Sunday 31st May 2020

‘Know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.’ Deuteronomy 7:9

Praise: Listen to or sing a hymn or psalm of praise.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, we come before you in humble thankfulness and praise. Thank you for your faithfulness, your love and your mercy, new every day. We are sorry for the times we have let you down: when we have closed our ears to your whisper, our eyes to your path before us, our hearts to your call on our lives. Forgive us we pray and give to us a willingness to be changed and the discipline and perseverance to follow the way of the Cross, wherever that way may lead. Guide us in all we do and inspire us by the work of Your Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ precious name we pray, the One who taught us to pray as we say, ‘Our Father…’

Reading: Acts 6:8-15 & 7:51-8:1 The account of Stephen.

Prayer: Take time to pray for yourself and your family and friends. Remember all in hospital and ask God to bless the work of doctors and nurses as they care for others. Pray for residents in Care and Nursing Homes, for their families, and for all staff as they reassure and look after those in their care. Pray for our Church of First Donaghadee as we plan to take a first tentative step to reopen the church for prayer on Thursday. As your prayer draws to a close, thank God for the gift of prayer and for the opportunity to bring the burdens of your heart before His throne of grace.

Reflection: And we know that in all things….

I’m sure you can complete the above Bible verse…it’s one of the most encouraging in all of Scripture. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…’ (Romans 8:28) God’s promise that, no matter how difficult or dark things look, God can bring good out of any situation…Over the next few weeks, God willing, we will look together at a series of events in the life of the Early Church that each point to the truth of Romans 8:28 – difficult and challenging events that include the stoning of a believer, brutal persecution, imprisonment and the scattering of God’s people, all in an attempt by the authorities to extinguish the good news…but….that’s not how things worked out….why not? Because ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him…’

Today, our focus is on Acts 6&7 and the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The sheer space the author Luke gives to this story alerts us to the importance of the account. I read recently that one minister preached 38 sermons on Acts Chapter 7 alone. (Don’t worry, I’m not planning to do the same!)Stephen had been appointed a deacon in the Church and is described as a man of wisdom, faith, filled with the Holy Spirit, grace and power (6:3-8). We are also told he ‘did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people’ (6:8), and it was this that caught the attention of the religious authorities. Stephen was brought before them and called to give an account of himself, and like Peter and John before him (Ch 4), he seized the opportunity to boldly proclaim the gospel. Stephen’s speech is the longest single defence of Christianity in the NT, and in it he is crystal clear that he is not the one in the dock, it is the Sanhedrin who stand accused and guilty before God. Stephen is totally unafraid as he points at his accusers and calls them stiff-necked, resisting the Holy Spirit, betrayers and murders of Jesus Christ whom he calls, ‘the Righteous One’. (7:51-52). The point Stephen is making is this: for all their proud history, this religious ‘elite’ were in truth spiritually dead. Why? Because their trust was in their history and traditions when it should have been in Jesus who is the Christ – in this Stephen is mirroring the earlier words of his fellow-believer Peter, ‘Salvation is found in no-one [or nothing] else…’ (4:12).

It’s all too easy to read an account like this and shake our heads at the Sanhedrin, but we too need to be mindful of Stephen’s warning lest we slip into making the same mistake – our trust in the wrong things. Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘I’m a good person that’s what matters’…’I live a good life that’s what matters’…’I’m a Presbyterian that’s what matters’…..the truth of Scripture is that’s NOT what matters. Of course, God wants us to live good and holy lives but that’s not the basis of our acceptance before God. We are saved by faith in Jesus, our trust in Him, and THAT’S what matters….’For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…’ (Ephesians 2:8)

Stephen stood before that oh so ‘religious’ gathering and delivered his uncompromising speech. So, how did it go down? Did they respond, ‘You may have a point Stephen…You’ve given us much to think about’….No….They covered their ears, yelled at him, dragged him outside and brutally stoned him to death. And amidst that horror Stephen prayed for forgiveness for them in a prayer that echoed his Lord’s prayer from the Cross (Luke 23:34). And so, Stephen died the Church’s first martyr, and although it is a brutal account God would bring good out of even this – for the Church, persecuted and scattered would continue its extraordinary growth exactly as Christ promised, ‘In Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Stephen’s death acting like a springboard for that growth…

God brought good out of that situation and He will bring good out of our challenging situation today. Stephen was Christ’s faithful witness and you and I are called to be faithful witnesses too – remembering our trust is not in our traditions or trying to be good, important as living a good life is, our trust is in Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…’ Every morning why not make it your prayer that God, by His Spirit at work within you, will enable you to trust and love Him more and more and that He will work good through your life, enabling you to ‘live a life worthy of the calling you have received’ (Ephesians 4:1). Before we leave this account, take a moment to look again at the final verse….it introduces us to a sinister and shadowy figure, ‘And Saul was there, giving approval to his [Stephen’s] death.’ (8:1) But you only need to turn one page in your Bible to find out how our amazing God will deal with him and bring good out of his life!

Praise: Close your worship by singing or listening to a hymn of praise. (Suggestions: To God be the Glory/ Onward Christian soldiers/ We are marching in the light of God/ Stand up, stand up for Jesus.)

Benediction: May our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who came with grace and truth, also fill your hearts with grace and truth as you serve Him in the days ahead. And may the joy of the Lord – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – be your strength. Amen