Wednesday, 30 October 2013
Acts 7:54-8:1 'An inconvenient truth'
One Friday night you have Bob and Norma, two friends of yours, over for a meal. The conversation turns to how you spend the weekend and they are fascinated that you go to church. You pluck the courage, ‘why don’t you join us this Sunday?’
So they come along to Cafe Church. Everything goes well. They enjoy the coffee, the chat and the music. That night the talk is entitled 'The Ragamuffin Gospel'; it is about how Jesus associated with those whom the religious people of that day had written off. Bob and Norma leave saying, 'we enjoyed that, we will be back next week.'
But next week things don't go so well. It is not that the coffee, chat and music weren't good. It's the message. It offends them. The talk is entitled 'Jesus loves your marriage.' It is about the holiness of God and his demands for faithfulness to our spouse. Problem is that Bob left his wife for Norma and Bob and Norma are living together without being married. Even though the talk finishes with a reminder that God is willing to forgive all our sin Bob is offended. Bob looks at you and says, 'how dare that speaker tell me how God wants me to live my life!'
We want people to know that Jesus is willing to accept us despite the mess we have made of our lives. We sing ‘Jesus take me as I am’ and we preach the Ragamuffin gospel. But when Jesus calls us he says ‘repent and believe.’ In coming to him we are turning our backs on our sin and seeking to live for him. The life of the Christian is one of continual repentance. If we come in our sin and we aren’t offered hope then we have not heard the gospel; if we come in our sin and we aren’t challenged to repent then we haven’t heard the gospel in its fullness.
As we look at this evening's passage I hope that we will hear grace and truth; comfort and challenge; forgiveness and the call to be holy.
The inconvenient truth
The truth of the matter is that if one of your goals in life is always to remain popular then Christianity is not for you. If we never want to offend then there will be many times when we have to keep our mouth shut. But at times our silence will be that guilty silence of not speaking out for the Lord.
Stephen’s speech was not easy for his listeners to take. He diagnosed them as being stiff‐necked. He claimed that they resisted the Holy Spirit. He implicated them in the death of God’s promised Messiah. Instead of falling to their knees and crying out ‘what must we do to be saved?’ they reacted with hostility. There is real venom in their hearts as they respond furiously and gnash their teeth at him.
The cross not only stands as a testimony to the sin of those people in Jerusalem in the first century, it stands as testimony to the sin of the whole world. The cross reminds us of that biblical truth that apart from Christ we are hostile to God (Rom. 8:7). It shows us how seriously God takes sin—that it took the death of his Son to satisfy God’s righteous anger. The cross brings us to a fork in the road—we either embrace what Jesus achieved for us there and find a new life or we ignore it and carry on along the path to our own destruction.
I dread how some of my friends will react when they realise that I believe that apart from Christ they are on their way to hell. I also shudder at the thought of those people who live under the false‐assurance thinking that you can be a Christian but actively resist the challenge and authority of God’s word. That is simply to be stiff‐necked and have an uncircumcised heart like Stephen’s hearers.
The evidence that we are right with God is not based on being able to name a date when you prayed a prayer. The evidence that we are right with God is found in the fact that we are depending on God for his ongoing forgiveness and co‐operating with his Holy Spirit as he makes us more like Christ in responding to God’s revealed will in the Bible. Stephen was faithful to the inconvenient truth. Are we willing to speak about the gospel even when it might offend?
The glory of dying for Christ
Earlier in Acts we can read that Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5) and that he was full of God’s grace and power (6:8). Now we read that in this time of need this fullness in the Holy Spirit intensified to equip him for this task he was about to face.
It is true to say that when God calls, he also equips. In Acts we see ordinary people being filled with the Holy Spirit and so given extraordinary courage and wisdom. If we want to speak well to that family member, neighbour, class‐mate or work‐colleague about their need of Christ then we will need to be people of prayer; for we are going to need courage and wisdom.
