Can you imagine a sermon so powerful, so focused, so painful that when the sermon ended the crowd would mob the pastor, tie him up, take him out of town, and kill him? You recognize this story line from our focal passage, but the story is not a once in history kind of experience. Witnesses of faith of Biblical proportion are played out everyday across the globe. Christians around the world are standing up for their faith and placing themselves in harm’s way as a result. Just this week the story of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani from Iran once again made international headlines. The pastor had been arrested, tried, and condemned to death by hanging by an Iranian court on charges of apostasy against Islam. At the last minute the courts decided to release the pastor to the cheers of his congregation and Christians across the globe. “Nadarkhani - who grew up in a Muslim home but never embraced Islam - refused multiple offers of release over the last three years. Iranian authorities had promised to free him if he recanted Christianity and affirmed Islam. Nadarkhani repeatedly refused, answering in court with two simple words: ‘I cannot.’"[i]
What kind of faith does one have to have to stand up as a witness for Christ regardless of the price? Over the course of my sabbatical I met some people that I want to introduce to you. Their faith and witness stirs and moves me to this very moment.
To start, I would like to introduce you to Torli. Torli is from Liberia and now functions as a missionary among the refugee and immigrant community in and around Boston. Torli is the person who put together all of my appointments with key Christian leaders in the Boston area. Only after I arrived did I come to discover that he scheduled these appointments from a hospital bed following major back surgery. I did not realize until after our first full day together that this one who was driving me place to place, connecting me to his friends, had only been released from the hospital the day before. Torli amazes me. Torli has almost no resources. He, his wife, and his young child lives in a household with the rest of his extended family and are preparing to move into a home of his own. The only issue is that they do not have the furniture they need or the long term resources to sustain them. Despite his desperate lack of resources he is having a huge impact for God’s Kingdom. He is mentoring young refugee men to help them lay a foundation that can help them have an impact those around them. He is connecting different churches and organizations together to help them impact the whole of the refugee and immigrant community. He is training leaders so that they can help the church in Liberia and beyond share God’s word with the world. Instead of being defined by his financial limitations, Torli is defined by the number of lives he is touching in Jesus’ name.
Much of England looks like exactly what you would think. There are green rolling hills covered in sheep. There are grand manors, thatched roofed houses, quaint little villages, and castles. But as soon as Birmingham is in view you realize that it is a very different kind of city. It is a large industrial city where the picturesque images fade away and the reality of asphalt, concrete, and seemingly designless structures define the landscape. The religious landscape changes dramatically as well. The heart of the city is filled with mosques and temples. There we met two pastors from India that are using radically different approaches to reaching their community. One leads a service that you would probably make you uncomfortable because of how radically different its worship is from what we experience. But, it is reaching people for Christ who come from Hindu and Sikh religious traditions The second pastor leads an urban congregation that serves its community in a diversity of ways. Reaching people across the religious bounds has become so normal for John and the church family he leads that they do not realize how the remarkable witness they offer to their city really is. Both of these pastors have chosen to step out of their comfort zones and step out in their witness for Christ.
In the working class suburbs of London a young British pastor is helping a historic church find new life by creatively reaching out to their ever changing community. Now, on most Sunday mornings, people from as many as 35 nations, gather for worship together. Their aging facility needs some work and its layout offers its own ministry challenges, but this church family has chosen to use art, community care ministries, and a wide range of other tools to reach those around them. It is stretching them. But in their discomfort and their choice to be stretched culturally, socially, and religiously, their witness is touching their community as never before.
I bring you the witness of these believers and church families both as a source of challenge and encouragement. God has chosen to work in the witness of these because they trust in God’s provision and are willing to be stretched for the sake of the salvation of others. These are ordinary people through who God is doing extraordinary things.
With the stories of these witnesses still ringing in the air I want us to come back to our focal passage for this morning. Our passage represents the final moments of Stephen’s grand speech to the Sanhedrin and the assembled crowd. With every word Stephen challenges the core practices of those assembled. They have grown comfortable with a religion shaped by culture. They relish in Temple worship that put them at the center of their religious world. Stephen now confronts them. God’s people exist to worship God. This God is not bound to a particular place or structure. God can be worshipped wherever God’s people encounter God. Stephen, who was held on charges of blasphemy, instead charges the religious leaders who held him. I can listen to his voice rise as he storms; 51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (NIV)
The response was predictable. 54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. The great Baptist scholar, Frank Stagg, powerfully describes the power of Stephen’s message. “National pride was offended and racial prejudice was condemned by this many Stephen. Preferring to cling to their stuffy little world, these Jews determined that Stephen must be silenced.”[ii]
Our passage tells us; 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” 57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him 58 and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
This gathering of the pious - this court of religious leadership-disengrates into a mad murderous mob. They have no legitimate case against Stephen but they cannot allow his words of challenge to stand. They cannot allow themselves to be sense as the disobedient. They would rather kill in the name of God than be confronted with the reality that they no longer represented the voice of God. As Stephen faces pain and death, he responds he has been taught by Jesus. 59 As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.
When most would call for justice, Stephen’s response is striking. While the crowd fumes and rages, Stephen calls for their forgiveness. He was willing to pay any price, even the ultimate price, for the sake of others hearing the story of Jesus. Stephen is not a spiritual superhero. He was an ordinary man that allowed God to work in and through his life.
You and I know that most of the time, in our context, serving as a witness for Christ will not call us to face stoning at the cities edge, struggling to survive on the economic edge, or having to stretch ourselves so far out of our comfort zone that we are required to learn a new culture or language. Most of us came to Christ because of the witness of a parent, a grandparent, Sunday school teacher, or a friend. Think for a moment about whose witness introduced to you Jesus or those that have shaped your faith walk. While these people may have had extraordinary impact on your life, they were and are ordinary people through whom God spoke that you might become a child of God.
What does this mean for you? How does the story of the witness of others from across the globe and the witness of Stephen from Scripture touch you? From the Great Commission to the Greatest Commandment, I believe the Biblical call for each of us to serve as witnesses of faith in God is undeniable. We who have come to God through faith in Christ are called to be His witnesses. We know that, but it seems to something very different to live it out. It is easy to feel unprepared or even unworthy. We can struggle with the words or be fearful in how others might respond to us. I want you to hear that God does not expect us to be the next Billy Graham or a spiritual hero. We are called to be ordinary people willing to let God speak to us and through us.
Your simple witness of what God is doing in your life is enough. It is a witness that God loves, God forgives – that God lives. Your witness is your story of coming to faith in God through Christ and what that means in your life even now. You have experienced forgiveness at God’s feet. You know the power of God’s love. You know what it means to have God at work in your life. Your simple witness carries the same redemptive power as Stephen’s witness. Your simple witness is a witness of Biblical proportion. Your witness is just as important as the witness of the Iranian pastor, Torli, or the pastors in England. Your witness can and will touch the lives of others in the name of Jesus. But, we must be stretch to be willing to see who God is bringing into your life. Is there a coffee shop where you regularly stop where you might have the opportunity to begin to connect with others? Are you part of a book club, an investment group, or sports league where God is bringing people into your life? Are there work colleagues, neighbors, or friends with whom you share your life and the things most dear to you? We must have confidence that God can and will speak through us and the willingness to step out and speak out in His name. We cannot presume because our family and friends know about God that they know God’s love and have experienced God’s grace. Your voice matters! Are you ready to be an ordinary believer through whom God can and will do extraordinary things? Our community and our world long to hear your story. They long for your witness.