Wednesday, 21 May 2014

How to become holy- The stoning of Stephen

Since Easter we have been spending time in the book of Acts watching the church be formed. After Jesus was resurrected and had ascended the Spirit descended on the disciples and they miraculously spoke in other languages. Peter changes from being frightened and hiding behind locked doors to boldly speaking publicly to the crowd and explains what they are witnessing and retells the story of Jesus. Many in the crowd, who are from all over the known world, ask what they should do and Peter advises them to be baptized to receive forgiveness and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We are told that 3000 people joined the church that day. We then get a glimpse of the life of the church when we read that they shared the bread of Communion, they devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching, to prayer, and to being together in intense community (even selling what they owned to take care of the needy among them). The life of this early church was confirmed by miracles that showed God’s power and life was among them. This also brings the attention of those who condemned Jesus. Jesus said, “’Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). So the church begins to feel some push back from the authorities. It is in the midst of this testing that we see the kind of people that the early Church was producing.

The overall goal of God’s mission is to bring human beings back into relationship with Him. Part of the restoration of this relationship is the restoration of the human being to holiness. We read in the Old Testament the command “be holy for I am holy” (Lev 19:2; 20:7) and it is quoted in the New Testament in Peter’s fist letter (1 Pet 1:14-16). In 1 Timothy 4:7 we read “Train yourself in godliness”. It is said in many different ways but it is all over the New Testament. We are to be a holy people.

Sin gets in the way of our relationship with God and so Sin has to be dealt with and a process of holiness has to begin in order to have a healthy and growing relationship with God. Jesus dealt with sin on the cross and so there is a way in which we are considered holy as we accept what was done for us by Jesus. When we accept what Jesus did we also accept a way of life. We cannot accept Jesus as our master and then ignore what he and his Apostles taught. Through these teachings, the life of the community, and the presence of the Holy Spirit we are invited to grow in holiness. God is holy and human beings are originally made in the image of God, so the restoration the image of God in a human being is also a restoring of holiness. The Church was to be a training gym to help people grow in holiness as they develop a closer relationship with God. The closer we are to God the holier we will become- it’s contagious. Being with God will shape you. Your character will be shaped and reflect the character of Jesus. That is the kind of people the Church can produce- people who have the character of Jesus.

Stephen is an example of the kind of person the Church can produce. The church took care of those in need, especially those within the church, but some of the Greek speaking widows were beings overlooked. The Apostles chose seven men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom to make sure that the needs of the Greek-speaking widows were met. Stephen was chosen as one of the seven and he is described as being full of the Spirit and faith.

The Holy Spirit was operating through Stephen and many miracles were being worked through him. There were some who opposed him as he touched more and more lives, but they couldn’t stand up against his wisdom. We hear an echo of Jesus’ promise “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:14). Still they dragged him before the authorities with accusations that he is teaching against the temple and their customs. It sounds a lot like the accusations put against Jesus. Stephen speaks to the council about the history of God and his people. He highlights God’s presence with his people even without a temple and he also highlights the people’s habitual rebellion against the movement of God. The council is enraged and they drag him out into the street and they stone him. Stephen’s courage is inspiring. None of us really know how courageous we are until we are tested. We might think we are courageous, but when they start picking up rocks to throw at us that is when we find out who we have become. And when we look at Stephen we see a person who has taken on the character of Jesus. We read about his last moments, “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” We hear an echo of Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46), and “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In Stephen we see a person who has become like Jesus.

The Church was a training gym so people could become like Jesus as they grew closer to God. It was a training gym so people could become the kind of people God originally intended us to be so that we will think as God meant us to think, feel as God intended us to feel, makes choices as God would have us make choices, have relationships and behave as God would have us. Not because we are being controlled, but because we become who we truly were meant to be.

The Church can be a lot of things. We can treat it like a club where we meet with other like-minded people who act and look like us. We can treat it like a refuge from the world where we can escape the harshness of the world. We can treat like many things, but its primary purpose is as a place where we grow in relationship with God and with others and part of that is learning to grow in holiness. The Church hasn’t always been very good at helping people this way. Sometimes the church has become a club and forgotten about its deeper call. This means that we are often left not really sure about what this training in holiness looks like.

It begins with a strong vision of Jesus and his kingdom. We accept and are convinced that Jesus really is who he said he is. This doesn’t mean we never have doubts and in fact doubt is often the growing edge of our faith, but it means that Jesus is held strongly in our minds as the one with the best vision of life and God. When we catch that vision we will be challenged to make decisions that line up with that vision.

