"From the Pulpit" - Reflections on the Weekly Texts, from Pastor Greg at Living Lord Lutheran Church Vero Beach
Can I Get a Witness?
Remember that soulful song from Marvin Gaye from way back in 1963? Go ahead, admit it...you were around back then!!! Marvin Gaye, you ask? I thought this was a church message, Pastor Greg! Before you dismiss this song, think about where Marvin developed his musical chops, if you will. Where...from the church, of course, along with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Elvis himself, and a whole bunch of other gospel/soul/R&B singers then and now. Click the link below to be transported back to Motown in 1963. Anyhow, all in fun. Hope you enjoy his song below.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then 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. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then 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. Acts 7:55-60. Our first reading for this Sunday.
We're well into the post resurrection time in 1st century Palestine here in this reading. Jesus has indeed risen, and folks were beginning to hear about it, and some, to even see the Risen One. The church (the early Christian church) was beginning to form, breaking away from the Jewish temple. Many Jews were curious and indeed turning toward this new "way", finding perhaps words of comfort in the life and teaching of Jesus that they may not have found in the temple. Maybe.
Nonetheless, here we are in this post resurrection period, and Stepehen, a convert to the "way", has appeared before the Sanhedrin (a sort of Jewish council, if you will) in the text immediately before this - check it out. And he's witnessing to the acts and life of Jesus. EXCEPT he's not getting much play here. It's not playing well in Peoria, if you will. The temple leadership is incensed at Steve's witness, and they've had enough. So, they set about to execute him, very reminiscent of the trial of Jesus himself.
So, they sentence Stephen to death by stoning. Ouch. This past Wednesday, at our weekly bible study group, Jane Young reminded us that many stonings then, and now, were done by burying the accused in sand up to one's neck, just enough to have your head exposed, with no chance to deflect the stones with your hands or arms. Anyhow, in a scene eerily like the crucifixion of Jesus himself, we hear Stephen pray for his accusers and executioners, saying, "Lord, don't hold this against them." I don't know about you, but while I haven't been in a position to be stoned to death lately, I'm not sure that my Christian witness at that time would have sounded anything like Stephen's I'm thinking more like, "Help!!! Get me out of here! Help!" How about you? Re read the text above and pick out the many similarities to the crucifixion of Jesus himself.
Anyhow, if you look closely, look who's named in this crowd that is stoning Stephen. See any familiar names? How about...wait for it...Saul? Soon to be...you guessed it...Paul, himself? The Osama bin Laden of the day for these new Christians. The Jew born of Jews who never saw a Christian he didn't want to execute. Saul, the slayer of the people of the "way", as these new Christians were calling themselves.
And while Paul's "conversion" or "transformation" didn't happen immediately after this event, it does happen. And we know that Saul, becomes St. Paul, one of the chief defenders of the Christian faith, and the one responsible for many of the books/letters of the New Testament. Think Romans, 1st Corinthians, Galatians, and many others. So, I'm thinking that one some level, Saul, witnessing this stoning of Stephen, hearing his words of grace and love and forgiveness for the very people doing the stoning coming from Stephen, he just may have kept his words close to his hear, recognizing this powerful witness of Stephen. And maybe, just maybe, this witness in the face of a certain and a painful death, may have stuck with Saul, later himself coming to the Christian faith himself on the Emmaus Road (or thereabouts.)
Which brings me to..."the rest of the story", says legendary radio storyteller, Paul Harvey. I'll bet you, and those you love, have heard someone say something to you very matter-of-factly at one time or another, and those words, while not making much of a dent at the time, were kept in your memory bank, and later proved transformative for you. Words spoken in passing maybe. Words not meant to do anything in particular. But words...a witness from them to you, or vice versa, that you kept in your mind and heart, and at some point later on, had a significant impact on you. Sayings that you never forgot, to this day.
On Sunday, I'll share a story about my own faith journey, and how the witness of a Christian friend of mine while, not meaning much in a conversation some 30+ years ago, I stored in my memory bank, and came to live out in my current work. The moral? You just never know when something you say to someone, however innocently or spontaneously, or off the cuff, may have life changing and positive consequences for the hearer. You just never know. Kind of like sowing bread on the water. Or the image of sowing seeds on good, or other, soil. The Word of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will find a way to take root, and flourish, even when you don't see it at the time. It may be immediately obvious, as in the case of Stephen's words, heard by Saul at the time, but words that take root and blossom later on. When we least expect it. I'll bet if you think about it, you can think of an example yourself. Maybe something you said to your kids years ago.
So many times, we think we need to be a preacher like St. Peter, or a theologian like St. Paul, or a biblical scholar or pastor before we share our Christian witness ourselves. "I don't know the bible, Pastor Greg. How can I witness to another person?" Answer: In living out your Christian witness. In serving others. In inviting someone to worship with you one Sunday. In working for justice and peace, and more. This is how you do it. No one expects most of us to stand up in the pulpit on Sunday morning and witness. You don't have to be like bullhorn guy down at the corner of 20th St (Route 60) and 58th Ave, calling for people to repent and find Jesus. We can witness to the Risen One in our daily lives. In word, and in deed. Can I get a witness!? Amen.
I would LOVE to hear you share a story of your faith one Sunday morning. It doesn't have to be from the pulpit, or a life changing thing. Maybe just an encounter with another. Or a word of hope or grace or forgiveness. Take a deep breath and try this. You know you can do it.
"I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light"
"Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus"
"What a Friend We Have in Jesus"