From Loss to Launch
March 26, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor
Acts 6:8-15; 7:50-8:4
In Acts 6:8-15 and Acts 7:50-8:4, Luke shows us a pattern God often follows when He is launching believers into something significant. May we recognize this pattern of two steps as we at Perry Creek Church officially launch our new church. May we respond, and lean into it.
I. Step One: Loss
In the stoning death of deacon Stephen, a man full of faith, grace & power of the Holy Spirit, we see a great loss to the Church (Acts 7:8). He was falsely accused by the Sanhedrin, stoned to death for confining the “Most High God” to a physical temple (Acts 7:48), and speaking the truth about the history of Israel as a “stiff necked people” (Acts 7:51).
II. Step Two: Launch
Stephen’s death triggered Jewish resentment; Saul began destroying the Church. The dam of anger, harbored by the Jews, broke; persecution of Christians began (Acts 8:1-3); and the Church was launched. The apostles “were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1) and ultimately to “all nations”, as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20.
The stories of loss, then followed by new, more powerful, beginnings fill the Old Testament, and culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself. The pattern has been repeatedly demonstrated that when God wants to do great work in and through us, He often takes us through loss first.
Loss is a part of the Christian life. Loss helps us to shake loose of our own control & plans, and turn to God. When our plans crash down, we embrace God to help us define who we really are, who God Himself is, and how our lives will then go.
God will show us that we really matter to Him (as did Stephen), and provides His Holy Spirit. If we listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will be shown our personal role in God’s Kingdom. Even in the midst of suffering, we believers can be freed up & transformed from centering on our own worries/weaknesses, to fearlessly obeying and powerfully fulfilling our role in God’s mission of spreading the Gospel in this world.
- Do you have to experience loss (suffering/persecution) in order to launch new beginnings??
- Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God – How can we mirror that behavior and those words when someone is bearing false witness against us across the neighbor’s fence?
- When you experience persecution/suffering, do you see it as punishment or a launch?
- How do we move from loss to launch, rather than getting bogged down in the loss?
- If God allows suffering on earth, as in the lives of Job, Stephen, even Jesus, are we to be fearful?
Today I want to talk about something that wakes me up just about every night between 2:30 and 4:00am:
- It’s not our kids coming into the bedroom. We’re too old for that.
- It’s not Kelley’s cooking. She’s a good cook!
- It’s not even our dog, although I’ve gotta say our dog has chosen to sleep under our bed and, I swear, the dog is digging a tunnel to China. Interesting noises under there, but that’s not it.
What wakes me up pretty much every night between 2:30 and 4:00am is the Launch of our church.
I wake up, and I lay there, and I think:
- About how close our launch day is.
- About all the things I haven’t done or haven’t done well.
- About whether the Launch of our Church will go according to plan.
- Will anyone come to our launch service?
- Will the community come to our BBQ and Easter Egg Hunt?
- Will we have meaningful conversations with people in the community?
- Are we going to grow in ethnicity? How will that happen?
O me of little faith! I lay awake, and I wonder what pattern the launch of our church will follow. It keeps me up!
Today we’ve come to the last sermon in our study of the early chapters of the book of Acts called “Launch.” It’s been a good study, hasn’t it? I’ve loved what we’ve discovered in this book! Today we come to the title passage for this series. The moment and the story that is really the external launch of the first Church. In Acts we’ve seen God prepare for the church. We’ve seen the church born. We’ve seen it respond well to internal and external challenges. Today, we’re going to see it begin its mission of being witnesses, not just to Jerusalem, but to Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” Today we are going to see the church launch.
With regard to pattern, the church’s launch won’t be according to any plan that you – or I – or any one of the Apostles – would ever make. It won’t be according to our plans at all! But the Launch of the Church in Acts will be according to a pattern that God often follows when he is going to do something very significant in his church – or in his leaders – or in your life, or my life. There is a simple, two step pattern that God often follows when he is launching us into something significant.
I think some of you here today are in this pattern individually right now and you know it. Some of you are in this pattern, and you don’t know it! This is the pattern that God has taken most of us through to prepare us for what he is going to do in our church. Today I want us to look at that two step pattern.
Turn in your Bibles to Acts 6:8. Today we are going to look at the story of the martyrdom of Stephen – the first man other than Jesus to give his life for the gospel. As we look at Stephen’s story, we’re going to see this pattern that God often uses to launch something significant in our lives. I show it to you today not so much so that you can make it happen – this is something that God does, not something that we do – but rather so that we can recognize it – and lean into it – when it happens in our lives and in our church.
What we’re going to do today is this:
- We’re going to walk through Stephen’s story and see the two steps of this pattern.
- We are going to talk briefly about why this is God’s pattern, and one thing we all need to do, as we walk through it.