One of the things we will notice is that we will have some reactions that don’t seem to line up with that vision. So we Love God and we love the vision Jesus presents of the kingdom where God’s will is done on earth, but we notice that we sometimes gossip, or act judgmental, get really angry, or hold grudges, or speak unkind words, or think a bit too highly of money, or something. As we desire to become more like Jesus we will notice these things about our character that we seem to have little control over.

This is where the methods or disciplines of the church come in. There are parts of us we are unable to change by sheer willpower, so instead we put into practice something that will have an effect on those areas of our life as a side effect. We don’t have time to go through the many practices that have been a part of the church over the last 2000 years, but the most basic ones are regular daily prayer, Bible reading, and weekly gathered worship. There are many many others such as the practices of celebration, chastity, confession, fasting, spiritual direction, meditation, service, silence, simplicity, solitude, study, and many others. The effect of these is to shape our character. They have been practiced by the saints throughout the church’s history and we are told that when we use these practices in faith the Holy Spirit will use them to bless us and transform us. We cannot make ourselves holy, only God can do that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. It’s not going to happen overnight either. This is the long pilgrimage. God will use our desire, our effort, and our dedication. We can place ourselves in the position to be best able to receive from God and that’s what these disciplines of the church do. They are means of God’s grace to transform us.

This doesn’t mean we never mess up. Of course we will and we will have to be patient with each other, but the overall trajectory of our lives will be towards holiness. We will be more and more marked by the fruit of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). And it will show when our character is challenged. For most of us that hopefully won’t be having stones thrown at us as it was for Stephen, but it might be the betrayal of a loved one, or a serious illness. And when that time comes the character of Jesus will shine through us and even in our struggle God will shine through us. AMEN

Sunday, 11 May 2014

marks of the church

For the last couple of weeks since Easter we have been looking at Peter’s sermon that he gave on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had enlivened all the disciples after Jesus had ascended to heaven and they started speaking in other languages. The crowds in Jerusalem had come from all over the known world for the festival. They hear the disciples speaking in their own languages and talking about powerful actions of God. Peter steps in front of the crowds to explain what they are experiencing. He tells the story of Jesus- his life, death, resurrection, ascension. The crowd asked what they should do and Peter invites them to repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. Many come join the church that day. The author says about 3000.

The preacher John Stott has said a more accurate name for the Book of Acts would be- “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles’”. What we read about in Acts is a group of people who are caught up in God’s mission of love. Jesus’ proclamation about the Kingdom of God being near is still being proclaimed through his disciples. The power of God is still present in the disciples. Now we read in Acts about what that community was like. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42). These are marks that were essential and basic to the early church, but they are also essential and basic for the modern church and we would do well to pay attention to these.

First, when these early believers gathered they dedicated themselves to the teaching of the Apostles. The Apostles were those who spent time with Jesus while he was teaching before his crucifixion and resurrection. The Apostles were the ones who wandered the roads with Jesus as he went from town to town teaching and healing. They were the ones that were with him for the three years of his ministry and their souls were shaped by being in his presence. After the resurrection we read in Acts that Jesus spent 40 more days teaching them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). We also read that many miracles were done through the Apostles (2:43), which also authenticated them by showing that the power of God was active and alive in them just as the power of God had been active in Jesus. These Apostles were those that were most formed by Jesus, and so the teaching of the Apostles is the teaching that is most formed by Jesus. As the community met they devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, which is to say the Apostles’ teaching about Jesus and his teachings. The first thing they dedicated themselves to was to be a learning community. All Christians are disciples, and a disciple is an “apprentice” or a “student”.

Today the teaching of the Apostles comes to us in the New Testament. That was one of the tests for how a writing would end up in the New Testament- it was connected to an Apostle. The ancient Christian devotion to the teaching of the Apostles is paralleled by our devotion to the teachings we find in the New Testament. We are called to have our lives shaped by the Bible. The New Testament because it is the teaching of Jesus’ Apostles, and the Old Testament because it was the Bible of Jesus and his Apostles.

