Disciples: shining under pressure
Standing firm in faith
Standing firm in faith
Have you ever encountered opposition because of your faith?
Growing up as a Vicar’s kid had both it’s pros and it’s cons.
It was well known that Dad was a Vicar and therefore a Christian, and it was something we wouldn’t live down, nor did we want to
So the usual name calling followed us, but for me it was more the implicit comments or snide remarks about my faith that got me in my teens.
This was my faith. Every time Jesus’ name was used as a swear word, it felt wrong. Sometimes I’d say something, but usually I wouldn’t.
And it got me thinking, why did it upset me.
After I’d come back to Jesus at 14, this troubled me. But then I realised, it’s because they were speaking about my best friend.
And as I looked at the early church, I realised that they all stood up for Jesus. The bible tells of the suffering of all of the main disciples, the scattering of the early church. In fact the new testament tells us that James, the brother of John the gospel writer, was beheaded by Herod. Later reports from outside of the Bible tell us that Peter was crucified upside down, which Jesus refers to before his own death, and Paul the apostle was beheaded, both under Emperor Nero.
Once I saw suffering in the Bible, and the more I read the gospels and saw that Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me”
I realised that this is part of the Christian journey. But I didn’t have to take it sitting down
I can remember the English lesson in the mobile class room we were sat in when I was in year 9 so about 14, I’d just been confirmed and the jeering started again. I’d had 3 years of it and enough was enough. The teacher had just set us our work and then Chris made the comment. I don’t remember what he said but it was something about my faith, and I stood up in class.
I said to the whole room that I was fed up with the name calling, the jokes and the way they talked about my God. I wasn’t going to be bullied anymore, I wasn’t going to sit here and take it. I wasn’t going to take it outside for a fight, but I was going to take it further if it continued. I told them “Let me keep my faith and believe in God, and stop disrespecting Him and me". Something to that effect.
I sat down, and there was silence. I don’t remember the teacher saying anything, I think they were all stunned. And after that day, the bullying stopped, and then the honest searching questions about God started.
We live in a world which doesn’t understand God, which doesn’t respect God.
We pay lip service to tolerating others who believe in God, but really our society, and particularly our media are screaming that it is irrational to believe in a God who heard us, and who loves us. It’s a nice fantasy for the weak, but no rational strong person could ever believe such rubbish.
Next time you’re watching something on Netflix, or the majority of TV drama’s, news and films. Be aware that you are being preached too. Don’t miss the fact that the producers, writers and executives have opinions and they want to use their platform to be heard. But because we can’t see them behind the thing we’re watching, we can just sit back and let them preach to us implicitly, without questioning how their message fits in with the Christian gospel.
There is an underlying ungodly agenda in much of the shows we watch. I still enjoy watching many of the new TV shows, but don’t watch them blind, be aware of what your watching.
And there’s a word which is used to portray or sum up Christian’s in much of our media. Bigotry is a word branded against Christian’s a lot.
Can I just define bigotry to you
“intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.”
So it is bigotry if I can’t accept that others hold a different opinion to myself.
It’s intolerance when someone can’t accept that someone holds a different opinion to them
What the media has done is confuse bigotry with agreement.
I can disagree with someone else’s opinion and that is fine, that’s allowed. It‘s when I don’t allow that other person to hold their opinion which is where it becomes bigotry.
You all know that I’m passionate about welcome. I believe that Jesus teaches clearly about welcoming everyone. And I know that many people have found this true of St Marks over the years.
I believe that God has created each of us equal under God, made in his image, and that he loves each of us and passionately welcomes us to come and follow him.
And with my love for people, and inviting them to hear his call to follow him, I am passionate about the Bible. Why?
Because following Jesus is following the truth. When we ask the question, what is truth, Jesus answers “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”
The best definition of truth I have heard is that
Truth is God’s opinion
And how do we find God’s opinion? Well we speak to him and we read the love letter which he has given us through the writers of the Bible
We believe that the Bible is the primary way that God speaks to us, and yet because it doesn’t fit our understanding of society, or allow everything which we want it to allow, it has been under deep attack over the last few centuries particularly.
Because of my passion for the Bible, and following God’s way, it might not surprise you to hear that I am in complete agreement with the Church of England’s doctrine’s over human sexuality and gender, which I believe are written clearly in the Bible, the place where we find God’s opinion. The Bible teaches that human sexuality is meant to be expressed within the life long commitment of a marriage between a man and a woman. So I am passionate about couples who are married or embarking on marriage, keeping that marriage strong and life long.
I believe that we were all made male and female, and it concerns me that there is an undercurrent in our government which is under cutting a child’s development by saying that children shouldn’t be encouraged to identify as the gender which was determined at birth. There are some who struggle to accept their birth gender, and they need so much love and support. But gender realignment still hasn’t proved to be helpful for the majority of cases, in fact many studies suggest quite the opposite.
These are two of the hot potatoes at the moment, and we can unpack them at a later time. What hits our hearts is that we have friends and family who may find themselves at the fringe of society because they don’t conform, and there’s a question in our minds about what the good news looks like for them.
The good news is that Jesus loves them and wants to come alongside them, journey with them and he’s asking us to do that too.
