Last week I told you about how the early Christians got along so well. They loved each other so much that they sold their possessions in order to take care of each other. Sounds too good to be true, right? That doesn't happen much in churches today, or does it?
I. Just a short time later in acts chapter 6 we find that there's a conflict. It seems that the very thing they were so passionate to do, take care of the poor, caused anger and resentment. The Greek speaking Christians in Jerusalem complained that their widows were being neglected by the apostolic welfare fund, while the Hebrew speaking widows had enough.
The Apostles, now what were they to do? It started out as a good deed, but turned into accusations of corruption and jealousy among the believers. Just weeks before this Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven for the sins of all the people. If they could only get Jesus to come back and settle things! But he would only come again at the end of the world. So the church of Jesus, still in its infancy, was in danger of schism. What were they to do?
We've been in similar situations. Yes, Christians have conflict. It's there in the Bible, there throughout the Church's history, and it's here today. Conflict is in our community, our family, in our home.
The early church found the answer. Each side stopped accusing the other started to listen. They appointed seven lay people--they called them deacons--men of reputation and honor, to do the work of feeding the poor. They made it fair and honest. They found a new way to do things, which brought peace back to the church. We can learn a lot from their example.
II. One of those deacons, Stephen, was full of grace and power. He even did miracles like Jesus did. He became famous in the community as a Christian leader.
Now whenever God does good things, there will be a demonic attack to counter it. Several groups of Hebrews began to argue with Stephen in public. But they could not best his teaching that Jesus was the Son of God. So they tried some dirty tricks, making false accusations against Stephen, like others did to Jesus at his trial.
Have you ever been falsely accused? Have people gossiped about you and assumed they knew why you did things? It happens to us all. When I was a student pastor, my supervisor taught me something important. "To avoid criticism: do nothing, think nothing, be nothing." When you do what is good and right, there will be criticism. Don't let it stop you.
Stephen could see that there was no way out of this situation. It was a political setup. He could have taken back what he said about Jesus being the Son of God and they probably would have left him alone. But that would have cost him his salvation. So he used the opportunity to witness for Christ. He told the crowd gathered against him about the history of their religion, the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How Moses led the people out of slavery to the Promised Land, and how the people drifted away from the true God and worshiped false gods.
Then he said, "You are a stiff-necked people. You always resist the Holy Spirit. Your ancestors persecuted the prophets God sent, and now you murdered the Righteous One, who is Jesus Christ himself!"
The people couldn't believe what he said, and they turned into a violent mob, bent on killing him. It was too late for Stephen. Only God could save him at this point. So he looked up, and there he saw a glorious vision. Heaven opened before him, and he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right side of the Heavenly Father.
Very few have ever seen the face of God and lived to tell about it. Stephen said out loud, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." That was too much for the mob, and they plugged their ears, shouted at him, and grabbed him and carried him outside the city walls.
Have you ever been afraid for your life? It's a terrible feeling to know you could die at any moment. If you're not a believer, there's great fear of where what happens after you die. But for believers there is a peace. You know your sins have been taken away. You know those words of Jesus are real, "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you." When you are at the doctor's office and they tell you there's nothing they can do for you, remember these words.
They took Stephen out and they threw big rocks at him until he died. And with his final breaths, he said something amazing. It didn't originate with him. Jesus said it when he died on the cross for the sin of the world. He said, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Now that's a Christian. They take away everything you have, even your life, and instead of calling down curses upon your enemies, you pray for their salvation. That's faith.
We can learn something here about conflict. When things don't go our way, we are quick to blame other people, to assume we know their motives, and to tell our friends how terrible they are. These are all sinful responses to sin.
There is another way. Our Lord teaches us to talk to our accusers. Listen to their point of view. Consider what they say, and tell our story also. When we see where we have sinned against them, admit it, and ask for their forgiveness, and God's forgiveness. Most of the time you will find others amazed by this response, and the opportunity to forgive the offender. Then, as Stephen did, stop worrying about what's going to happen to you, and put yourself into God's hands.
In the end, we will all have to leave this world. We have to leave behind everything we love here. But there is a place for us in God's eternal house. That's where we are going, and Jesus has done everything needed to bring us there. Amen.
Dr. James F. Wright
Immanuel Lutheran Church
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