Monday, September 5, 2016

Pushing Boundaries - The Graceful Life

Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2016
Scripture reading: Acts 7:51-8:1
Photos Along Lower Crab Creek, WA: May 2016
A mother was making pancakes for her family, and her two sons started arguing because each one wanted to get the first one. The mother tried to reason with them, “Now, boys, think of what Jesus would do. Jesus would let his brother have the first pancake.” The oldest boy had a comeback for this: “Mom is right. Billy, you be Jesus.”
In our reading from the Book of Acts, the author (Luke) tells us that Stephen, in his sacrifice, is Jesus. Stephen’s last words are a prayer for those who are killing him: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60) On the cross, Jesus prayed for those who were killing him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Stephen, in his final prayer in this world, was being Jesus, just as we are called to be Jesus. At least we are called to represent him in this world, and to be like him.
Our reading from the Book of Acts is part of the story called “The Martyrdom of Stephen”. Stephen was the first disciple of Jesus to die for his faith: the first to die for Jesus. Martyr is a Greek word that has come to refer to those who die for their faith; those who die for what they believe in and who die for whom they believe in.
But the word martyr didn’t start out that way. It really means witness. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, Jesus, just before he returned to heaven, told the disciples: “You shall be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) The Greek word here, for “witnesses”, is the word “martyr”.
The word martyr is a courtroom word. It’s a legal word. It means giving evidence. Since a witness, in court, tells what he or she has seen and heard (telling what he or she knows), a witness is, in some sense, serving as evidence. In some sense, surely, the witness is the evidence.
The false witnesses who gave false evidence against Stephen, at this trial, are also, in the Greek, called martyrs. They gave bad evidence. They were false evidence. In a sense, they also sacrificed themselves, but not for a good cause. They did it for a lie.
And so they made themselves into a lie. They were bad evidence for what they saw as a good cause, but death was at work in them. They were bad martyrs in a bad cause. Yet Stephen prayed that the Lord Jesus would forgive them. He prayed that the killers and the bad witnesses would receive grace.
We are all evidence for something. Stephen was the living and dying evidence of Jesus.
Before we picked up this story in our reading, Luke wrote that Stephen was full of God’s grace and power, and that (as such) he did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. (Acts 6:8) We need to see that his arrest, and his trial, and his suffering and death, were just as full of wonder and power as anything else Stephen ever did. His suffering and death were Christ-filled and Spirit-filled.
We look for the experience of being Christ-filled and Spirit-filled in our joys and happiness, but Stephen also found this in his persecution, and his suffering, and his dying. Perhaps we can find our greatest filling with Christ and the Holy Spirit where Stephen found his.
If a mob of people started lying about you and making fun of you, and then they started hurting you with the intention of killing you, what would you pray for? Stephen prayed for grace for the mob because he was full of Christ and full of the Spirit.
Stephen was full of grace. This grace didn’t suddenly appear in the moments before his death. Stephen belonged to the group of seven who were chosen to make sure that the widows of the church were properly cared for. The presence and work of the Holy Spirit had shaped him into the kind of person who was the natural choice for that kind of responsibility and ministry. Stephen was Spirit-filled with compassion, and love, and kindness.
Without remembering this, we will not understand Stephen’s last testimony, given at this own trial. In that message he gave an outline of the history of the people of Israel, blessed with so much grace from God, yet always failing to truly understand the meaning of that grace in the form of Moses, and God’s law, and the Temple where human beings could come into the presence of God.
Stephen’s outline was his evidence that they were once again misunderstanding God’s grace, because they had rejected Jesus, who died to fulfill the law of God in order that we could receive the grace of God. They had rejected Jesus, who was God in the flesh, and in whom human beings could come into the presence of God himself.
Where we misunderstand the power of this message is where we hear the anger and judgment in the message, and we think the story tells us that the council and the mob responded to this anger. The truth is that Stephen loved these people. He called them “brothers and fathers”. (Acts 7:2)
