Faith-FULL Versus Faith-LESS (March 24, 2024)

Shea Watts explores Stephen's martyrdom and how the church is hedged by faith and fear.

Outlook Standard Lesson for March 24, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: ​​​Acts 6:5, 7-15

In a polarized and polarizing world, it is becoming increasingly easy to feel isolated, misunderstood, and persecuted. The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in exacerbating this phenomenon. A December 2023 article by The Pew Charitable Trusts notes that “At least four in 10 U.S. Adults (41%) have experienced high levels of psychological distress at some point during the pandemic” — and this number is higher among teenagers. The civil ties that hold together society appear to be breaking apart at the seam. With another tumultuous presidential election on the horizon, it is no wonder we are living in an age of unprecedented anxiety.

In this postmodern world, it may be easy to feel helpless and faith-less as we seek to bear witness to what is good and respond. Thankfully, Scripture offers a unique testimony to God’s work in the world.

Acts 6:5, 7-15

Stephen is the first martyr, or “witness,” mentioned in the New Testament. He is one of seven chosen deacons who serve the most vulnerable in Jerusalem’s early church. In the text, Stephen is described as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” (v. 5) as well as full of “power, grace, and wisdom” (v. 8).  Despite his gifts, Stephen is misunderstood and pays the ultimate price.

Stephen’s faith-full-ness brings him into conversation – and conflict – with the religious elite around him, who were set in their ways. Their religion had been worshiping the same way and at the same place for centuries. Perhaps their names were engraved on their pews or in holy places. The early church’s explosive growth was seen as a threat to older, established religious systems.

Stephen arrives on the scene to bring this new message of the in-breaking of God’s kin-dom in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and in the emerging church of a new covenant established by the Holy Spirit. Stephen’s message requires a dangerous thing: change. As a result of his faith-full zeal, Stephen is arrested and charged with threatening the Temple system and the law. After a contentious round of questioning in Acts 7, Stephen is condemned to death. Appalled by Stephen’s message, witnesses cover their ears and begin to throw stones as they yell at him. In his last moments, Stephen, echoes the final words of Jesus, petitioning God to forgive his executioners (vv. 59-60).

“The tight space between faith and fear”

In his commentary on Acts, Willie James Jennings writes: “The church was born in the tight space between faith and fear and forever lives in that space.” “Between faith and fear” describes a liminal space that has marked the church in every age. In the same way, Stephen’s faith-full-ness threatens the fear-full and faith-less around him, even now the invitation to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit defines the current moment of the church.

How is faith being reshaped in our polarized and polarizing world, where anxiety is lurking at every turn? What does a faith-full response entail? How can we reject fear-full responses that lead to faith-less-ness? Let me offer three encouragements that can bring comfort when faced with persecution and trouble so that fear will be overcome.

Faith-full-ness to Jesus brings us into conflict with the status quo. Like Stephen, following in the way of Jesus will at times attract fierce opposition. In the words of Gloria Steinem, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” We should not fret but rejoice when we feel misunderstood or persecuted on behalf of the good news.

Faith-full-ness requires a Spirit-filled boldness. Stephen’s audacious words that challenge the religious norms of his day (e.g., the Temple system and Law) demonstrate that he is following the Spirit into the unknown. In fact, the religious establishment understands his words as a way of destructing the core symbols and structures in place. Boldness is required for speaking hard truths and taking a stand for what is good and against what isn’t.

Faith-full-ness is not safe. Stephen and many of the early church leaders act upon a faith-full-ness that is willing to risk it all for what is good and right. Their faithfulness is a direct challenge to those who fear change. It unsettles the steady and sacred boundaries, rituals, and spaces we cling to as a result. We continue to live in this tension, as Jennings points out, between fear and faith. Where will we find our full-ness?

In all this, we can take heart because the Holy Spirit emboldens us. But faith means taking a risk and trusting we are being led. Efforts to play it safe drift from the riskiness of faith toward the comfort of the predictable.

May the God who empowered Stephen fill us with faith, so that we may stand steadfast in the moment of trial or tribulation.

Questions for reflection 

  • What can we learn about faith-full-ness from Stephen?
  • What areas of your faith need strengthening?

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