While his enemies looked on him with hatred 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. “Look,” Stephen said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This moment of extra‐ ordinary pressure is also the most glorious and wonderful of Stephen’s earthly life. God meets him in such a wonderful way in his hour of need.
Let’s suppose one of the children of this church came and told you that they wanted to go to northern Pakistan as a missionary. You laugh at their youthful zeal. But the desire never leaves them. They grow up and eventually make preparations to go. You are concerned for them and so you ask them to join you for coffee. ‘Don’t you realise that it is dangerous out there? Look you have a lot to offer, wouldn’t you be better serving God in a safer place?’
When did Christianity become so sanitised and domestic that we imagine that God would never call for someone to die for their faith? Why do we imagine that God’s ambitions for us would reflect the world’s ambitions for success? Why did I struggle when I heard a Christian speaker saying that he could think of nothing better for his son than that he would die as a witness to the faith? Do we imagine that Stephen’s life was wasted? Didn’t his death bring such honour to God?
What about us—would we be willing to die for Christ? ‘If I had to I’m sure I would’, we reply. But don’t we choose to forget that we are called to die for Christ every day? The Christian is called to take up that instrument of death, the cross, and follow.
When everything within us wants to gossip, but he told us to keep a reign on our tongue, we are to die for Christ. When we want to nurse bitterness, but he has commanded us to forgive, we are to die for Christ. We are to die for Christ, when we want to look after our own comfort but he calls us to serve one another. We are to die for Christ when the television program becomes unwholesome, and we know that we should change the channel. The Christian single dies for Christ when she wants to go with that guy, but says ‘no’ because he isn’t a Christian. We die for Christ when we want to blend in but tell people ‘I follow Jesus’ and so we are laughed at. We die for Christ when we realise that giving to mission matters more than upgrading our car, holiday or home.
If we are not willing to die for Christ in laying down our plans, ambitions, time and money for him why should we boast that we would give him our very lives? Ask yourself this question, ‘is there anything I will do, or not do, this week simply because I am a Christian?’ In what ways are we called to deny ourselves and take up our cross? How will we die for Christ today?
Grace abounding to the chief of sinners
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. This is the first mention of the man who will become central to the book of Acts. But what a terrible introduction! 'And Saul was there giving approval to Stephen’s death.'
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” Whatever the circumstances of the Christian’s death the comfort is that to be apart from the body is to be at home with the Lord—Jesus’ receives our Spirit. We then will wait for that glorious day when we will receive our resurrection bodies and live for ever in the new heaven and the new earth.
Finally, look at Stephen’s last glorious words. Then he fell to his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He is echoing Jesus’ words from the cross. On the cross Jesus had exclaimed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He is crying out for mercy to be shown to his executioners. When he had said this, he fell asleep—‘an unexpectedly peaceful description for so brutal a death, but one which fits the spirit in which Stephen accepted his martyrdom’ (Bruce).
John Bunyan wrote the book Grace abounding to the chief of sinners. Surely such a description could be given to the apostle Paul, who years later prayed ‘... I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed. I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him (Acts 23:19‐20).
In these verses this offer of abounding grace is spoken of in relation to those who killed Christ and stoned his witness Stephen. The grace abounding to the chief of sinners is offered to us. No matter how messed up we are each of us needs his forgiveness more than we know and his grace is greater than we have imagined.
Remember Bob and Norma? They were delighted to be reminded that God loves all people but offended to think that God might not approve of all that they do. The gospel message is both repent and believe. It is filled with inconvenient truth. It tells us that their is a problem right at the core of our lives, that ours hearts are self-absorbed, that we resist God's rule and that we deserve his judgement. Stephen was not afraid to confront his hearers with their spiritual need, and it cost him his life.
The gospel message brings comfort to those who will admit their needs. Stephen spoke words of forgiveness and one of the onlookers, Saul of Tarsus, would soon enough discover how amazing God's grace is. As one writer explains, 'the good news is that our sin is so serious that nothing less than the death of God's own son is sufficient to deal with it, and this is exactly what God has done for us.'