Sunday, 31 July 2011

Blessed are the persecuted

Pentecost 7 year A Sermon Acts Series part 8
Four years after Jesus’ sent the disciples back to Jerusalem
to wait for the outpouring and enabling of the Holy Spirit for their mission…four years later a child was born…
who came to be known as

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus…

This Nero is adopted by his great-uncle Claudius
to be his heir and successor…to rule the vast Roman Empire. And so when his uncle dies in AD fifty four…

Nero becomes Caesar…at the age of 17.  He will ascend the throne in a social order…which gives absolute power to the ruling class…and which permits the Empire’s wealth
to be concentrated in their hands. 

In a caste system stronger than India’s…the Caesars and their Senators… consider themselves to be gods
all others live or die …at their command

At the bottom of the social order in this vast Empire are slaves…human animals… beasts of burden…
with no more rights than cattle or sheep.  At the top are males of a royal lineage…and men in every family…
rank as of right… higher than their women… husbands over wives… brothers over sistersEvery woman must give way to her husband’s demands… no matter how unjust…
or how cruel.

Even when it comes to killing her unborn children
or her new born girl children.
into this rigid social order… across the empire
is mixed a highly complex religious system …and  while Caesar demands to be worshipped as lord… and as god above all gods…hundreds of other gods and their worshippers … demand Caesar’s sensitivity…in order for him to rule…and some like the Jews are plotting revolt.

To add to Nero’s problems …a gaping wound is opening between the emerging Jesus movement and their mother Judaism.  And the practises of this new superstition…the Roman’s call it… the way they live isn’t just troublesome… it threatens to undermine the entire social order
on which the Empire is built.

These Christians have introduced a revolutionary concept
found… neither in Roman society… nor in Judaism [pause]

Inclusion in their religious community…
which they traitorously call the Kingdom of God…
comes from a repentance and washing… not from bloodlines…pedigree… or  lineage…adherents to this new movement… founded by a rabbi in the eastern province Judea…wash each other’s feet  regardless of rank
and welcome everyone to their sacred table …slave and free…Jew and Greek…male and female…

So as far as Nero is concerned…this sect better be stamped out before it can spread.  Simply put…these Christians need to be killed off before they contaminate the social order.

By the time Nero takes the throne in AD fifty four
 …the Jesus movement is flourishing …
and it’s spread as far as Rome…
where Jewish Synagogues are already rejecting anyone
who… names Jesus as Messiah…
it will take the apostle Paul three more years to get to Rome

Dr Luke tells us that after three long missionary journey’s round the Mediterranean … Paul has already been beaten and jailed for upsetting the social order …for converting slaves in Philippi and for bringing Greeks into the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ironically it’s is Paul’s status as a Roman citizen that allows him safe passage under guard… all the way to Rome…
if you don’t include ship wrecks… and once in Rome
Paul will appeal to Caesar against the charge of treason.

In the final chapter of the Acts of the Apostles…Dr Luke tells us.

For two whole years Paul stays there in Rome in his own rented house and welcomes all who come to see him. He continues to proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

Under house arrest but free to teach…Paul has claimed his rights as a Roman citizen.  And so three years… after Nero comes to power…Paul ends his missionary journey
by joining the Christian community in Rome…

but their continuing insistence on Jesus as Messiah
and on the resurrection…
only aggravates the rift in Judaism…

And the Christian’s continuing rejection of social divisions… teaching men and women and slaves…
their equality as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God…well this incites the King of the Roman Empire to rage…and Nero will do more than simply shun the Christians …as the Jews have done…

Nero… will torture them… as public entertainment.
To kick things off… there’s a rumour going round that Nero himself set fire to the city… to get rid of the gossip…
Nero blames the Christians.

And in an ancient document that still survives from that time…a Roman Senator and historian name Tacitus …writes…
‘Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations…
called Christians by the populace…

‘…Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then upon their information…an immense multitude was convicted…not so much of the crime of firing the city… as of hatred against mankind.
Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.

‘Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.[i]

Two years after the fire … Nero will appoint General Vespasian of Gallus… to crush the Jewish rebellion in Judea… it would take four years… to bring the Temple down and destroy Jerusalem…

Jews caught attempting to escape the city were crucified,
as many as five hundred a day. so many Jews would flee to Antioch the city would be renamed the New Jerusalem.

Back in Rome when the knock on the door came…soldiers would ask Christians if they were followers of Jesus
…there were three possible replies
If they said yes…then everyone in their household including children… would be publicly tortured and put to death at the Circus Maximus…

if they said no…then they had to identify another family
who were Christian… and if they refused to name another family… well they’d be publicly tortured and killed…

and if they refused to respond to the question at all…well…
their whole household would be publically tortured and killed.

