GOAT – Rev. Henry Brinton
April 27, 2014
In the world of sports, being a goat is usually a negative. You do something really bad — something that messes up a game, a series, or even your career.
Think baseball player Bill Buckner, who made a fielding error that cost the Red Sox game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Or basketball player Chris Webber, who called a timeout that caused Michigan to lose the 1993 NCAA championship. One simple error and you become a sports goat.
But sometimes, being a goat is a good thing. As in G-O-A-T: Greatest Of All Time.
According to Fred Bowen of The Washington Post (September 19, 2013), New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera is a GOAT. Probably the greatest relief pitcher of all time, he achieved more than 650 saves and a stellar postseason record.
Soccer star Abby Wambach is a GOAT, with the record for the most career goals in international matches, more than any other man or woman. To be the greatest, you have to set records and win either world championships or Olympic medals. This puts Michael Phelps at the pinnacle of swimming GOATS, and Usain Bolt at the top of the sprinting GOATS.
No surprise that his nickname is “Lightning.” Lightning Bolt.
In tennis, I would argue that Serena Williams is a GOAT, with 17 major singles titles. Michael Jordan is a basketball GOAT, with six NBA championships. And now LeBron James is nipping at his heels. They all want to be seen as the GOAT: Greatest Of All Time.
So who are the GOATs of the Bible?
Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, Isaiah, Mary, Joseph, and of course Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the one who is “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” according to today’s passage from Acts (7:56) and the indisputable Greatest Of All Time! But many GOATs are not well-known — they include individuals such as Stephen, the first martyr of the church.
Stephen’s story begins when a controversy arises in the Jerusalem church over an imbalance in the daily distribution of food to widows (6:1). The twelve apostles call together the whole Christian community and do what the church has always done: Form a committee.
The Jerusalem church must have been full of Presbyterians.
The church selects seven men of good standing and gives them the job of waiting on tables (vv. 2-3). You know that I love to talk about Christian hospitality, so here you see a great example from the first-century church. The first of these men is Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v. 5). He is like the people we will be ordaining and installing this morning to the offices of deacon and elder at Fairfax Presbyterian Church.
Stephen begins to serve the Christian community, and becomes known for the “great wonders and signs” he does among the people (v. 8). His opponents in the synagogue argue with him and drum up charges against him, accusing him of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God (v. 11). The people of Jerusalem become angry at Stephen, as do the elders and the scribes. Stephen is seized and brought before the Jewish council, where the high priest asks him, “Are these things so?” (7:1).
Stephen takes a deep breath, and then begins to speak. He takes his audience on a tour of the mighty acts of God, beginning with Abraham and ending with the deaths of the prophets and Jesus himself. Stephen concludes with a statement that boldly speaks the truth to power: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (v. 53).
You have not kept the law of God, says Stephen — you elders, scribes, high priest, and other religious leaders. You say you are followers of God, but you are not. His words stun the council, as you might expect. Never before have they been spoken to in this way. Then they become enraged and begin to grind their teeth (v. 54).
Knowing that he is in trouble, Stephen puts himself in the hands of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he looks upward and says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man” — the Risen Jesus — “standing at the right hand of God!” (v. 56).
His words make the council even more furious, and with a shout they rush together against him. Dragging him out of the city, they begin to stone him, and as the rocks are raining down on him he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he kneels down and cries out his final words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vv. 57-60).
Stephen becomes a martyr, the first of many to give his life for the Christian faith.
But this is not the whole story. Acts includes a few additional remarks that are of particular interest to members of the church — both in the first century and today. Acts tells us that the witnesses to Stephen’s speech and stoning lay “their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (v. 58). Then, after the death of Stephen, we learn that “Saul approved of their killing him” (8:1).
So who is this Saul, this man mentioned twice in just a few verses? Saul is the persecutor of Christians who later turns into Paul the apostle. He discovers, in the words of Duke professor William Willimon, that the “Word of God is like a wildfire; stamp upon it in one place only to have it blaze forth elsewhere.”
