- Bible Reading: Acts 6:1–7:2a, 44-60
- Free Resource: Giving Our Gifts (Youth – NL)
- Unit Theme (April 4—May 23): Birth of the Church
- The Point: God is present in the midst of disagreement, fear, and danger.
This week we move from the Gospel according to Luke to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. These two are parts of the same work by the same writer, both addressed to a patron named Theophilus (friend of God).
Part 1: Jesus
Part 1 is an orderly account of the good news of Jesus the Messiah. After a “prologue” concerning the forerunner John and Jesus’ mother, the main character of the book is clear: Jesus. The story spans the period between the prophecy of John’s birth to the ascension of the risen Messiah.
Part 2: The Spirit
But what’s part 2 about? Very simply put: what comes next. It is—as the traditional title says—an account of the work of the apostles, those “sent out” to continue Jesus’ work. But there is not one single apostle that spans the entire work. Sure, it is the story of a community, but more so it is the story of the Holy Spirit, the “promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4).
The Breath of God
However, the reality of this third person of the Trinity is that she cannot be seen directly, only experienced. Even her name is a metaphor: Pneuma (Greek) and Ruach (Hebrew) both mean breath or wind. These forces are very real, but only can be felt, heard, or seen when they act upon something else. So, it makes sense that a story centered on the Spirit would be told in the works of that Spirit as she acts through others.
Within the mighty works of the Spirit described so far in Acts, there are several descriptions of the more mundane realities of this community. Acts 2:43-47 describes how the community held all things in common, selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to all. Acts 4:32-37 furthers this description of the rejection of private ownership among the community, fair distribution, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). There is also the disturbing story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), but that is a story for another day.
Now, “during those days,” some trouble starts within the community. The logistics of this common property is encountering problems, seemingly due to conflict between groups within this blessed community. Factions are growing—or rather the honeymoon stage of the unity of these preexisting factions is fading—and the prejudices are reemerging.
A Different Kind of Leader
This community needs organization, and this is falling on the shoulders of the only real leaders they have: the apostles. The problem is that—as is often the case with spiritual leaders—the apostles’ giftings are not in organizational management. They are apostles (sent out ones) to spread the good news. So, they do as Moses did back in the wilderness: delegate (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25).
These new leaders would be in charge of the important work of maintaining the community. They would still need to be full of the Spirit but were tasked in more practical roles. Later traditions have called these leaders “deacons” from the Greek diakonia (service, ministry), though it’s amusing to me to see variations of this word used three times in this passage: “the daily diakonia (distribution) of food” (v. 1), “in order to diakonia (wait on) tables” (v. 2), and when the apostles “devote ourselves to prayer and diakonia (serving) the word” (v. 4). So, the apostles are as much deacons as the deacons are.
Stephen: Minister and Miracle-worker
In addition to giving us a view into the workings of the early Christian community, this vignette introduces us to Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v. 5). Stephen is chosen to be one of these table-waiters (as well as Philip who we will see later in Acts). But—apparently—the Spirit has different plans for Stephen, as he soon performs the Spirit’s miracles and argues with the wisdom of the Spirit.
This arguing gets him in trouble, as his opponents get frustrated with losing to him and frame him for blasphemy. They even bring up the words of Jesus about the destruction of the temple (which were used against Jesus in his own trial, though not in Luke).
Stephen: Preacher and Protomartyr
Stephen uses the opportunity of his trial to retell the story of God’s people from the calling of Abraham to the building of the temple under Solomon. That’s all well and good, but then he seals his fate by accusing the religious leaders of opposing the Spirit (there she is again) and murdering the Messiah. So much for waiting tables.
This deacon performs miracles, argues, preaches, is accused of blasphemy, and accuses the religious leaders of opposing God. Sounds like Stephen is following Jesus’ example to a T. So, it’s not surprising that a similar fate awaits him: death, this time by the prescribed punishment for blasphemy: stoning.
Stephen is referred to sometimes as the Protomartyr, or the first one to die because of his faith in Jesus. In Greek, martyr simply means witness or testify. And, Stephen definitely testifies with miracles, proclamation, and his actions at his execution to the power of the Spirit and the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Each week I offer a free activity for congregations to use for faith formation. This week’s activity “Giving Our Gifts” is a way for participants (large and small groups, families and individuals) to consider how they can use their own gifts to further God’s kingdom. This activity was written for our Living the Word: Youth (NL) product, though I have adapted it to be used in pretty much any context.
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
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