Second, we read that they devoted themselves to fellowship. The word translated “fellowship” (koinonia) comes from the root for “common” (koinos). This means they had a “common” life, not in the sense of “ordinary”, but in the sense of “together” or “shared”. It was a shared life in that they shared in the life of God, but it was also a shared life because they shared their lives with one another. This was a community that was dedicated to one another. We read that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:44-46). I don’t think this is proof that they were communists or that no one had any personal property, but I think they cared about each other deeply. They spent a lot of time together and when they saw need in the community they were willing to meet that need with their resources even if it meant selling their new car or a rental property. This doesn’t mean that they sold everything they owned and lived together, but they were unwilling to see someone in need when they had the resources to meet their needs. It’s what you would do for someone you love. It’s what you would do for your children or your parents (if you have a healthy loving relationship with them). You respond to the needs of those you love in the best way you can. But, their common life wasn’t just about meeting each other’s needs. They met in each other’s homes. They ate together. They enjoyed each other and they were generous with each other.

We are called to a life of fellowship. This goes well beyond coffee after church. We are to learn to care about each other deeply. That means we are to learn to be vulnerable with each other. We will have people in the fellowship who we can be real with, who we can cry with and laugh with, who we can call at 2:00 in the morning when we have been in the emergency room. We will have people in the fellowship we know outside the walls of the church building. We will know their stories- their joys and their pains- and they will know our stories. Their joy will cause us joy and their pain will cause us pain. And when their lives fall apart we are willing to make sacrifices to pull them back up. This is the kind of fellowship we are called to.

Thirdly, we read that they dedicated themselves to “the breaking of bread” and to “the prayers”. The way the phrase is worded in the original language shows us that they weren’t just meeting to break bread together as we might say when we share a meal (though they certainly did do that). We read that they were dedicated to “the” breaking of “the” bread and to “the” prayers. It is very likely that this is a reference to the Eucharist and to some sort of shared times of prayer. We are called together to worship. In our individualistic society I might be tempted to say, “I can pray at home and read my Bible at home, or go for a walk and meet God. Why do I need to come to Church?” The first answer to my question would be that this is what Christians have always done. It is a part of the tradition of the community of the Apostles and we should always be wary of tossing that aside. Our base assumption should be that they had a good reason. We are shaped and formed by our common worship. We learn from each other and we challenge each other. Off on our own we might convince ourselves that we are doing quite well and are people full of love and compassion, but when we are together worshipping we can be shocked by our impatience and the hurt and judgementalism that is so close to the surface. In our common worship we come together as God has always called His people to gather before him. God has called us into community and being shaped as his people means learning to stand before him as a gathered people and to be shaped by being together. We are called to worship together.

The preacher John Stott sees in the statement “day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47) as a forth mark of the church. He says this forth mark of the early church is evangelism. That word tends to freak us out a bit. What this means is that they welcomed others among them, they were not shy about sharing their story, and they acted with compassion for those around them. Evangelism isn’t about hitting people over the head with your bible or cramming your beliefs down someone else’s throat. It can be as simple as asking someone else what they believe about spirituality and being willing to share what you believe if they happen to ask you. Evangelism can be welcoming new faces and being willing to make them feel at home. It means being willing to invite new faces out for coffee and inviting them into the hospitality of the fellowship we spoke about. We are called to be a community that cares about the spiritual lives of others and we make the effort to welcome those who are not already a part of us.

May we be a community that is shaped deeply by the spiritual teaching of the Apostles. May we love each other deeply and live lives of vulnerability and availability to one another. May we worship together, being nourished by the Body of Christ that we might be the body of Christ in the world. AMEN

Monday, 5 May 2014

What does it mean to repent?

When we meet up with Peter this week he has preached the last line of his sermon- “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” This sermon was Peter’s Pentecost sermon. The crowd in Jerusalem was from all over the known world. They were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost which is a Jewish harvest festival, and it also became the time they celebrated receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sainai. Suddenly this group of disciples started miraculously speaking in languages known to the crowd. The crowd starts asking questions, curious about what’s going on. Peter explains to them that they are witnessing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel.  God’s Spirit is empowering His people. This is happening because Jesus walked among them. He was killed, resurrected, and ascended to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to his disciples.     
They saw this amazing miracle that confirmed Peter’s words. They saw that what he was saying was true. Jesus is Lord and Messiah. This is something their people have been longing for for generations. Suddenly they are witnesses to it.
When we are confronted with the beauty and power of God one of the things that often happens is that we are suddenly hit with the need to change. Peter once saw Jesus miraculously fill his nets with fish. The nets were so full they couldn’t pull them in and their boats were about to sink. We read in Luke 5:8 “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” Peter suddenly saw himself in light of Jesus’ goodness. …  When Saul is travelling to Damascus and he is confronted by the resurrected Jesus and he sees a clearer image of God. He is called to transformation. We know him as Paul.  When we are confronted with the beauty and power of God we suddenly see ourselves in God’s light. We thought we were okay… in the candlelight, but in the daylight we see the dirt more clearly.
It was the same for the crowd Peter was talking to. They saw the power of God and they suddenly realized Jesus really was who Peter was saying he was, and they realized that the Holy Spirit was in their midst as their ancestors longed of.  Peter finishes his sermon and the crowd responds. We read that “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’” They felt the need to respond. They were cut to the heart. It is the pain that calls for change.  

