Sunday, March 31, 2013


Acts 6:8 —7:2a

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.

—Acts 6:8

6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 7:1 Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?" 2And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me.


Luke, the author of Acts, wants us to learn the faith given in the gospel of Christ and to understand Christ's care for those who are poor, alone, or oppressed. If we are formed into the people of God through our faith in Christ, then we are a people of faith formed for the sake of the world.

If you've ever seen a catechism, you'll have a sense of how Luke values learning. A catechism articulates in question-and-answer form what a group of people believes. Catechisms are used in different churches to help people learn the theology of their faith.

Catechisms help us to learn the language and theology of our faith. For example, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (in the Reformed tradition) is "What is your only comfort, in life and in death?" The answer begins, "That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."

In today's passage, Stephen declares what he believes by reciting the salvation history of the people of God by heart. His courage comes from knowing that he belongs to his loving and faithful savior in life and in death (centuries before the Heidelberg Catechism was written!). There is no separation between learning the faith and living the faith for Stephen. He has become part of the people of God. While his speech about the history of God's people is not a question-and-answer session, it has the same effect: teaching what we Christians declare to be true.

Toward the end of the passage, Luke shares the way that Stephen stands firm in this tradition of learning and living. Stephen shares with his accusers what he has learned and what they haven't. Like the people of God in previous generations, they too have turned away from God and even against God.


Some Bible stories seem impossible to emulate. How could I ever have the strength of character that Stephen had? Do I have half his courage to say what I believe, even if it would get me killed? What makes a person strong enough to stand up against adversity to proclaim Christ's gospel?

We already know from Acts 2 that the Holy Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost, and at the beginning of Acts 6 we are given to understand that Stephen's strength and grace are from the Holy Spirit at work in him. Indeed, Stephen has the power of God through the Holy Spirit: "Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). Not only that, but Stephen's speech is a recitation of the history of salvation. He tells the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, among others, to be clear that those who claim to be people of God often turn away from God and against God. Yet God comes back again and again, giving us new grace. Stephen claims his place in history as part of God's people.

We are God's people too, full of the Spirit. We may turn away from or against God, but God does not leave us. We can make a difference in spreading the gospel of Christ in word and deed because we are part of God's people.

Who you are matters, and where you are matters. God has not called you to be Stephen or Peter or Paul. God has called you to be you, part of the people of God, and God's Holy Spirit will be upon you in your daily life.


One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that we are able to see ourselves in Scripture in many different ways. Scripture is like a mirror: we can see how we are reflected in it and what it shows us about ourselves. John Calvin referred to the Bible as "spectacles." Scripture works the same way eyeglasses work. They help us see clearly when everything used to be blurry. If we read this story a couple of times, each time as though we were one of the characters, we see ourselves from a different perspective. What do we learn about ourselves when we are one of Stephen's accusers? When we are Stephen?

There is often conflict in leadership; sometimes we cause the conflict. This passage also helps us to see that we, like Stephen, are given our faith by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Even though his accusers lie about Stephen, note that he doesn't stop to correct them or defend himself— even when they seize him and drag him to face the high priest and the council.

The challenge for Christians is to live our lives for and through and in God rather than for our own self-interests. The accusers couldn't beat Stephen in an argument; that must have been embarrassing. The event could have stopped there if they had gone home to lick their wounds and ponder what they had learned from interacting with Stephen. That isn't what they did. Instead they chose a route of petty behavior that used the power of their numbers (there were several of them but only one of Stephen) to set him up for a fall and even for death. They were looking out for themselves. They weren't interested in truth or learning more about being the people of God. No one who sees Stephen's face "like the face of an angel" (Acts 6:15) asks him, "Can I receive such faith as yours? Can I too be filled with grace and power?"

We can characterize the difference between Stephen and his accusers in this way: some get things right; others would rather be right. Stephen wants to get things right. Those who stand with him are willing to make mistakes and to learn. It's the truth they're after, not their own superiority or security. Stephen's accusers want to be right. Their disciples will often try to rationalize why things aren't going well (as Stephen's accusers did). Stephen shows us selflessness and integrity as he stands firm in witnessing to his faith in God.

We belong to a people who have been formed by God and who have been given life and faith through Christ by the power of the Spirit. This means we belong, just like Stephen. Would you be surprised to be told that your face looks like the face of an angel? It does, because you are also messengers of God, sharing your heritage and inheritance with others.



Do you have favorite passages of Scripture or church writings that help you to remember your heritage of faith?

How does understanding your faith, at least to some degree, encourage you to act with integrity and selflessness?

Are there particular ways that studying Stephen can help you live out your faith in your current circumstances?