They died with the knowledge of resurrection in their hearts… and Jesus last words on their lips … ‘Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.’

Surprisingly, in writing the book of Acts…Dr Luke
doesn’t tell us the outcome of Paul's appeal to Caesar …
nor does Luke give details of Paul’s death… but two hundred years later… Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea… would record that Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down in Rome… during the reign of Nero.

The persecutions would continue for one hundred and twenty five years…thousands would perish…but still …the Jesus movement didn’t die out… somehow the living Spirit of God would continue to flow… through the hearts of those who survived and into one new heart at a time…by their witness to the life of Jesus and by the way they lived and loved…
… until the Empire finally crumbled.

Dr Luke hoped to leave the persecuted church a record of Jesus’ life and teaching and of the Apostolic age …a spiritual discipline…a word from God…
which would enable them to move through the darkest of times… still celebrating the gift of resurrection.
Still loving their enemies… still breathing forgiveness.

Of course as the great river of faith flowed down through history… and as the church took on the power and authority of empire…the primacy of Jesus’ manifesto would be forgotten…the community would no longer hold everything in common or regard everyone as a child of God…
Sometimes we even became the persecutor and the executioner…

but still the Spirit flowed around these obstacles and down to us today…

And the questions for us are not so different than for the early Christians in Rome…when unimaginable wealth and absolute power was concentrated in the hands of so very few…

are we still prepared to challenge by the way we live…
a social order where a chasm still remains between rich and poor…are we prepared to proclaim freedom to the captives and good news to those who are oppressed…
in our community and in the world.

As the great river of the Spirit flows today…can we remain in its stream… as individuals and as a church…when our neighbours don’t approve or understand …can we show the world a just social order within our own ranks.

And can we endure a downward spiral while clinging to the hope of resurrection.

Can we create where we are… a New Jerusalem where the bounty of this earth is shared across ethnic and cultural and religious frontiers…a world where men and women and children can come to the table as equals …
and where those who are oppressed are set free…

Can we continue to speak this good news in love even when our friends reject us for it. Even when our favourite political party legislates against it.

The day of the Christian martyr is not dead…nor as Norway has experienced this week…is the day of the Christian executioner.

Can we live by the inner presence of God that strengthens us to respond to our enemies with mercy and compassion even if these acts of discipleship costs us dearly…

[i] The Annals (Latin: Annales) by Tacitus is a history of the reigns of the four Roman Emperors succeeding Caesar Augustus. The surviving parts of the Annals extensively cover most of the reigns of Tiberius and Nero. The title Annals was probably not given by Tacitus, but derives from the fact that he treated this history in a year-by-year form. The original title was most likely Ab excessu divi Augusti, "Following the death of the divine Augustus".
Tacitus is generally considered to be Rome's greatest historian.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The right to be called the Children of God

Pentecost 4 year 11 Acts Series Part 6 
Ok let’s recap what we’ve learned in our series on the book of Acts…the sequel Dr Luke wrote to his gospel.
At the beginning Jesus orders his disciples back to Jerusalem to wait for the empowering of the Holy Spirit
before trying to make disciples in their own strength…
They’re happy to trust Jesus…
they’ve spent time with him since his resurrection.

When the Spirit comes…Peter preaches powerfully... chastising Israel for crucifying the Messiah…
and calling on everyone… to repent and be baptised
in Jesus’ name. Warning the crowds to save themselves …from a corruption generation…

And the church is born…though still seeing themselves as Jews… but with a new covenant…a new Israel
a new people of God… who would be a light to the nations…where Israel failed…
a people who would proclaim the good news of God’s love …revealed in Jesus …… the ends of the earth.

In the weeks that follow...thousands are baptised in Jesus’ name and in obedience to his Nazareth manifesto …the Jesus movement organises themselves to be a visible sign of good news for the poor and marginalised

They hold everything in common…so anyone in need will be looked after…they devote themselves to the Apostles’ teaching…to prayer and table fellowship in each other’s homes.

But their popularity…their preaching in the name of Jesus… and their insistence on the reality of the resurrection…make the Jesus movement a huge threat
to the religious authorities in the Temple.

Peter and John are jailed…but with angelic assistance escape to continue preaching. Again they’re arrested and flogged… but see their suffering as a badge of honour.

The growth in numbers requires more ministry teams…
so the most vulnerable can be cared for…while the Apostles… keep their focus
on teaching the good news about Jesus.