Stephen is clearly a GOAT: One of the Greatest Of All Time. He knows the story of God’s mighty acts, as recorded in the Bible. He bravely speaks an uncomfortable truth to people in power. He faithfully puts his life into the hands of God, and follows the example of Jesus in forgiving the very people who kill him.
He has knowledge, courage, faith and forgiveness. This combination of qualities makes him a GOAT, in the very best sense of the word.
But Acts also teaches us that Christian GOATs are not born, they are made. Stephen may have naturally been a person “full of grace and power” (6:8), but most of us are not. In fact, Acts tells us that God transforms the life of the man named Saul, who gave his consent to the killing of Stephen. God turned an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians into one of the greatest leaders of Christians, the apostle Paul.
With God’s help, we can all be GOATs.
What we need is a training program, one that can make us more knowledgeable, courageous, faithful and forgiving. We may not become the Mariano Rivera of the Christian church, but we can notch a few saves. Beginning with ourselves.
Let’s start by deepening our biblical knowledge. In his speech to the council in Jerusalem, Stephen makes clear that the story of God’s mighty acts is a story that includes him. He begins by saying that God “appeared to our ancestor Abraham” (7:2), stressing that both he and the council are part of Abraham’s family. He speaks of the famine in which “our ancestors could find no food” (v. 11), talks about the time in which “our people in Egypt increased” (v. 17), and describes Moses as the one who “received living oracles to give to us” (v. 38).
The story of the Bible is not about other people: It is about our ancestors, about our family, about what God has done for us. We should know the story of Scripture as well as we know our own personal history. To deepen your knowledge of the Bible, I invite you to my Basic Bible class on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., and on Friday mornings at 11 a.m. Our Youth Fellowship also offers small group Bible study, as do the circles of our Presbyterian Women.
On the foundation of this biblical knowledge, we can courageously speak the truth to people in power. Here in Fairfax, members of our church have become concerned about the rising rents that are driving people out of their apartments. Knowing that we can see Jesus in “the least of these who are members of [his] family” (Matthew 25:40), a group of us began to work last spring to assist the residents of the Layton Hall apartments. The owner had plans to tear down this affordable complex and replace it with luxury apartments.
With the help of VOICE — Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement — we knocked on doors and got to know the residents of Layton Hall. We met with the developer, the mayor and members of the City Council, and then testified before the council about the need to be fair to working-class residents. We boldly spoke the truth, and were successful. The City Council demanded that the developer set aside 5% of the new units as affordable housing, and that he provide a decent relocation package for the current residents.
We deepen our biblical knowledge and then we speak the truth to power — just as Stephen did in Jerusalem. But our biggest challenge is putting our lives in the hands of God and practicing the forgiveness of Jesus. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), and Stephen echoed these words as he was being stoned. When we are able to do the same, we show that we trust a God who is stronger than injustice, stronger than evil, stronger even than death itself. We forgive our tormenters not because they deserve it, but because we follow the Lord of forgiveness.
We are all sinners, people for whom Christ died. And so are those who hurt us. As followers of Christ, we try to forgive others simply because we know we need the forgiveness that our Lord offers us. I do, and so do you.
The Christian-hater named Saul discovered this after he became the apostle Paul. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” he wrote to his friend Timothy, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul preached forgiveness because he had been forgiven himself.
The GOATs of the Bible are not born, they are made — made by the God who enables us to be knowledgeable, courageous, faithful and forgiving. With the help of our loving Lord, may we aspire to be the greatest followers of Christ that we can possibly be. Maybe even the greatest of all time. Amen.
Bowen, Fred. “Who wants to play like a GOAT?” The Washington Post, September 19, 2013, C9.
Brinton, Henry G. “Churches forgo the hammer on housing,” USA TODAY, August 27, 2013, www.usatoday.com.
Schindel, Austin. “Biggest Goats in Sports History,” February 6, 2012, http://bleacherreport.com.
Willimon, William. “Eyewitnesses and Ministers of the Word: Preaching in Acts,” Interpretation, April 1988, 165.