Mighty God, we thank you for the promise of your Spirit. We thank you for Stephen, our brother in faith, who showed us what we all have been given by you: courage, grace, power, integrity, and love for others. Help us to open ourselves to these parts of our lives that we might declare your gospel in word and deed, rooted in your Spirit. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Hebrews 13:1-3; 1 Corinthians 13

Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. —1 Corinthians 13:13

Hebrews 13:1 Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured—

1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


Our culture is obsessed with love. Self-help books are eager to help us become "lovable" people. Musicians have found fame by singing about love. Television programs set us up to believe that love is an "anything goes" sort of thing. Celebrities move so quickly between lovers that we can't even keep up. We're confused by what love is: we use the same word to admire someone's new hairdo and to show the deepest feelings of our heart.

Most of us would say that all human beings have three basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing. People that study human beings and our behavior would add another need: we need to be loved.

What happens when we don't get enough love? We turn in on ourselves. It becomes harder for us to show other people that we love them. If it goes on long enough, we begin to believe that we are unworthy of being loved. When we aren't met with the love we need, we'll seek it out. We're left, as Waylon Jennings sang, "Looking for love in all the wrong places; looking for love in too many faces." Is there such a thing as love that withstands storm and fire, such a thing that demands more of us than what our world offers us?



According to 1 Cor. 13, love is the most important thing— more important even than faith.  Like a gentle stream that changes the shape of rocks, love has the power to alter who and how people are. Love seems to beget more love and promote healing, whereas anger seems to beget only more anger.

In saying that love is the greatest virtue, Paul offers us a truth that is not always easy to acknowledge. How easy it is to lose hope and faith when we are in the middle of a crisis! In the middle of a life storm, it feels like things will never get better and that God does not care about our pain. Hope and faith sure don't feel like life preservers then! Nevertheless, love can grab hold of our hearts even in the darkest of days.

Amazing things happen when love reaches out. We show love when we encourage a friend who is going through a rough time or take a meal to a neighbor who is sick. But such acts don’t really require much of us. What requires much more of us is living peacefully with those around us, people with whom we often strongly disagree.  Anybody who interacts with other people knows that love requires both work and commitment, and this is especially true in the church. One generation wants one thing; another wants something different. One group loves the red church doors; another thinks any other color would have been preferable. Some love the technology; others are certain that it was a waste of precious resources. Where is Christ in the midst of all that?

The writer of Hebrews will not allow us to be so thoroughly divided over the things that in the end do not glorify God. He challenges us to look beyond our differences to what we have in common: God's love for all. It is the basis for everything we do. Not only that, but it's the lifeline of everything that takes place in God's kingdom.

Love must be the basis for everything that we do. What happens when it isn't? When we make decisions outside of love, we can only think selfishly. When our worship is not rooted in love and passion for our creator, it becomes consumerist. We fight the worship wars, wondering, "What's in it for me?" instead of "Is this pleasing to God?" When our fellowship is not centered on love, we become gossipy and cliquish. We exclude others who are not like us instead of -bringing them into the family. When the ministries of the church become loveless, they become a checklist of ways that we might earn God's favor instead of an outpouring of gratitude for God's presence in our midst.



In Hebrews, we find that there are five essential qualities that reflect how Christian love behaves: brotherly love, hospitality, sympathy for those in trouble, purity, and contentment.

The writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we understand that love is an essential piece of our faith; that it runs deep enough to affect our behavior toward one another and toward God. Scripture says, "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (fames 2:17); perhaps the writer of Hebrews would say, "Faith without love misses the point all together." Paul puts it succinctly by saying, "Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). How then can we make sure that our faith is under the direction of Christ's love? The writer of Hebrews really only needs four words to tell us: "Let mutual love continue" (13:1). Everything else he says in these closing words goes back to that one idea.

In some ways, the call to love is much like the call to tithe. When we tithe, we recognize that God has blessed us. As a way of saying, "Thank you," we joyfully give part of it back. Implicit in the command to love is the conviction that God has already shown us tremendous love. As when we tithe, we joyfully give it back. We're called to give in trust. We're called to tithe, no matter our circumstances, believing that God will meet our need. We're also called to love, no matter our circumstance and regardless of whether we see eye-to-eye with someone else.

Rather than wondering if we've gotten the love we need, we ask ourselves if we've shared the love that someone else needs. The Beatles famously sang, "All you need is love." It might not be everything we need, but it's not a bad place to start.



Name an experience in which your actions did not flow out of love. What were the consequences? What did you learn from the experience?

Should Heb. 13:5 guide our decisions about financial matters?  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’"

 In what ways might you apply these words to financial decisions in your life?  In the life of the church?

Philadelphia means "City of Brotherly Love." What would a community built on mutual love look like? What is the most significant first step toward building such a community?


Living God, make our love genuine. Even as we acknowledge our own need for love, remind us that others need it too. Teach us to reach out beyond ourselves, showing your radical love to all your children, even when it is inconvenient or pushes us further than we'd like to be pushed. May your love spill over onto everything we do.  Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.