One of the new team is stoned to death for daring to challenge the religious authorities…while a young man named Saul… looks on in approval. On that day Saul spearheads a persecution to destroy the church…and as Dr Luke reports… except for the apostles…the Jesus movement is scattered. But instead of dying out…

Map slide
the church spreads…into Judea and Samaria… as those who flee…continue to preach the arrival of the reign of God in Jesus the Messiah…wherever they go.

Last week we heard how one refugee from Jerusalem is guided by the Holy Spirit to the chariot of an Ethiopian Eunuch… who as a result of the encounter…will carry the Gospel deep into the African continent…and plant seeds for a church which is still strong today

While all this is going on… Saul the persecutor
meets the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus
and has a complete change of mind and a change of name. He begins to use his Greek name Paul.

Meanwhile Peter takes the good news…right to the coast in Samaria…where word of his preaching and healing grows the Jesus movement…right along the coastal plain of Sharon, from Joppa to Mt. Carmel beyond Caesarea. But Peter’s next adventure almost gets him stripped of his apostolic credentials

and reveals another amazing example of God’s timing and triggering a quantum shift…in the spread
and the makeup of the church…and due in no small part to the power of the Roman Empire itself…

Roman roads map
At no other time in history…before or since
has there been such a vast system of highways
like those built by the Romans for military exploitation Stretching across the Empireeighty thousand kilometres of roads…would allow Rome to spread its culture and influence far and wide…but this extraordinary achievement of engineering would be another reason the good news about Jesus will sweep through the Empire so quickly

And the speed of communication almost cost Peter
his Apostolic credentials…because he’s been hobnobbing with unclean gentiles and everybody finds out before Peter can explain himself. In today’s story Luke tells us
slide words
The apostles and believers throughout Judea
hear the Gentiles have also received the word of God …
before Peter even gets back to Jerusalem.

blank slide
Luke reports the circumcised believers…Jewish males in the Jesus movement…are ready and waiting to condemn Peter’s behaviour when he walks in the door

word slide
“You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Peter you have defiled yourself! And suddenly a real stumbling block for the early church is exposed

unless there’s a massive change of mind…a quantum shift in the Apostles thinking…the Jesus movement will begin and end in the Jewish community…[pause]

blank slide
But the story Peter tells them…not only gets him off the hook…but revolutionizes the Apostles understanding…
of who has a right to be called… the Children of God?

What actually happened when Peter went among the gentiles? Was it his idea? No way says Peter

the whole thing happens…because first a messenger of God…an angel…appears to a Roman Centurion named Cornelius and instructs him to send for Peter…at a specific address in Joppa thirty K to the south…

Because according to the angel…Peter has a message through which Cornelius and all his household will be saved.

Now this Roman Centurion’s already a ‘God-fearer’ …that means he’s part of a gentile community who follow Jewish beliefs and practices…but stop short
of actual conversion… which of course would compel them to… strictly obey the Law of Moses…
including adult circumcision…

And while Cornelius’ men are on their way to find Peter… who is of course in Joppa…where the angel said he’d be Peter has a vision…and hears a voice
telling him to kill and eat…from a huge buffet of food
… forbidden under Jewish Law…

Alarmed to say the least…Peter protests that nothing unclean has ever touched his lips

But instead of being praised for his obedience
to the Law…Peter is scolded by the voice…

Slide words
“Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean.”

The next thing that happens…while Peter’s trying to work out what the vision means…he’s advised by the Spirit that three men are downstairs looking for him…

Slide words
Don’t hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.

Blank slide
And purely trusting the Spirit’s guidance
Peter agrees to accompany the men back to Caesarea where Cornelius tells him he has it on an angel’s authority…that Peter has a message through which he and all his household will be saved.

And the real reason you can’t blame me for all this
Peter says…is that
Slide words
‘As soon as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them just as the Spirit came on us at the beginning. And I remembered what Jesus said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

So…Peter continues…
if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ

Slide words
who was I to think I could stand in God’s way?”’

blank slide
When Peter finishes his story according to Luke …
everything goes very quiet…………
and instead of stripping Peter of his Apostolic credentials …those gathered on that day…begin to the praise God, saying,

slide words first reveal
So then, even to Gentiles, God has granted repentance that leads to life.
The Greek word Luke uses here which we translate as repentance is

Second reveal
μετάνοιαν metanoian… which means a change of mind… a renewing of mind…a life giving transformation…

So…in this way…Luke tells us…Jews across Judea and Samaria learn
Slide words
the Gentiles also had received the Word of God.