We’re going to walk through the story of Stephen today – and as we do – we are going to see this two step pattern God uses in our lives. The first step is the difficult one, and it’s just – Loss.
The death of Stephen was a great loss to the church
Let’s look at the story of Stephen and I’ll show you what I mean. Now if you’ve been following with us and if you were here last week we’ve already been introduced to Stephen. In the passage John took us through last week, the church chose seven leaders – probably the first Deacons – and Stephen was listed as one of them. He was singled out in that passage as a man who was full of faith, and of the Holy Spirit – so Stephen was a special guy.
The story of Stephen’s death is told in four parts:
- The Accusation against Stephen
- The Defense he gave
- The Execution
- The Aftermath
As we start the story, let’s remember that the Apostles have had conflict with certain Jews about the temple. They have been arrested at the Temple, beaten for preaching at the temple, and told not to preach at the temple, but they keep doing it. They have had conflict with the Jewish religious authorities, and that’s where we are when Luke tells us about the Accusation:
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. – Acts 6:8-10
So Stephen is full of God’s grace and power. He is responding to the Holy Spirit and doing amazing ministry, when he runs into conflict with a synagogue which is kind of like a Jewish local church in Jerusalem. There were over 300 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time. This one is called “the synagogue of the freedmen.” It was composed of immigrants whose families had probably been slaves at some time – in North Africa, in West Asia – and in Cilicia – the area that Saul (who would become Paul) was from. It’s possible that Stephen and Saul debated one another during this time. But whoever was debating Stephen, they could not win. Both his reasoning and his character made them look bad every time they tried to go up against him. So they knew they were going have to come up with some other plan.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place (which is the Temple) and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel – Acts 6:11-15
So these guys from the synagogue of the Freedmen produce false witnesses. They drag Stephen before the ruling council. They basically make two accusations that add up to the charge of blasphemy.
- The less-dangerous of these accusations is that Stephen spoke against Moses by claiming that the customs that Moses handed down were going to be changed. We’re not sure exactly what that was about. Maybe Stephen had said that the sacrifices were no longer necessary because Jesus had died for our sins.
- The more explicit accusation – and the one that ultimately was more dangerous for Stephen – was the accusation that he had said Jesus would destroy the temple. Notice that we’re back at the Temple again. It has been this super-sensitive, no-touchy area, because that’s where these guys have control. It’s the center of their kingdom – the sign of their national Jewish identity. It’s the one place they aren’t under Roman authority. So it’s a big deal when they make this accusation that Stephen is teaching that Jesus was going to destroy the temple. And by the way, this is the same accusation that they made against Jesus.
And it was false! Jesus never said he would destroy the temple. What he said about the temple was two things:
- That if they destroyed the Temple of his body, he would raise it up in three days, and
- That Gentile armies were going to come and destroy the temple, not leaving one stone on another – which is exactly what happened in AD70.
So that accusation against Stephen was false. Luke ends the accusation by saying that when they looked at Stephen his face was like the face of an angel. Anyone who looked at Stephen could see his innocence – could see that he was in touch with God – at that moment.
The second part of Stephen’s story is his Defense. Now, we’re not going to take time to look in detail at Stephen’s defense, because it is 50+ verses long. Let me summarize it for you and say the most shocking thing about Stephen’s defense is that it is no defense at all!
Rather than defending himself from their false accusations, Stephen chooses to preach a sermon where he goes through the whole Old Testament story by story – from Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to David, to the Prophets. He draws two conclusions from those Old Testament stories and ends his sermon with them:
- The first conclusion relates to their obsession with the temple. It’s found in verse 48: “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men.” We can see from the stories that God was with Abraham in Mesopotamia – he was with Joseph in Egypt – he was with Moses in Midian – and he was with Israel as they wandered in the desert. So the idea that the Temple is the only place God can be worshipped and that it has to be micro-managed and controlled doesn’t align with the Old Testament.
- The second conclusion is something that Stephen draws from the fact that Israel rejected Joseph – rejected Moses – rejected the Law – and rejected the prophets who foretold the coming of God’s Messiah. That conclusion is found in verses 51-53:
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him, you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7:51-53
Now that is not much of a defense against their accusations, but it is one fiery sermon! Their response was immediate and leads to the execution. Look at verses 54-56:
When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” – Acts 7:54-56
In his hour of greatest need, God give Stephen a filling of his Holy Spirit and a special vision of Jesus not sitting, but standing at the right hand of God. When Stephen tells his accusers what he sees – the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand – he is repeating almost word for word the phrase that got Jesus crucified. Because he is claiming that Jesus – as one who can stand in God’s presence at his right hand – is equal to God.
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7:57-60
He died. That’s the execution of the first martyr of the early church. Incredible! But there’s one more movement to the story. The aftermath.