My heart is to help everyone find a loving place within our Church community, while not giving way to the un-biblical pressures of our society.
Hear me when I say that the love of God is at the heart of everything we do, and bigotry has no place in God’s church.
What I’m looking for in St Marks is a place where we are allowed to disagree, and to disagree well.
Half the problem in many of the big debates is that neither side of an argument are willing to sit down and listen. And we as God’s children seek the way of Jesus. But even we will disagree.
We must get to a place where it’s ok to say, “thank you for sharing you’re opinion with me, I feel I understand your position a bit better, I still disagree with you. But, I am committed to you as my brother or sister in Christ, and I want to walk this walk with you as a friend, even if we disagree”
But I will always stand up for Jesus, as I live my life for him in this broken world.
But I will always stand up for Jesus, as I live my life for him in this broken world.
It’s bigotry which we see here in our passage today, and which leads to a horrendous mess.
Would you open your Bibles with me to
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen.
10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
So the religious traditional Jewish men from Cyrene and Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia cannot hear the truth in what Stephen is speaking, but they also realise they’re not going to win in an argument with Stephen, because what he says makes complete sense. After all, these are the words of the Holy Spirit
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.
14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
Just look at these two charges
Jesus of Nazareth will destory:
this place - the temple
the customs Moses handed down to us - the law
This is best understood as God’s address on earth. It’s the place where God’s presence rested, and the only place true sacrifices could be made
It was sacred, holy, indeed it was the place where sin was dealt with and where people were made clean before God
If it was destroyed, how could they ever become clean
And the customs handed down to us
From the beginning God invited his children into a trusting relationship with him. “If you want to know how to live, just talk to me, and follow me”
But they didn’t.
In fact they asked him for a law, and so in his love for them he gave it to them. Firstly in the 10 commandments, and then directly to Moses and the Levitical priests, who wrote down all the moral and ritual laws
But these laws had been added to over many years by the religious rulers to help them keep the law better. Loads of extra laws which were never God’s law
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.
So here we have the lie which was thrown against jesus now thrown against Stephen
That Jesus would come to destroy the temple, God’s address on earth, and the laws of Moses, the traditions and regulations
But we know the truth is that Jesus fulfilled both.
That Jesus and now his church, are God’s address on earth
That in the death of Jesus, all the ritual laws were fulfilled and we can now be truly clean of sin whenever we confess our sin to him
That through a relationship with Jesus, we can now understand the Moral law
And can anyone remember what happened to Moses when he walked down the mountain with the 10 commandments, after being given the law, what happened to his face?
It was glowing with the radiance of the glory of God. No heat this
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
I don’t know what the face of an angel looks like, but we get the distinct impression that something of the radiance of the glory of God is shining from his face, don’t we. When he’s being accused of threatening the destruction of the temple and their laws and traditions, God shows up and has his say. He gives his opinion, his truth on the matter
And then he preaches this sermon. Instead of defending himself, Jesus or backing down, he takes them back to the beginning of the faith. He explores, Abraham, Moses and David. From how God first was with them and promising the people of Israel that he would be with them and bless them if they obeyed him. That it was because they kept falling away and worshipping other gods that he gave Moses the written law, and only when David asked to build him a home did he allow Solomon, David’s son to build it.
He quotes from the prophets and we picked up at verse 48
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—
53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
1 And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
This is the introduction of Saul who later meets the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and we know him better as the apostle Paul who wrote most of the New Testament. But here we find him, as intolerant as the others, in approval of the Bigotry which is going on, and the demise of a godly man.
God had a big job to do in Saul’s heart - but he did, a complete transformation of him
Notice, that under immense pressure, Stephen holds keep his faith.
He’s accused of the same crimes as Jesus, he doesn’t defend himself, but teaches about who Jesus is and why he came to save us. He does accuse them of murdering Jesus, the prophesied Messiah, Son of Man and Son of God. Which is inflammatory language. And it angered them
As friends, we can have heated debates, we can disagree, but we are round the table, invested in each other relationaly.
Here Stephen has been set opposite the very traditional Jewish men, some of whom may well have been in the crowd shouting crucify.
And the heated conversation turns nasty, when Stephen shares what God is showing him. They are already angry, but to hear him say he can see God and Jesus at his side is too much for them and they seize him and take him for stoning.
We see two things Stephen says here which are straight from the crucifixion of Jesus.
v59 - Jesus recieve my Spirit
Just like Jesus saying, “Father I give you my Spirit”
v60 “Lord, do not hold this sing against them”
just like Jesus shouting “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.
And then he died
I wonder what pressures you are facing this week?
I wonder if you feel overwhelmed by the pressures of life?
Perhaps it’s the pressures of someone attacking you.
For some it may be toward your faith, for others it could be bullying.
What we see clearly in the Bible is that suffering is part of the journey with Jesus. To take up our cross and follow him.
But Jesus doesn’t just leave us to it. He is with us, he is cleansing us, he is holding that weight and burden with us. And all he asks is that we are faithful to him, like Stephen.
So let’s take some time with him now to listen to him. To lay before him the pressure we face. To ask him to take away the cup of suffering if that is his will, but not my will God, but yours...