Saturday, May 21, 2011

A, Easter 5 - Acts 7:54-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10 "A Stone Like Stephen"

One would have to agree being stoned would be up there as one of the worst ways to die. Next to crucifixion it would be an equally painful and slow death. Each body blow would tear at your flesh and smash your bones, disfiguring your body ever so slowly. For someone to willingly stone another person the intent would have to be personal as they saw and heard each rock wreck the person in front of them.

Stephen was chosen as one of seven disciples, to distribute welfare to the gentile believers so the apostles could focus solely on the work of preaching and teaching. We don't hear much about these seven, except that Stephen's faithfulness was truly born of the Holy Spirit, and this caused him to be recognised amongst the seven, and all those who came in contact with him.

What then arises amongst the people is what is known as "the tall poppy syndrome". False allegations are secretly brought against Stephen by some who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." (Acts 7:11 ESV)

Notice how dissension grows out of secrecy. Grumbles from those whose pride was offended by the exposing reality of having had their sinfulness revealed, leads them further into sin.

Nevertheless, Stephen under complete submission to God freely allows the Holy Spirit to radiate from him in all wisdom and power from God, revealing wonders and signs through this disciple who was originally called to serve in the seemingly tedious task of handing out food, to the gentiles, no less!

We have cause to reflect on the instance in Lazarus' house when Mary sat at Jesus' feet while Martha worked to prepare the meal, and was far from joyful in doing so. (See Luke 10:38-41.) She was not happy in her vocation, choosing to meditate, or grumble, about Mary not helping her in the kitchen. Often it's heard Martha should have been out at Jesus' feet too, but this is wrong.

Rather it was Martha's calling, or vocation, to be "at Jesus' feet" in the kitchen, while Mary's was literally at his feet as he spoke. Stephen got it right serving and seeing the holiness of his vocation, even if it could be easily seen as a lesser task, compared to the work the apostles were doing, preaching and teaching.

Stephen is found to be the faithful and submissive servant, joyfully allowing God — to be God through him — in his vocation of serving. He is tenacious in the faith given to him as he does the work he is called to do — a contented Martha figure, if you like! However, others fell into the discontented and disgruntled ways like those of Martha. And from this deep-seated secret sin flourishes the actions that see Stephen stoned.

But as Stephen is pelted with the deadly assault he assumes a position that should surprise us. Beaten down by the blows he does not recede into himself as we would expect. Our natural human instinct is to protect our vital organs by huddling in a foetal position. But the picture the scriptures paint of Stephen is far from a man cowering in on himself as he is beaten to death.

In fact as the opposition gnarled its teeth at him, as the mob gathered, and as it was whipped into a feverish frenzy, Stephen gazed! Now to gaze here means to cast one's attention at something. It can be to stare in complete earnestness or in a way that is what we refer to as day-dreaming. Nevertheless, one's focus is completely on a single person, thing, or event.

On what would your attention be if a mob was hurling stones at you? Surprisingly Stephen's was on God. He gazed at God! By the power of the Holy Spirit he saw into heaven, he saw God's glory, and he saw Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God the Father. And as he saw these things he testified to what he saw, saying, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56 ESV)

So full of the Holy Spirit, despite being smashed by stones, he testified to the risen presence of Jesus Christ. The reality of the situation allowed Stephen to be drawn out of himself to focus on a heavenly reality, a witness the ears of unbelievers could not stand and still cannot stand today.

Despite the earthly reality we face here day after day, like Stephen you and I are called to see the greater reality. This reality grows when you allow yourself to hear who God says you are. If you don't, then your reality will always be clouded by your own efforts, your own understanding and your own mortal shortness of attention.

With the reality seen through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, repentance is produced, together with a craving for the pure spiritual milk of God. You want to pray; you want to study the scriptures and come to know how they are being unfolded in your day to day life. The desire is there and with this desire comes the Spirit's cry within you, as you pray for spiritual, scriptural understanding.

You begin asking more and more for your life to be conformed to that of Jesus' life, and your will to that of the good and gracious will of your Father in heaven. And as you peer into the word of God, you pray that its truth is embedded in you by the Holy Spirit, and your ways and life are understood according what is written.

As this happens, throughout your walk with God in this life, all areas of unbelief are revealed and challenged. There is a continual loosening of your ears and heart and the stiffness of sin is softened so you might repent, and you gaze more and more on the glory of God as you realise it's his grace and power filling you so you do even greater things than Jesus did before he was nailed to the cross and raised from the grave.

This is the position in life, the vocation, Stephen was fulfilling. This is the vocation God seeks to fulfil in you. He wants to be God with you, in you, and through you. He wants you to allow him to be the God that he truly is — healing your sin, giving you faith, that's forgiving, tenacious and fully focused on the greater reality which awaits all who allow God to be God within.

Your vocation is one of holiness and it tastes good. If your Christian life does not taste good, then you've been eating the wrong stuff! So pray that you might stop and allow God to give you the food of life – his holiness, his way, his truth, and his life.

Like Stephen your immediate circumstances most likely won't change. Perhaps they might even deteriorate. But like Stephen and all who trust in Jesus you will be growing into salvation, fed by the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. You will become so heavenly minded the world may think you have no earthly use, but nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the prayers you pray, the life you live, and the compassion you give will be as result of your willingness to see your weakness and trust in God's strength. His power will not only move you but flow through you polishing the faith of those around you.

Those who believe in Christ are like polished stones. Things happen and we encounter all sorts of people throughout the course of our lives. Some of these are far from pleasing, and they come about because of humanity's sin, although many often blame God for them and the suffering experienced!

However, God doesn't take these irritating and hazardous stones away from our lives, rather he allows them to remain, to agitate, and to knock off the many edges of unbelief! So when we come out of the mix of life, we are not just stones of death but rather polished jewels reflecting the light of the Son — the glory of God.

So the question is this: Are you allowing God to polish you so you might have a place with Christ — the Cornerstone in the eternal kingdom of God? Or: Are you stumbling over Christ, has his Church left a sour taste in your mouth, or are you so earthly minded you are no use to yourself or anyone around you? Also does the truth of his word offend you so much you'd rather join others in being the agitators of those focused on their eternal reality?

If you are then it's time to talk if you don't want it to be this way! Talk by praying to God, tell him exactly what is going on right down in the secret part of your being. Enlist pastors, called to help those who honestly seek help. You can't shrug off reality nor can you afford to lose sight of the eternal goal.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thankyou for allowing the things of this life to rub us up the wrong way, to agitate us, and knock off the things that cause us to lose our reflection of you! Continue to polish us so we might live out the many vocations in our everyday lives as your holy priesthood, reflecting the glory of God to all those around us, so they too might be polished for eternal life with you. Help us to gaze upon you and your reality, just as Stephen did, and send the Holy Spirit into our hearts so we might taste and see that your are good and continually present spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.