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If anyone asks you “What do you have to say for yourself?” You need never be at a loss for words. Look at the example of Stephen!

Then the Chief Priest said, “What do you have to say for yourself?” Stephen replied, “Friends, fathers, and brothers, the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was still in Mesopotamia, before the move to Haran, and told him, ‘Leave your country and family and go to the land I’ll show you.’ Acts 7:1-4 (The Message)

I doubt the Chief Priest expected Stephen to have the nerve to lecture him on the Hebrew heritage and tradition. Stephen had been making good account of his faith to others in the city, though, and he clearly knew the foundation of his faith. His was not a belief in Jesus that came out of personal need alone, he knew that the plan of God strethched back into history, to the establishment of God’s people through Abraham. It had taken the willingness of Abraham to act in faith, following God to a destination he did not know, and trusting God completely to begin the journey. It is clear, from what we know of the Chief Priest that he was far removed from the faithful trust in God that established the nationhood of Israel, but the angelic faced Stephen sought to inspire in him a return to that faith.

The problem with speaking about Jesus today is that people, both religious and non-religious, assume that they know what that means. Our understanding of our Christian heritage can be as immovable as the Chief Priest’s understanding of his Hebrew heritage, and this stands in the way of our faith and trust in the God of our fathers. If we see God with the vision of Stephen though, we will realise the fluid movement of God through our history and heritage. If we allow a spiritual log jam to keep us from moving forward in the promise of God then, like the Chief Priest, we may become tied to our history and heritage, no matter how modern that may be, to the detriment of our living faith in Jesus.

So, as the faith of Abraham led him to let go of all he knew and found security to hold on to God let us find in Jesus a faith that moves us forward and takes others with us in the journey along with him. Amen.

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The attraction of Stephen’s life is clear, how does our life impact others?

 As all those who sat on the High Council looked at Stephen, they found they couldn’t take their eyes off him—his face was like the face of an angel! Acts 6:15 (The Message)

Despite being falsely accussed Stephen was a man of spiritual integrity. He stood before his accussers and judges an innocent man and it showed in his face. He had the face of an angel as the light of Christ shone through him in a way that drew the attention of all. He was able to meet those who would pass judgement on him knowing that he was judged rightly by God alone. He stood for the test trusting in Jesus his saviour.

I wonder how many of us would stand with him today and if our faces would shine with the presence of the Holy too? Is our commitment to Jesus for what we can get from it or is it for what we can give. If we were asked to give our all, even our lives, what would our response be like? Would we quake at the prospect of being judged by men or could we see beyond their schemes to the plan of God in eternity waiting for us?

So, today may your life shine in the presence of both friend and enemy to the glory of God and may you stand for the test, confident of the will of God in eternity for you through Jesus Christ your Saviour. Amen.

Have you ever been lied about when you have spoken the truth?

So in secret they bribed men to lie: “We heard him cursing Moses and God.”That stirred up the people, the religious leaders, and religion scholars. They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council. They put forward their bribed witnesses to testify: “This man talks nonstop against this Holy Place and God’s Law. We even heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth would tear this place down and throw out all the customs Moses gave us.” Acts 6:11-13 (The Message)

Being lied about hurts! It is like a physical assault on you and, when lies are accepted as truth, it can destroy the very fabric of your life. Those people who opposed the good news of Jesus that Stephen was actively sharing knew this. They used lies in order to bring Stephen down, they employed others to accuse him and took advantage of the confusion. Clearly, Stephen had not been saying the things they said he had, but false belief is a strong adversary.

Jesus said, ‘”You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” Matthew 5:10-12 (The Message)

If I expect my way to be without trouble then, Lord, help me to see that I need to speak more openly of you. If I am afraid of the persecution that may come from others then, Lord, make me more courageous for you. Amen.

Wow! are we in the thick of it like Stephen?

The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith. Stephen, brimming with God’s grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them. But then some men from the meeting place whose membership was made up of freed slaves, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and some others from Cilicia and Asia, went up against him trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke. Acts 6:7-10 (The Message)

‘The Word of God prospered’ is a hope in the prayers of many church leaders and committed evangelicals today. As we pray for revival the prayer is that we should see an out pouring of the Holy Spirit like the early church. I wonder though, how much  of the answer to our prayers is in the doing and not the praying! What do I mean? Well, we see that Stephen was deeply involved in the witness of the church to those who did not yet believe. Today, we may pray for revival but perhaps the key is to create opportunity by being involved.