Not the written word of course… since the Gospels and Paul’s letters hadn’t even been written…nor the spoken word… because Peter had only opened his mouth to speak…but they’d received the Word of God…
by the initiative of the Holy Spirit…

the Word made flesh is received…the word with a capital ‘W’… the person of Jesus Christ…is received…
not a disembodied set of ideals or beliefs or principles …but the very revelation of God’s will
in the person of Jesus…his name…his authority.

Many years later in another Gospel…John would record what the first believers discover on that day…

slide words
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Blank slide
The church in Jerusalem had a choice…either to believe Peter’s account of the work of the Spirit…or reject it …their decision would seal the future of the church. Maybe they remembered the words of Isaiah ‘and in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

River slide
I thank God… they believed Peter…otherwise Christianity would have remained just a sect of Judaism.
And I thank God…the Apostles were teachable and open…to new information about the will of God…
But as a gentile and a sinner and definitely not born of Jewish descent…I especially thank God… that from that day…they began to welcome those previously judged unclean into the family of God.  For as Paul would later write…it’s the Spirit who baptises…not human kind…

Slide words
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Blank slide
Two questions for us this week…1. how open are we to new evidence of the will of God…and 2. How well
do our relationships with God and with others
indicate that by the power of the Holy Spirit…
we too have received the word of God?

Let us pray…

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Acts Series Part 5: Why that Chariot?

Pentecost 3 year A 11 Sermon Acts Part 5
Jesus orders his disciples back to Jerusalem
to wait for the empowering of the Holy Spirit
before daring to make more disciples…
They know they can trust his promise
because of their time with the resurrected Christ.

When the Spirit comes…Peter delivers a dramatic message... chastising Israel for crucifying the Messiah… and calling on everyone to repent and be baptised in Jesus’ name.
Warning the crowds…to save themselves …
from a corruption generation

The church is born…thought still seeing themselves as Jews
but with a new covenant…a new Israel…a new people of God who would be alight to the nations…
where Israel had failed…and would proclaim the good news…of God’s love…
to the ends of the earth

In the weeks that follow...thousands joined their ranks.
And in obedience to Jesus’… Nazareth declaration
they set about to be a visible sign…of good news for the poor

they hold everything in common…so anyone in need will be looked after…
they devote themselves to the Apostles teaching and to prayer and to table fellowship…
in each other’s homes

But their popularity… their preaching in Jesus name…
and their insistence on the reality of the resurrection
make the Jesus movement… a huge threat
to the religious authorities.
Peter and John are jailed…but with divine help
escape to continue preaching. Again they’re arrested and flogged… but see their suffering
as badge of honour.

The Jesus movement grows so fast…they have to create
new ministry teams…to ensure the welfare of the most vulnerable
while the Apostles focus on teaching the good news about Jesus. They contend with internal friction
between Greek and Hebrew speaking believers
and some who hide…portions of their wealth

And Stephen… one of the best and brightest
in the new ministry team…gets hauled before the religious authorities…
to face trumped up charges…of heresy…
At the Sanhedrin… Stephen delivers a dazzling and stinging account of Israel’s disobedience
and God’s faithfulness.

For his audacity…Stephen is dragged from the court
and stoned to death…….
while a young man named Saul…looks on in approval

On that day… as Dr Luke tells us…in the fifth part of our series on Acts
On that day as godly men bury Stephen and mourn for him …a great persecution breaks out in Jerusalem...
and all of them except the apostles
are scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

And the young man who looked on… as Stephen died
begins to destroy the church. Going from home to home Saul drags off… both men and women
and throws them into prison.  [pause]

But instead of killing off the Jesus movement…
those who fled Jerusalem… simply started preaching
the good news about Jesus… wherever they went.

And so today’s story is about one of Stephens friends who fled…a man named Philip…who heads south  across the border to Samaria…trusting the guidance of an angel…to proclaim the Messiah… in a foreign land

What happens next might seem like a simple story
a chance encounter on the road…some good teachingone new convert… baptised and on his way

But what happens next will actually ensure
the spread of the Gospel… deep into the African continent …and produce a church… which is still strong today

And what’s more…the story of Philip’s encounter
with the Ethiopian Eunuch… is an amazing illustration of God’s timing …and shows once again
how the first Christians… successfully witness to the good news of Jesus …
without the New Testamentwithout the four Gospels and the letters of Paul…
because the tools they needed were already at hand.

To appreciate just how amazing Philip’s encounter is let’s ask two questions:

One:  Why that particular chariot? And two
Why does the Eunuch just happen to be reading
that particular verse from Isaiah?

