7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.
7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
When I was in seminary the most dreaded class was preaching. Many people have an aversion to public speaking, future ministers included, so that’s not surprising. But the word around campus was that preaching class would rip you apart before putting you back together. There were plenty of stories about feedback and how your sermons would be videotaped and you would be forced to watch yourself as you stumbled over readings or swayed back and forth in the pulpit.
So on the first day of preaching class, we all walked in and sat uneasily at our tables. And one of the preaching professors got up and started reading stories like this one from the book of Acts. They were stories about how the early Christians were beaten or imprisoned or even killed for their faith. And at the end he turned to us and said “that’s what they endured to preach the Gospel…I think you’re going to be just fine.”
Today’s story is not an easy one. It’s the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which means the first person to die for their Christian faith. He is called to trial and asked about his faith. And instead of lying or recanting, he tells them about what he believes about Jesus. And they respond by stoning him.
The book of Acts is full of stories like this. It’s a book about how those early disciples in the uncertain days were learning to be the church together, and were facing the very real consequences of what it meant to claim their faith. And it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from church.
It’s funny, because sometimes I think the modern church needs to go back and read Acts from time to time. We need to remember our roots. And we need to remember those stones. Sometimes we need to see that stark reminder. Sometimes we need to know that ours is a faith for which peopled died.
The reality is that the faith of the early church was a lot different than the faith of American, middle-class Christianity. No one is waiting at our church doors to stone us. We are not losing anything except maybe an extra hour of sleep by being here. We are under no threat being here. And really, if you want to, you can walk out the church door today and not think about your faith again until next Sunday morning.
That’s our luxury. But sometimes that is also our problem.
We live in a culture where almost everything else is done for our convenience or pleasure. We expect to have things our way. We demand that we be served. We expect that things will be done the way we want. We don’t like being inconvenienced. And we are often all-too-quick to remind those we believe are there to serve us that there are other options down the road.
And sometimes that attitude even finds its way to our churches. We become not disciples, but consumers, looking to be fed, or be inspired, or be made happy. The church becomes a vehicle for meeting our own needs and wants.
But here’s the hard truth that stories like today’s remind us of: the church does not exist for us. This building is not here for us. This worship service is not about us. The committee meetings and decisions we make are not about us.
Instead, the church, and everything about Christian life, is about Jesus and his will for us and for the world.
That’s a little distressing to hear, perhaps. Because it goes against almost everything else we encounter in our culture. This isn’t about us and the way we want it. It’s not about our comfort and convenience. It’s not about whether or not things fit into our schedule or preferred timeline. It’s about Jesus. We are not the served. We are the servants.
And sometimes we are called to make great sacrifices as a result. And sometimes we are asked to put aside our self and find our identity in Christ instead.
Stephen did that in a literal way. The Scripture right before the passage we read today tells of Stephen being on trial, and being asked whether the charges against him, about whether he followed Christ, were true. And Stephen responds with a long speech in which he testifies to his faith in Christ, and even tells those gathered some hard truths about what it means to follow God’s will, and how they had often dropped the ball.
That’s when they decided to stone him, by the way. Even though his words were true, hearing the truth enraged them and they had to literally kill the messenger.
And yet, even in his dying moments, he was a witness to something greater than himself. Scripture tells us that as Stephen was being stoned, there was a young man watching. He was one of the people persecuting Stephen. The others gave him their coats to watch as they killed Stephen. And he stood there, watching what it meant to have faith in Christ, and what the consequences could be.
His name was Saul, but we know him all this time later as Paul, the great messenger of Christ’s life and love. He was not converted to faith that day. That came later on the Damascus road. But before he ever believed, he understood the potential costs of being Christ’s disciple.
Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe we should be more up-front in the church about the potential costs of following Christ. Maybe we should have a sort of disclosure process before someone decides to join, not to discourage them, but to just be honest. Because, if we are all being honest about this, following Christ means that you are going to lose your life.
I don’t mean literally. At least not in the sense that Stephen did. We have that luxury now. But if you are doing this Christian faith thing honestly, you are going to lose your life. You are going to lose the illusion that you are in control. You are going to lose the perception that it is all about you and your needs. And you are going to lose the right to have it your way. You are going to lose the life you know, and maybe the life you have always wanted.
That’s the cost of discipleship. That phrase, “cost of discipleship”, comes from a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor who managed to get out of his home country and secure a seminary teaching post in New York City when the Nazis rose to power. He was safely stateside, and out of harms way.
And yet, he did not feel that he was doing what Christ had called him to do with his life. And so, he went back to Germany, and worked as a Christian pastor to oppose Hitler and his regime. When he went back, he knew in a real way that he was signing his own death certificate. And yet, he went anyway. Because, like Stephen, he felt like he had no choice. And like Stephen, in the end he too became a martyr.
That’s not a very cheerful story, I know. But, for me at least, it is an inspiring one. It’s good to have examples of selfless faith. And it’s good to have reminders that sometimes our faith calls us to do the things that we do not want to do, even to the point of losing the life we know.
For you and I, hopefully, we will never have to make a choice to literally give up our lives in order to follow Christ. But we will have to make, everyday and in dozens of ways, a choice to give up the life we know, the life we want, and the life we hope for, for something else.
The good news is that the “something else” is something better.
Because Christ doesn’t call us to give up our life and follow him for no reason at all. He doesn’t call us to something hard in order to make us miserable and to hurt us. Christ calls us from the lives we know and imagine to a life that is unimaginable in its meaning and its depth.
No, we no longer get to have it “our way”. Now we get to have it Christ’s way. And, if we really open ourselves up to that, we find that it is more incredible than we could have imagined.
But that day that he watched Stephen die, do you think Paul believed that? Do you think he was saying, “I want to follow that guy?” No. And I wouldn’t have wanted to either.
But when that blinding light finally hits you, like it did Paul, you realize that you can do no other, and that life itself is a small price to pay for a life of meaning.
So, what price are you willing to pay? What is the cost of discipleship for you? I’m not talking about buying grace or anything like that. You can’t do that. But, what are you willing to turn over to God in order that you might live a life of gratitude for the gifts you have been given? What are you willing to lie down on the ground, or cast off like a stone, so that you might follow him into something else?
What are you holding onto, and what are you willing to let go of in order to claim something better? It’s a question worth asking for all who would follow Christ, and it’s a question that can change our lives.
May our lives be changed by Christ’s call to discipleship, and may we choose to pay the cost. Amen.