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. – Acts 8:1-3
With the killing of Stephen, the dam breaks and persecution spreads from Stephen to the church and from house to house. That’s the story of the death of Stephen. It shows us the first part of this pattern that God uses, which is Loss. The death of Stephen was a huge loss to the church. It was a loss because Stephen was an amazing guy! He was incredible. Acts tells us that he was full of the Holy Spirit – full of faith – full of power – full of grace. He’s one of the few characters in the Bible where nothing bad is said about him. He was amazing! His death was a loss because Stephen was important to the church! He was one of the seven. He was doing important ministry when this happened. He had a job. He wasn’t easily replaceable. It was a great loss because of that.
Maybe the main reason Stephen’s death was a great loss is because of what his death triggered. God had been moving so powerfully through the church – they had been so courageous – so obedient to him. But when they martyred Stephen, it was like the dam burst. All the anger – all the resentment – all the hatred – was poured out on the church. Now the Religious Authorities weren’t just talking to the Apostles – weren’t just telling them to keep quiet at the Temple – now they were coming after them. Saul went from house to house, arresting both men and women. If you read what he says later, it’s clear that many of them were killed. The death of Stephen was a great loss to the church.
There are times when God leads his people to – and through – great loss. There are times when we suffer a reversal – an upheaval in one area of our lives or in our lives as a whole. All our plans for ourselves – all the things we thought God was going to do for us – the victory march we thought we were on – comes crashing down. We find ourselves having to redefine who we are, and who God is, and how our life is going to go. We suffer loss. Maybe it’s financial – maybe it’s a piece of bad medical news – maybe we lose a relationship – or a loved one – maybe a choice we make with our job, or our location or our family doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped – and we suffer loss.
Some of you are in the middle of a great loss right now. You’re just beginning to come to terms with it. Some of you are rebuilding from a great loss. It’s been about a year, since we had some dear friends pass away. I’m praying for those of you who are rebuilding from that loss. Some of you are on the edge of a loss and you don’t know it yet.
But listen: Loss is a part of the Christian life. There are times when God leads his people to and through loss. It’s part of the Christian life. Anyone who tells you it isn’t isn’t telling you the truth.
In fact, I notice something here in this story. In this instance, it was God that kind of brought this on. Did you notice that? Stephen didn’t get into this mess because he was being argumentative or self-willed. Luke tells us he was filled with grace – that his face was shining like an angel when he was accused. He wasn’t disobeying! Luke deliberately says that the Holy Spirit filled Stephen right before he spoke the words that got him executed. In this instance, God’s Spirit led Stephen into this. It was deliberate. God led his people to loss. The death of Stephen was a great loss to the church. That’s step one: Loss. But here’s the thing: That’s not the end of the story. There’s a second step to this process: Launch. The death of Stephen wasn’t just a great loss to the church.
The Death of Stephen was the Launch of the Church
This moment – this tragedy – this persecution – wasn’t just a loss for the church. It was the moment that the church began to seriously pursue the mission that Jesus had given to it in Chapter One of the book of Acts.
It was the launch. The text shows this to us. When Luke described the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom at the beginning of chapter 8, he began to give us an indication that something more than loss was going on. Look at what he says:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered (look at this) throughout Judea and Samaria – Acts 8:1
Now that Phrase “Judea and Samaria” describes the larger area of Israel, but it has shown up before in the Book of Acts. Does anyone know where it is? Acts 1:8 where Jesus gives his basic instructions to the disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.” This is the great commission. From Jerusalem – to Judea and Samaria – to the uttermost parts of the earth – that’s the way Jesus had said it would launch. Now look at the next verse:
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. And Luke goes on to tell us that’s exactly how the gospel spread. – Acts 8:4
In the very next story, Philip converts a bunch of Samaritans, and then he shares the gospel with an Ethiopian, and the gospel begins to move just like Jesus said it would. This moment of death – and loss – and disruption – is actually the launch of the church. God takes them from Loss to Launch.
Here’s the thing and I want you to hear this as a church – and I want those of you who are dealing with loss to hear this – this has always been God’s pattern. He regularly moves people from loss to launch.
It was his pattern in the Old Testament. If you know your Bible, think of all the stories that Stephen mentioned in his sermon: Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses, and David, and the Prophets. Which of them went through loss before God launched his greatest work in their life? All of them. Abraham was childless. Joseph was imprisoned. Moses went to the desert. David ran from Saul. The prophets were persecuted. It’s always been God’s pattern!
Did you notice who Stephen reminds us of in this passage? He is totally following the pattern of Jesus. He faces the same accusation of blaspheming the temple. The same words get him executed “The Son of Man is at God’s right hand.” When he’s dying, he asks God to receive his spirit just like Jesus did, and he prays for the forgiveness of his executioners like Jesus. He totally looks like, smells like, tastes like Jesus. He’s Jesus 2.0!