Ok let’s deal with question one…
Just how is the Spirit’s leading Philip
to that particular chariot…on that particular busy trade route to the South…
an amazing illustration of God’s timing?

Well, first it turns out…the man in the chariot is Minister of Finance for the Queen of Aksum
now known as Ethiopia

Map slide
to get home he’ll sail three thousand kilometres south …upon the Red Sea to the Capitol of Adulis…
on the Gulf of Aden…where for thousands of years trading ships have come and gone…
from India and China.  

Second…this man of wealth and influence has with him
and is reading from what’s probably an expensive collection
of scrolls… intended for the royal library.
Most likely a Greek translation of the prophet Isaiah.
And Greek of course was the lingua franca across the Roman Empire.

Third…Philip discovers the Ethiopian’s been in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to worship in the Temple
Though African to the core…it turns out
the man in the chariot …is a practising Jew

But to me… the most amazing thing… is that this man
can fully identify …with the suffering servant
in the passage he’s reading. He knows what suffering
is all about.

Yes, he may be wealthy and important and educated
but as a boy…he’d been castrated against his will
and trained to be a servant in the royal household.
And the Ethiopian had suffered this abuse…
before he was hormonally mature…because intact malessimply couldn’t be trusted…
in the Queen’s chamber.
How wonderful the very scripture he’s reading aloud
to his driver…is the song of the suffering servant
from the scroll of Isaiah

He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
   And… as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
   so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
   Who can speak of his descendants?
   For his life was taken from the earth.

This passage from Isaiah fifty three…speaks so strongly to the eunuch’s experience…
that  he longs to know moreis the prophet speaking of himself or someone else?

And right there in the Eunuch’s chariot
Philip begins to explain the good news about Jesus
with that that very passage. [pause]

Luke’s gospel… tells us Jesus declared his mission from the scroll of Isaiah
and from the words of the prophet…
Jesus understood his identity as the servant of God…
who’d suffer the sins of the world…to bring good news
to the poor…and freedom for the oppressed.

Only those with eyes to see…and ears to hear would understand.

Dr. Luke… though a gentile…knows the servant songs in Isaiah are four poems…
about a "servant of YHWH" called and anointed by God…to lead the nations.
But the servant is horribly abused…and sacrifices himself
accepting the punishment… due to others.

Historically Israel understood Isaiah’s suffering servant…
to be a metaphor for the Jewish people themselves
as it says in the scroll…‘Israel you are my servant whom I’ve chosen

But the suffering has a purpose
either God’s covenant people will act as God's agent
to bring about peace and justice and wellbeing for the world
or God will send another…a Messiah from the line of David …who would suffer… to accomplish God’s purpose…

This Eunuch is the right man to be reading about
God’s suffering servant… and his chariot
is the right vehicle…to take the good news across the sea … where it can be planted in fertile ground.

Psalm 68…written for King David 1000 years before
promises Ethiopia shall reach out her hand unto God. 

What an amazing convergence of events
The Holy Spirit and the great river of faith
had found its way… around a mountain of resistance
in Jerusalem… and would now flow beyond Egypt
and the Sudan…and into Ethiopia…

Ethiopian today slide
Today… the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church [i]
has a membership between 40 and 45 million people.
It’s one of the few… pre-colonial Christian churches…
in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The word Tewahedo refers to the Orthodox belief…
in the one single unified nature of Christ; fully God and fully human
to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind.

Two thousand years ago…because of Philip’s obedience
to the Holy Spirit…an Ethiopian eunuch came to believe the suffering servant in Isaiah fifty-three
 foretold the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth as God’s anointed Messiah
and at the first sight of water
he was baptised in Jesus name and became his disciple.  
As disciples of Jesus today…like Philip and the Ethiopian…each of us has our own road to travel
and good news to share…news
of God’s love and God’s will…revealed in Jesus Christ
If you’ve ever been strengthened by the Word of God or comforted by God’s presence
then you have something of the good news to share.
If you’ve ever known God’s mercy and forgiveness …or God’s abundant blessing…
then you have something to share.

If your faith has ever brought you through the darkness and into the light…
you have something to share with someone… who’s never experienced these things.

My prayer… is that like Philip…you’ll be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit…to walk beside someone who comes your way …for as long as it takes to build a relationship of trust
and to answer their God questions where they are.

You never know… how far the great river of faith
will flow… from what you do.

[i] [የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተ ክርስቲያን]

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…

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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

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"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…

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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.

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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:
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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.

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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.
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"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.

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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.

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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.