Stephen’s confidence and charisma was such a challenge to those around him that they wanted to shut him up, but because of his God given understanding and ability to speak up for what he believed they were no match for him.

Don’t leave it up to other people today, create an opportunity and speak up for the good news of Jesus Christ!

God grant us the serenity of heart and peace of mind to give good account of the hope that is at work in us. Amen.

This is a great model for healthy church and the one (ideally) a community of Christ’s people may follow.

The congregation thought this was a great idea. They went ahead and chose— Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas, a convert from Antioch.Then they presented them to the apostles. Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task. Acts 6:4-6 (The Message)

The suggestion of the church leaders was subject to the agreement of the congregation. What was the suggestion? That there be seven of the congregation that would be chosen to serve their needs. This meant that the pastoral care of the church was given to active members. The leaders could then give their fullest attentions to making sure the gospel was preached and the congregation were discipled. It is not a common model today. Many churches, whether free, CoE, Catholic, or Orthodox, depend on the services of one or two leaders to do the pastoral care, preaching, and discipling. Some churches work like passive dictatorships with a few people making all the decisions. Neither of these are the way of the early church.

The apostle said it would be a good idea and the congregation agreed, they acted on the suggestion and appointed seven who they recognized as having the necessary gifts and abilities. The apostles accepted the choice of the congregation and prayerfully commissioned the seven for service. The psalmist wrote: ‘How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along! It’s like costly anointing oil flowing down head and beard, Flowing down Aaron’s beard, flowing down the collar of his priestly robes.  It’s like the dew on Mount Hermon flowing down the slopes of Zion. 
Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing, ordains eternal life.’ How rarely we see such ‘best practice’ and such unity in Christ’s body today!

May we be the people in unity that God intends that we should be and may those who lead do so recognizing that the body of Christ need to play an active part in their life together in him. Amen.

Here’s a lesson for the aspiring church leaders among you, increase in numbers doesn’t necessarily mean harmony.

During this time, as the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—”Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines. So the Twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, “It wouldn’t be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we’ll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we’ll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God’s Word.” Acts 6:1-4 (The Message)

Do we live in isolated faith communities that find it hard to accomodate those who are different from them? Conforming to the expectations of the established group seems to be the way many churches operate. If a person comes to faith then, very soon, they learn the language and culture of the church in which they come to faith. I don’t think this is what Jesus intended his people to do! The apostles met with the disciples to try to sort out their issues. What should they do about the ‘Hellenist’ widows who were being treated as lesser Christians in the community? Well, they gave the responsibility of looking after everyone equally to others in the community. People that were recognized as being full of the Holy Spirit and good sense! Why was this such a requirement? Well, if these people were full of the Holy Spirit then they could accept the differences and treat everyone equally because that is the nature of our creator God. He cares for all equally and doesn’t need us to conform to a dominant culture of tribe or church. His kingdom is one of justice and peace for all who come and recieve it freely by his grace. If they also had good sense then they would not be so willing to give ground to the nonsense of their church.

So, may we be full of the Holy Spirit to accept the differences around us and see the breadth of God’s creative power in all and may we have the good sense to reject the nonsense that seeks to marginalize and conform others to its way. Amen.

It seems like the apostles just wouldn’t listen to sense!

That convinced them. They called the apostles back in. After giving them a thorough whipping, they warned them not to speak in Jesus’ name and sent them off. The apostles went out of the High Council overjoyed because they had been given the honor of being dishonored on account of the Name. Every day they were in the Temple and homes, teaching and preaching Christ Jesus, not letting up for a minute.  Acts 5:40-42 (The Message)

Gamaliel’s words saved their lives but the religious council still had the apostles whipped. They warned them not to speak about Jesus. Truth be told I think I would find it a bit off putting if I was beaten and warned by powerful people not to speak about Jesus. The apostles, however, were happy to have been mistreated for the sake of his name.

It is easy to see that the Christianity most of the church in the West aspouse is a soft representation of the apostle’s faith. We are slow to speak out and quick to be silenced by public opinion or political correctness. There is good cause for us to stop being such a soft target and to firm up our position. We don’t have to actively seek to cause offence in order to stand up for the cause of Christ. In fact, we aren’t to be offensive but, if we are true to our faith and honest to the gospel, there will be times when people would rather we kept quiet.