Why? Why does Luke point out that God led him to this moment and that he is so much like Jesus? Because this is the pattern: from loss to launch – from death to resurrection.
It was God’s pattern for the Old Testament saints. It was God’s pattern for Jesus, and so often it is God’s pattern for us. We’ve seen this pattern again and again. We saw it in Zimbabwe, where the mission we served with went through a time of confusion and conflict and separation from the denomination it planted. It felt like death, but out of that God launched the new ministry of the churches that Kelley and I served in. God took them through this pattern of loss to launch.
It’s been the pattern for many of you – and for us – and for me. It’s so good to be preaching to you here today. I liked preaching to a big crowd at Open Door, but I would rather preach to you. You laugh at my jokes! It’s so good to hear that John preached the gospel well last week. I heard so many good reports! It was so good this week to meet with Carol Clark’s small group and see how God is working in the lives of those dear ladies. So good to talk to Marc and hear how many of you have volunteered to help with Launch Day. It’s so good! God is moving! He’s Launching something amazing!
But I have to say, a year ago I was in a very different place. I was absolutely confused about what God was doing in my life. I could not figure out why he wanted me in that place at that time. It felt like death. If you would have come into my office a year ago, you would have seen a phrase on my whiteboard that I had written in Greek so that only I could understand it. It was a quote from John 12 where Jesus talks about a seed. It said “Unless it falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone.” I was in a place of loss, and I didn’t know why.
But God was doing something. This is his pattern: From loss to launch. You need to know that if you are walking through a time of confusion and loss right now. It’s his way. Now let me just make two observations about this pattern and how we live it out:
- One of the reasons that God follows this pattern is to help us let go. I don’t just mean let go of the specific person or thing that we lose. I mean it helps us let go of our plans. Often that loss – that desert experience – that death – shakes up our view of the world – and is the thing that enables us to release our own plans for ourselves. Think of the Jews here. What is the problem? Why are they so angry? They won’t release their temple-centric view of God’s kingdom. They won’t release the idea that God’s kingdom needs to be under their control. Now think about the church. It’s not that they needed to release Stephen, but they needed to release Jerusalem. They are still very Israel-centric in their view of what God was doing. It’s not that they are disobeying. They are just thinking way too small. So God does something very costly: He exposes his people to a great loss. It was costly. It mattered. It mattered to God. Did you notice that Jesus was standing when Stephen saw him? All the prophecies say he would be sitting at God’s right hand, but when Stephen sees him he’s standing. Scholars have different ideas about the details of that – whether he’s advocating for Stephen, or judging for Stephen, or receiving Stephen. We don’t know. What we do know is this: He’s attending to Stephen. He’s rising to somehow act on his behalf. It mattered to Jesus. It was costly. Sometimes God has to do something costly to move us toward what he wants to launch in our lives. (I’m no Church Planter). One of the reasons God follows this pattern is to help us let go.
- Whether we are in loss or in launch, we must listen to the Holy Spirit. This is a word to our church. Did you notice that in this story different people had different roles to play? Stephen’s job is to speak up and give his life for the gospel. The Apostle’s job is to stay put in Jerusalem in the middle of the persecution. They did not move, and in the end, it cost some of them their lives. For many within the church, their job was the opposite. It was to flee persecution and take the gospel with them to other places. All three jobs were necessary for the church to accomplish its mission.
So how do we know the specific role that God wants us to play? How do we know whether we are supposed to stay and rejoice in adversity or let adversity move us? How do we know what our role is? One way – and this is emphasized again and again in the book of Acts – through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The church in Acts is always praying – always listening to the Holy Spirit – always filled with the Holy Spirit always obeying the Spirit. That’s how they know that when they are suffering persecution, that God isn’t punishing them – he’s launching them. That frees them up to focus on their mission and preach the gospel.
They listen to the Holy Spirit. And church – we have to do that. We have to be a church that is attentive to – obedient to – the Holy Spirit. That’s why this church was founded on a prayer meeting. We have to listen to the Holy Spirit. And let me say this: That’s why we are having 30 days of prayer, and a Day of Fasting before our launch. From sundown on April 5th to sundown on April 6th, we are going to do something that many of you have never done before. We’re going to take a break from our regular comforts of eating. We are going to use the extra time for prayer, and we are going to use the discomfort to remind us of how much we need God. We’re going to ask him for his blessing for our church: Whatever form that would come in. Whether that is according to my plan for our Launch or not. We’re going to see him move.
Congregation, we are on the edge of becoming a church. Let me be the first to say – there’s been loss. Relationships have changed. chaos has been injected into some of our lives. Some of you are pouring your energy, your time, your treasure – into this church. You’re doing challenging things. God has taken us down some unexpected paths, and there’s been a cost. He’s taken us to loss. But there’s a Launch coming. He’s already doing it. If we will attend to the Holy Spirit, God will do amazing things in our lives and our church.