Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the sixth chapter of Acts begins. Despite some early successes, including three thousand new members on Pentecost, public perception was that they were a tiny minority of fools, following a failed, fake Messiah, doomed to flounder for a few months before it all came crashing down. On top of that, a series of intense internal squabbles threatened to split the Church. Leaders who were picked based on their ability to teach and preach and inspire, suddenly found themselves having to learn how to administrate. Factions were arguing constantly, and the leadership could no longer do it all on their own. So, with some reluctance, they decided to open up the ranks, and seven new leaders were brought on board. These men, called Deacons, were charged with the day-to-day operations of the ministry, while the rest continued to focus their attention on teaching and preaching.
As we are well aware here at Christ Church, a good Deacon is worth their weight in gold. Seven good Deacons showed the potential to turn the Church around. The word of God spread because it had hands and feet in the world. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly as people began to experience the love of God lived out in real life. Things were blowing and going and everything looked great, until… Luke tells us that even many of the priests of Judaism were being converted by this newfound way of being the Church. Converting the rank and file is one thing, but religious leaders don’t take too kindly to the poaching of clergy. Stephen, one of the seven Deacons, was supremely gifted. Like Deacon Kellie, Stephen’s skills went way beyond the primary role of Deacon as a servant minister. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was a gifted preacher. He had a servant’s heart. He even began to perform miracles. His public persona became the focus of frustration for some of the Jewish leadership.
The story we heard this morning comes at the tail end of a long Passion Narrative for Stephen. In many ways, his story follows what happened to Jesus. A secret plot leads to the need for false witnesses to testify before the authorities. Ultimately, the power of the crowd is used to convict Stephen and he is sentenced to death as a blasphemer and dragged out of the city to be killed. As he dies, Stephen, like Jesus, asks God to forgive those who killed him. Despite all manner of hardship, the prodigal love of God that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth was still at work in the world, through disciples like Deacon Stephen, but things were about to get much, much worse.
The Lectionary ends at chapter seven, verse sixty, but the story of Stephen doesn’t really end until one verse later – chapter eight, verse one. There, the story transitions based around a new character who will carry the narrative through the rest of the book. “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” We heard Saul’s name in our assigned passage. He was said to be a young man who was trusted to watch everyone’s overcoats as they stoned Stephen to death. Saul was a Pharisees’ Pharisee. The son of a Pharisee, Saul was an up-and-coming leader in the Jewish faith, and after the message he heard in Stephen’s final sermon, he made it his duty to destroy the Christian faith.
Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the eighth chapter of Acts begins. After their brief glimmer of hope was snuffed out by Stephen’s death, Saul successfully organized a massive persecution of the followers of Jesus. Those who didn’t flee the city or deny their faith in Jesus, men and women alike, were dragged from their homes and thrown in prison for blasphemy. The Apostles hid, not unlike they did after the death of Jesus, and the faithful fled to surrounding communities in Judea and Samaria. There were only a handful of Christians left in Jerusalem, their membership was spread all throughout the land, and there was no Facebook Live to broadcast Sunday services.
What happened next is nothing short of a miracle. The people who scattered took the story of Jesus with them. As they travelled, they told about the power that God’s love and how Jesus had changed their lives. They showed God’s love to strangers in their new communities by acts of compassion and service and by modeling the sharing of resources for the needs of the poor. These people, who fled everything they knew for fear of their lives, took Jesus with them on the road, and lo and behold, the Church continued to grow. When everything else fell apart around them, the faithful reinvented what it meant to the be the Church in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the love of God with everyone they met.
As we continue to navigate this new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could learn a lot from the experience of the early church during the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of Acts. We aren’t being persecuted, but we aren’t able to meet together either. Still, we have the chance to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God with the world by staying healthy and hopeful at home. Our clergy might be focused on how to preach and teach in this new climate, but so many of you have found ways to step up and serve your neighbors generously, by ordering meals for the Salvation Army and BRASS, by dropping off fresh baked bread, helping out with grocery shopping, sending cards and letters, and making phone calls.
Twice in a matter of weeks, the early church fundamentally changed how it did business, and the Gospel flourished. As we come to the realization that this marathon is going to last a lot longer than any of us wants, the Church writ large, and Christ Church specifically, is going to have to take on a spirit of adaptation, of listening for the Holy Spirit, and of evangelistic zeal for the building up of the Kingdom of God. Even when we can re-open our building, the ways in which we worship God, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love are going to look vastly different than they did on March 12th. Our task, as we settle in for the long haul, is to discern as a community how God is calling us to be the Church in the world during and beyond these unprecedented times.
None of us has the answers quite yet, but we do have models to look to as we think and pray and dream. We have the story of Stephen, the work of the diaconate, and the spread of the Gospel in the diaspora, among many others to remind us that even in hardship, uncertainty, and fear, the Church’s mission to restore all people to right relationship with God and with each other will not fail. The Son of Man continues to stand at the right hand of God, which means that evil, fear, and folly can never win. Things haven’t looked good for the Church before, but God who is faithful will show us the way to the truth of eternal life. Amen.