Peter responds to their question, “Brothers, what should we do?” by saying, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
We tend to think of repentance in a very negative way. When we hear the word “repentance” our modern minds think of bad self-esteem or medieval monks whipping themselves, but that wasn’t what was in the minds of the crowd who heard Peter. They saw a vision of what God was doing in the world and they wanted to be a part of it, but they had to make a change to be a part of it. Their motivation to change wasn’t because they were that bad, it was because God is that good. They saw what God was up to and they were willing to pay the price to be a part of it. Repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The more clearly we see God for who God actually is, the more we will feel the desire to adjust our lives accordingly. Once in a while I meet people who are looking for a god who matches them. It is like they are shopping for a pair of pants. They keep looking for a god that fits them. But, that is a consumerist fantasy. If the God we are seeking is the true God we will always be called to transformation because we will always be adjusting our lives to His tremendous truth.
The philosopher and Christian Spirituality teacher Dallas Willard teaches that transformation follows a particular pattern. He uses the acronym V.I.M., which stands for Vision, Intention, Means. What is first needed is a vision that shows why the change is desirable. If we want to learn French maybe we have a vision of visiting Paris and being able to speak to the locals and understand French films. We have a vision of what speaking French would be like. Then we have to intent to actually become that kind of person. We have to make the decision. Then we need the means, which might be French class and attention to books and CDs on how to speak French. Vision, Intention, Means. It works the same way with learning a musical instrument. We have a vision of what it would be like to play guitar. We imagine playing beside the fire, or in a band. And then we have to intend to become that person, then we adopt the means, which are buying a guitar and taking lessons.
I have owned a guitar since I was 21. I am now almost 35. I have owned a guitar for almost 14 years. I have on occasion plucked away at it. At one point I decided the problem was that it was in its case all the time, so I bought a guitar stand and stood the guitar in the corner of the room thinking it would be easier to pick it up and learn if I didn’t have to take it out of its bag all the time. It was a ridiculous theory, I know. I bought how to play guitar for dummies- the book and the DVD. I have a DVD teaching series on how to play that I have yet to watch. My guitar has gathered dust for nearly 14 years. I still want to learn to play it, so I don’t want to give it up. My problem is that I lack Vision. I don’t have a strong enough vision for learning to play guitar. Without that vision my intention cannot be strong enough for me to use the means I have at my disposal.
The people who stood listening to Peter did not have a lack of Vision they saw God more clearly, and they also saw God miraculously filling his people with his Holy Spirit. They had the vision to be a part of what God was doing in their time. Their question was about Intention and means. “Brothers, what should we do?” The Intention is marked by being willing to be baptized. The Means is the actual baptism, the receiving the Holy Spirit, and being a part of the life and practices of the new Christian community.
Repentance is about turning to something good. We too often think about repentance as turning away from something bad. “I’m a bad person so I need to repent”.  The people listening to Peter weren’t all about feeling bad about themselves. They had a vision for something better and they turned towards it. Repentance is about turning. Yes, away from the direction you are facing, but primarily it is about turning towards something better. It is like gardening. You can’t just be pulling weeds all the time. You have to tend to the flowers, otherwise your goal is just a pile of dirt. Our vision is insufficient if we just want to not be “bad”. We need a vision of the beauty of God and the goodness and Joy he is calling us into.
So one way we often go wrong about repentance is that we think of it in such a negative way. Another way we go wrong is that we tend to think that it is a one-time thing. For the Christian we live a life of repentance. Which is really just another way of saying we live a life of learning. We are continuously seeking to know more of God and to have our lives adjusted according to his beauty and holiness.  … But, it is also true that God is continuously on the move. God is on the move in our lives calling us to work on certain friendships, to reach out to those in need in particular ways, and to deal with issues and hurt in our past, among other things. Our God is on a mission and that means He is on the move, and that means we will have to continuously have to adjust our course, which means we are going to be living a life of continuous turning, or repentance if we are going to try to be a part of what he is doing in the world and in our lives.   

May we live lives of repentance. Not self-pity, but of continuous openness to God, hearing his voice calling to us, leading us into greater and greater joy as we come to know him more and more.            
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