Saturday, 2 July 2011

Acts Series Part 4 Stephen June 26, 2011

Pentecost 2 year A Sermon 
If you were to walk in here today… right off the street …
having never set foot in a church before …
what questions would come with?

Will I be safe? Will I be welcome? Does it matter how I’m dressed? Will there be anyone like me? If there isn’t… will it matter? Will they be all smiles today and look right through me at the supermarket tomorrow?

What will it cost me? Do I have to qualify to belong? If so how? What if I’m not good enough?

What’s going to happen?  Is this the place where people practise the Christian faith? Or is it where they learn how?  And why did the minister walk in behind someone carrying a book.

What if I have questions… will they laugh at me?
What if I don’t agree with them will they throw me out?

We can understand how people might ask all these questions, But what if a person who’d never set foot in a church before and had no knowledge of our faith…started to challenge what we were doing?  We’d think it was a little cheeky…?


It would be completely different if one of you had been away at a fantastic and inspiring Christian conference and suddenly got up in the middle of one of my sermons … and told us we were on the wrong track as a church…
not living according to the teachings of Jesus
ignoring the words of the prophets and what’s worse…
accusing us of acting in opposition to the Holy Spirit…

How would we feel about being challenged like this?

Would we feel hurt and angry and order them out?
Would we feel guilty and fall to our knees praying for forgiveness?
Would we feel puzzled and concerned and vow to investigate the charges?
Or would we feel so confident in our discipleship…so certain we were being the church the way Jesus called it to be
what a challenge to our authority just wouldn’t bother us…

How church leaders handle a challenge to their authority or their orthodoxy can determine the survival of a church and the unity of the family of God.

Martin Luther never thought to leave the Catholic Church but was thrown out. Here I’d like to think we’d take a challenge very seriously that we would hold our life as a church up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to see if we’re on target.

Any one of you can appeal a decision of our leadership to the wider Presbytery and even to the General Assembly.

Acts slide
Well today in the fourth part of our series on the Acts of the Apostles we find that just about everything the early followers of Jesus did was a challenge to the religious authorities. But they never thought to not be part of the Jewish family.

They were incredibly popular especially with those rejected from the Temple courts. They modelled good news to the poor…
by holding all their property and possessions in common…
and sharing them as people had need. They taught in the name of the rabbi Jesus…they taught his yoke…the yoke of mercy and humility and peace-making… loving your enemies and turning the other cheek…even loving your unclean neighbour …

And instead of teaching that disobedience to the law made you unclean…they taught forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus would make you clean and included and welcome.

But right away sheer growth in numbers meant they had to contend with human nature…when internal squabbles broke and deal with conflict between Hebrew and Greek speaking members They had to create more ministry teams to care for the people
…so the Apostles could focus on teaching the Word of God…

Seven people were chosen to be in charge of the caring ministry team serving the poor and the widows on behalf of the fledgling faith community.

Slide change
One of them was a young man named Stephen…with a face like an angel…not only was Stephen quite the miracle worker but he could also argue a blue streak quite effectively with anyone who opposed the way of Jesus.

And naturally, this got him into huge strife with the religious authorities who in their jealousy cooked up some false charges of heresy and ordered him to appear before a hearing of the Sanhedrin. Aka the Religious authorities.

By this time Peter and a couple of others had been in and out of jail for ignoring the authorities too.

slide change
At his hearing Luke tells us… Stephen dazzles them with his religious knowledge…in a very very long speech on the faithfulness of God and the disobedience of Israel…throughout history from Abraham to the Exile in Babylon…and reminding them bluntly that God never wanted a Temple anyway...and quoting King David…

Slide words
"But the Most High God does not live in houses made by human hands.  And then God’s words from prophet Isaiah…

Heaven is my throne. The earth is under my control. What kind of house will you build for me.’ says the Lord. ‘Where will my resting place be?  Didn't my hand make all these things? And leaves out the real sting which they all knew anyway…

Slide words
These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.

Then Stephen throws in a bit from psalm 78

slide words
"You people! You won't obey! You are stubborn! You won't listen! You are just like your people of long ago!

Let’s let Dr Luke take it from here…as Stephen ramps up his charges against the religious authorities…

Slide words
You always oppose the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your people didn't try to hurt? They even killed those who told about the coming of the Blameless One. And now you handed him over to his enemies. You murdered him. 

The law you received was brought by angels. But you haven't obeyed it.

Blank slide
According to the prophets God’s servants…God’s people… were to bring good news to the poor
release for the captives restoration of sight to the blind but instead of being Stephen is accusing them of killing the God’s prophets…and rejecting their message.

So what did they do?!!! These religious authorities?

Did they fall to their knees in fear and trembling praying for forgiveness? Did they feel puzzled and concerned and vow to investigate Stephen’s charges? Did they feel so confident of their own righteousness they just laughed in Stephen’s face…

Well here’s what happened according to Dr Luke:
Slide change
When the Sanhedrin heard this, they became very angry. They ground their teeth at Stephen. But he was full of the Holy Spirit. He looked up to heaven and saw God's glory. He saw Jesus standing at God's right hand. "Look!" he said. "I see heaven open. The Son of Man is standing at God's right hand."

When the Sanhedrin heard this, they covered their ears and yelled at the top of their voices.

Slide change
They all rushed at him and dragged him out of the city. They began to throw stones at him to kill him. The witnesses took off their coats. They placed them at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While the members of the Sanhedrin were throwing stones at Stephen, he prayed.
Slide words reveal 1
"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," he said. 60 Then he fell on his knees. He cried out,
Reveal 2
"Lord! Don't hold this sin against them!" When he had said this, he died.

blank slide
Just a few months earlier Jesus' wept over Jerusalem warning "You, who killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.’

Discipleship would be costly for the first Christians particularly when they had to challenge the religious authorities…yet the Holy Spirit gave them the courage and the strength to stand up to the powers and principalities in religion and politics…

The Holy Spirit made them brave enough to proclaim Jesus as Lord and King …and not Caesar…made them daring enough to proclaim the resurrection to the Sadducees who rejected it…
generous enough to bring good news to the poor by refusing to hoard their resources… passionate enough to demand justice for the oppressed and release for the captives…keen enough to care for the widow the orphan and the stranger…
confident enough in God’s love for all humanity… to accept the unclean into table fellowship…

keen enough to make disciples by first being disciples.

According to Dr. Luke…through the power of the Holy Spirit they were as eager as the prophets before them… to risk everything in the face of powerful opposition… for the sake of God’s good news in Jesus Christ.

Wanaka slide
What are we prepared to risk as a people of God today?
What does our discipleship of Jesus Christ cost us?

What are we prepared to give up… to bring good news to the poor in pocket and in spirit?

Are we alert to conditions in our family our neighbourhood …our workplace.. or even our church and nation…that stand in opposition to Jesus’ good news and to the Holy Spirit?

Will we risk rejection by speaking a word of challenge to those with power and authority?

And if we are stoned for it… will the last words on our lips be a prayer for their forgiveness?

And even more importantly are we prepared to be continually challenged by the Gospel of Jesus Christ…
and hold ourselves accountable to him?

Let us pray.