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

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