full, not those throwing the stones. Stephen lived life to the full, a life full of the Holy Spirit, a life ready to fall asleep in Jesus. This Saul would later express this same truth as he wrote: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21 NIV1984).

So also you, dear Christian, live life to the full. Live for Christ as the Holy Spirit fills you through his Word. Live ready to fall asleep in Jesus. What great gain that is! Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313