The anger in his words came from the grace of God in his heart. The people in the council, at the trial, saw that his face looked like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15) Angels always see the face of God and are filled with love, wonder, and praise. Stephen himself saw the glory of God and Jesus standing up in love for an innocent person in the process of being judged, and about to be condemned and killed. He saw, and he was, as always, full of grace.
Someone has called this the balance of Stephen. There is his great integrity, and his anger, and his grace, praying for those who are the focus of his anger and who are angry at him. All of this goes together at the same time. This is what made Stephen such a powerful witness and this is what made Stephen such a powerful martyr.
Think of this balance as something we are called to if we are to be full of Christ and full of the Spirit. Stephen had great integrity, and a fine capacity for anger, and he was full of grace and prayer for the forgiveness of others.
I don’t have that balance.
I have trouble with anger. I hate anger. I hate it. I hate having anyone angry with me. I hate my own anger too. I have things in my past that make me angry, and I have never gotten over them.
I pray to be over them. I try not to let those angers rule me. This is a part of my life that reminds me that I am a sinner, and that I need the grace of God, and that I need the grace of gracious people, and that others need grace from me.
There is a thing called “righteous anger”. Stephen showed this in his last sermon. Jesus showed it in his dealings with the Pharisees, and in the scene where he drove the money-people out of the Temple. (Luke 19:45-46) Those people played a part in the killing of Jesus, and Jesus prayed for those people: “Father forgive them.”
I don’t know if I’ve lived up to that. Do you pray for the people you are angry at? Do you pray for the people who are angry at you? Yet this is part of being full of grace.
It isn’t only people who are the targets of our anger. We have a whole world to get angry about. We have politics, and nations, and wars to get angry about. We have issues and causes to get angry about. We have great dangers and injustices in our world. There is so much hurt and pain in our world.
We live in God’s world. We live in a beautiful world. We also live in a world where God moves in very mysterious ways. We live in a world full of sin and evil. I get mad when I look at this. But I get mad when I look at myself.
There is a classic verse from the prophets in the Old Testament. In the Book of Habakkuk (1:13) the prophet says this to God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”
We could be like that too. That would shape us into something like anger; and wouldn’t that make us like a holy God?
But look at what this God does. Instead of not looking on evil, and instead of not tolerating it, God came to stare that evil in the face, and to die for those who are evil. He came to die for us. Instead of not tolerating wrong (like the wrong that is so much a part of us) God carries the wrongs of the world on the cross. Then the wrongs of the world die with him on that cross, and God carries us, as we die with him on the cross, to the resurrection. And then we find a new life.
There is a verse in the Gospel of John that describes very well what this holy God, who cannot look on evil, did. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
There was a cross on a hill called Calvary: a name that refers to the top of a human skull. There was great evil and injustice done on Calvary, the place of the skull. On Calvary, the world reached out to kill goodness itself, and in doing so it reached out to kill God, if it could.
There was the same evil at work in the killing of Stephen. We see the same anger and the same falsehood in the perpetrators of that evil. We see the same innocence and love and grace at work in the one who died. With Stephen, we see a kind of repetition of Calvary (the place of the skull); only we see it happening in different circumstances. We see a different version of it.
We live in a world that repeats Calvary over and over again; against goodness, against the weak, against the innocent, maybe even against us, and certainly against our brothers and sisters in Jesus in the darker parts of the world.
But Calvary, the place of the skull, is more than a terrible pattern done to the small people and the innocent people. Calvary is a thing that God has done for us.
In Jesus, God has entered the place of the skull and, by dying there, and by rising from the dead, God has made the place of the skull into a doorway to him, and to healing, and to a life that is full of grace for us and for others: full of grace for a graceless world.
At every Calvary in this world, it is God, in Christ, who has the upper hand. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we can see him there, in our own Calvary, just as Stephen did.
This is what a holy God, who hates sin, does. This is the God we know, when we know Jesus. This is the good news that we are witnesses of. This grace is what we are called to be the evidence of.
This is what the balance of integrity, and anger, and grace, and prayer for the forgiveness of others looks like. This is what we have working in us when we have Jesus living in us as he truly wants to live in us.

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