So, may we be quick to speak out in the name of Jesus and slow to seek to create offence, but when we are standing for the name let us be bold to speak, even when good sense says be quiet. Amen.

The religous rulers got into a rage when Peter told them the truth, it was them that had murdered Jesus and God had then raised him from the dead!

When they heard that, they were furious and wanted to kill them on the spot. But one of the council members stood up, a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel, a teacher of God’s Law who was honored by everyone. He ordered the men taken out of the room for a short time, then said, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you do to these men. Not long ago Theudas made something of a splash, claiming to be somebody, and got about four hundred men to join him. He was killed, his followers dispersed, and nothing came of it. A little later, at the time of the census, Judas the Galilean appeared and acquired a following. He also fizzled out and the people following him were scattered to the four winds.  “So I am telling you: Hands off these men! Let them alone. If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, there is nothing you can do about it—and you better not be found fighting against God!” Acts 5:33-36 (The Message)

One man kept his cool! Gamaliel was an older and respected member of the religous ruling council. While the others were raging he kept his cool. Previous experience had told him that if something was a passing fad led by someone who wasn’t the Messiah then it would fade away. Thank goodness for his insight and presence of mind. Because God had placed Gamalial in a position to influence others he saved the apostles lives!

It is sometimes hard to comprehend for churched Christian folk that God does have influence in the broader picture. The times when we talk to people and they turn out to be the most unlikely ‘supporters’ or at least tolerant of the gospel. We should be more courageous in speaking out for Jesus as God is already there, already working his plan, already influencing the outcome, already shaping the big picture.

May we take our steps to speak courteously and respectfully to all of Jesus knowing that our God has been at work there long before we arrived or opended our mouths to speak. Amen.

Who is boss of you?

Bringing them back, they stood them before the High Council. The Chief Priest said, “Didn’t we give you strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name? And here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are trying your best to blame us for the death of this man.” Peter and the apostles answered, “It’s necessary to obey God rather than men. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, the One you killed by hanging him on a cross. God set him on high at his side, Prince and Savior, to give Israel the gift of a changed life and sins forgiven. And we are witnesses to these things. The Holy Spirit, whom God gives to those who obey him, corroborates every detail.” Acts 5:27-32 (The Message)

When people have power, authority, position, we can be afraid of them. I know that if I come into contact with civil authorities I am conscious of their power to affect my life. I am subject to British law, which is a good thing, but I am only subject to the law as far as it does not contradict the requirement on me to be a follower of Jesus.

We live in a privileged society where speaking of faith is not restricted by law. If we wish to preach on the street or witness the love of God to others personally we are free to do so. Does such a liberty make us a little complacent though? Do we assume that people already know, that someone else will tell them, or that our friends will find their way to faith somehow, without our needing to face the embarrasment of telling them? Let this be a warning to us, when we are called to account for our faith, whether by those with powerful positions in society or by any enquiring mind, we are to do so gladly. as the Bible says 1 Peter 3:15 ‘But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’,

So may we always speak with gentleness and respect when asked to speak of our faith but may we be courageous in making Christ known so that others may experience the immense joy of knowing his saving grace through his sacrificial love. Amen.

When God creates the circumstances then we can rely on it being a challenge to others!

Just then someone showed up and said, “Did you know that the men you put in jail are back in the Temple teaching the people?” The chief and his police went and got them, but they handled them gently, fearful that the people would riot and turn on them. Acts 25-26 (The Message)

The challenge to the crowd was clearly one that appealed to them, but the Temple guard still wanted to bring the apostles in to answer to the Chief Priest. Instead of treating them harshly, though, because of the support of the people that made them fear a riot, the guards treated the apostles more gently.

If we are faithful to follow the will of God and go as he instructs us, to share our life and witness in Christ with others, then we can rely on the good favour of people (Ezra 7:27-28; Proverbs 16:7; Luke 2:52; Romans 12:18). Persecution of Christian faith rarely comes from individuals but from society, culture, institutions, and government. Whether people follow Jesus as a believer does not exclude the recognition that those who do follow Jesus do have an appeal and a value in a healthy society.

May we live following Jesus and enjoy the favour of God and people while standing firm against the injustices of culture, society, institutions, or governement whether against people of faith or the voiceless and powerless of our world. Amen.

July 2010
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