A Minister once said that “Next week I am going to preach on the sin of lying”. To help you understand the sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17. The following Sunday the minister asked for a show of hands. Every single hand went up. The minister smiled and said “Mark has only sixteen chapters, I will proceed now with my sermon about lying…”
Sometimes we are overcome with a need to say certain things or behave in a certain way. And when that way turns out to be the “wrong way” then we feel bad about it. We get a little knot in the pit of our stomachs and we feel sorry for ourselves or about others for a length of time. However, there are people who continue to say these little white lies, or behave in a way that is contrary to the example led by Jesus of Nazareth. There are these revelations that we have that some believe give us the opportunity to overrule common sense or what we as Christians believe is the correct way to act or speak. The reading from the book of Acts this morning is an interesting one. Here, we have the martyring of Stephen (that is, the execution of Stephen because of his religious convictions). This man ends up dead because of what he believes. He feels good about it and decides to proclaim it to all those who are around him. There is not a knot in the bottom of his stomach. Only a lump in this throat and a tear in his eye as he shouts the great news of the vision that he has. He does not even hesitate in sharing his vision with his neighbors. He does not worry how they might think about him, he’s not worried that the Johnson’s wont invite him over for BBQ on the weekend, or if poker night with Peter, John and the guys will be cancelled. NO. He’s confident in what he saw and in the very goodness and promise that that image brought to him. In the midst of what was not the most welcoming land to Christians he still proclaims what he saw. And he dies for it.
How and why did this man do this? Especially if we consider that he probably knew what would happen if he contradicted the authorities or what was the official state religion at that time. How brave, how inspiring of an image can we picture in our minds. Of a man or woman standing up, and just proclaiming the truths that their religions asks them to believe, and in the midst of hostile strangers at that. Why is that we are sometimes hesitant to own our Christian heritage and identity? There are no authorities threatening to carry us away and throw is in prison for being Christian. In fact, not only is our society based mostly on Christian values but it encourages them.
So let us return to the passage in Acts for a few moments… It would appear that Stephen only proclaimed his heavenly vision after being filled with the Holy Spirit. So, one could say that that the Spirit empowered him to deliver such a powerful message to those around him. The language here is very important. The spirit didn’t touch him, or move him or convince him. The SPIRIT FILLED HIM. And it was this presence and energy that enabled him to see what he saw. I would say that he was most certainly open to being filled with the Spirit which is why that it chose Stephen to be the messenger. It is Stephen’s mindset that we need to be more open to be interpreting. I sincerely believe that we need to make room within ourselves to be open to the majestic images that Stephen was blessed to have seen. I mean, he says he saw the heavens opening, like curtains before a broadway show. He sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God and he is in awe. His receptiveness of the Spirti allowed him to be open to to have this vision. Friends, this is crucial. He’s not looking at his sundial waiting for an appointment with the Spirit like we wait to get our winter tires changed (ps. If you haven’t you should get on that).
How is Stephen’s message interpreted by his neighbors? We read that they covered their ears and rushed against him to bring to be stoned. They did not want to hear what he was saying. Why? Perhaps it was contrary to their beliefs. What he was saying was so provocative that it unsettled them. And I would say, OF COURSE IT IS. The message of God is revolutionary and powerful. It is meant to make you uneasy, it is meant to make you uncomfortable because more often than not it is what you WOULD NORMALLY NOT DO. I would argue that these people did not necessarily stone Stephen because of what he said he saw. NO. They stoned him because they could not comprehend the images and the message that Stpehen was speaking to them about. They could not understand, and they chose not to.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is revolutionary. How often in today’s society do we censor ourselves or perhaps think about not being witnesses to Jesus Christ that we change what we mean or what we say. Often times we are so concerned with what others may think that we censor ourselves to not be as open or as forthcoming to the ideas and visions that we are given by God. That is not to say that we will have the same experiences that Stephen had, it`s to say that we should continue to be open and not feel like we need to watch what we say because of the society we live in. This isn`t first century Israel here. One of my favorite parts of this passage was that when Stephen is beginning to get pelted by rocks he says ``Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In HIS DEATH HE ASKS that they not be held accountable for their actions, for they know not what they do. Can you imagine that? Being on the verge of death and having the heart, having the compassion to ask God that they be forgiven? This man was going to be executed by the very same people he asked God to forgive. Surely we can learn to forgive those who may tailgate us, are rude to us or give us some attitude every now and again. For if a man, who is about to be killed can do it. Why can’t we?
This leads right into the passage from John’s Gospel. Do not let your hearts be troubled for I go and find a place for you to dwell. (this implies that there are many places, that there are places available to go in Heaven). This passage is no doubt coming at a time where people are wondering about where they are going to go when they die. Whether there is enough room up in Heaven, whether they will ever truly be a part of the kingdom of God. And Jesus assures them that there is. There is more than enough room, he wants to set our minds at rest. For we read that “I am the way the Truth, and the Life. In that line by Jesus we realize that he is in fact the path to salvation and everlasting life. It is belief in Him and that all he has done and will do. He asks us to trust Him so that we may follow the Way. We need to empty ourselves of our preconceptions of what heaven may or not be like, or whether the path is least or most travelled. What we need to know is that He is the way there and he is the TRUTH.
Further along in the gospel reading Jesus of Nazareth is asked to show them the father and they will be satisfied. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? After everything Christ has done they’re asking for him to validate himself? Jesus must have been shaking his head at this point. But I’m sure we can relate to this, in fact, I know I can. I used to kind of think and be like so, God, if you’re all powerful, how about you help me get a date to Prom? Or even a date? Am I right? Jesus Christ led a life that says to us do not question who I am, for I have given my life for you in a way that not only justifies who I am but what I have been and will be. And this is exactly how Jesus responds. Had he not been with them all this time? The words he spoke were not his own but of the Father. Like the apostles, Christ has been with us every step of the way, urging us to live the life he lived and be all that we can in the world. Isn’t that beautiful? Christ is always with us and always will be.
Christ was with Stephen through the Holy Spirt as he proclaimed the vision of the heavens that he was allowed to see because of his receptiveness to the Spirit. Christ was with the apostles as they preached the Word throughout the Mediterranean and He is with each and everyone of us in each hour of the day. (Yes, he did notice that many of you didn’t floss last night).
The last verse in the reading from John reads “If you Ask in my name for anything, I will do it”. So I pray to you Lord Jesus, that you give us the strength and the courage to continue to be witnesses in your world and be a blessing to others as you have been to us. Amen.