Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Saturday, May 28, 2011

New and Old (May 22, 2011)

1 Peter 2:2-10
2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture:
     “See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
          a cornerstone chosen and precious;
          and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
     “The stone that the builders rejected
          has become the very head of the corner,”
     “A stone that makes them stumble,
          and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
     once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Acts 6:8-15, 7:1-2, 51-60
6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”

12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” 2And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me…
51”You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

            This faith we share is both new and old. As Christians, we are part of a story God has been building with people for thousands of years. That’s the main point Stephen is making to the religious council at his trial. They accuse him of overthrowing the traditions of the Jewish faith, and he responds by telling them how Jesus is a part of the Jewish story.

            The first Christians were all Jewish. They didn’t see themselves as a new religion, just a continuation of their ancient faith. They understood Jesus as the fulfillment of the savior prophets had promised for hundreds of years. Jesus was part of the continuing story of God and Israel.

            So when the chief priest asks Stephen if he really claimed that Jesus was going to destroy the temple, he reminds the council of Israel’s story. The accusation is interesting in itself since that was one of the accusations made against Jesus. Both for Stephen and for Jesus the answer is, no, they didn’t say anything about destroying the temple. At the same time Jesus does offer access to God outside the purity and power structure of the temple.

Stephen doesn’t directly answer the charge. Instead, he reminds them that God has often sent prophets to lead and correct the people. When Moses led the people out of Egypt God promised that one day he would raise up a prophet like Moses to save the people again. Jesus is the prophet like Moses. 

Stephen reminds them that many times in the past the chosen people turned away from the law of Moses and the ways of God. He reminds them that often when God sent prophets to bring the people back to God’s path, those in power rejected the prophet. His point is that the same thing is happening again. God sent Jesus and the leaders have rejected him. As if to prove his point, instead of listening to Stephen’s words, the religious leaders put him to death.

The trouble with a passage like this is that we often put the blame the wrong place. Many Christians over the last two thousand years have blamed Jewish people for Jesus’ death and for the church’s persecution. Often we Christians have interpreted stories that criticize religious leaders as opposed to Jewish people. The issue isn’t Christians versus Jews, it’s prophetic voices versus the religious establishment.

When Stephen spoke he was criticizing his own people. He was criticizing the leaders of his own faith for rejecting God’s correction. He was speaking within his community to defend himself and accuse the religious leaders of ignoring God’s word. That’s very different from blaming a different group for the problems a religious community is having.

There are a couple of ways to learn from a passage like this today. First, we can hear Stephen’s words as if they were directed at us. That’s especially true for those in leadership, but it applies to all of us. How do we fail to listen to God’s messengers? How do we turn away from the truth? How do we reject the prophets and Jesus?

The truth is that the Jewish religious leaders acted like powerful people usually do. When they were faced with a challenge to their authority, they felt threatened and tried to defend themselves. When the Jesus showed God’s love in a new way; they worried their authority would be undermined, so they put him to death. When Stephen pointed out that rejecting prophets was nothing new, they killed him as well.

Unfortunately, Christian leaders often fall into the same temptation those earlier religious leaders did. Many times we have failed to hear the voices of prophets God has sent to correct us. Medieval reform movements within the church were met with violent persecution rather than an openness to hear God’s calling. The Protestant reformation led not only to reform, but also to new kinds of religious tyranny and deadly conflict. More recently the church has ignored prophets of equality, and Christians have used Christ’s words to seek power even through violence.

That is the way of human power. People in power try to preserve their power and usually see prophetic voices as threats. That is the way of human power, but it is not the way of Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to listen to his voice. Christ calls us to defend the powerless and to use our power to serve. Christ calls us to pull the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

The other way to learn from this passage is to see Stephen as an example for us to follow. Stephen’s ministry was mainly one of service, but whether serving or preaching the word, he bore witness to God’s love. He bore witness even though he knew he was risking his life. He stayed faithful and loving even while on trial and even during his execution.

Like prophets before, Jesus faced rejection and even death from the people who should have been most receptive to his message. In the same spirit, Stephen and others faced persecution when they told Christ’s story. Jesus and the church were a new chapter, but the story of God’s call being embraced by some and rejected by others hadn’t changed.

At the same time as the story of Jesus is part of the larger story of Israel and God, for those outside the people of Israel, Christ’s call is a new beginning. Listen again to Peter’s words: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

In general gentiles weren’t part of God’s story with Israel: as Peter puts it, they were not a people as far as Israel was concerned and they were far from God’s mercy. But when gentiles hear the message about Jesus and welcome it with joy, they become part of God’s chosen people. For gentiles, in Christ a new story begins. A story about amazing love, second chances and new life.

That story is the story of God building something new. Christ is the cornerstone, rejected by many people but chosen by God. He is a living stone, not a dead tradition. And those who follow him are also living stones being shaped and joined together into a holy house for God. The living stones, the people Christ makes into a holy building come from many different backgrounds. They are Jews and gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, gay and straight.

For many of these folks the apostles telling the story of Jesus was their introduction into God’s story. They may not have been part of that story before, but now they are welcomed in with joy and their lives take on new meanings. Everything becomes new as their lives are woven into a beautiful tapestry of love and service and redemption.

Like Stephen in Jewish tradition, some of us have been a part of the Christian story for so long we’ve never known any different. Many of us grew up in a church and sometimes take the story for granted. We can be attached to church traditions, but sometimes we loose sight of the power of Jesus to change our lives.

It that sounds familiar (be honest), listen to Stephen’s words as a heads up. Examine your heart to see if you might be turning away from God’s prophetic word for your life. Is God trying to lead you away from something you’re doing now? Is God trying to lead you toward something new? What part of you resists God’s calling? Where does the bold faithfulness of Stephen challenge you?

Maybe your story is more like Peter’s community. Maybe being here this morning is part of something new God is doing in your life. Maybe you never really knew the story about God’s love for you and for others. Maybe you’re just beginning to learn about God’s forgiveness and calling. If that’s the case, follow Peter’s advice, be eager for spiritual milk. Dig into the stories of scripture and the church. Let God form you into a spiritual community. Listen for God’s calling for your life and let yourself be changed.

Whether we’re new to Christian discipleship or well established in our faith (or somewhere in between) God’s calling is new each day. Until the day we die, God is shaping us and changing us to fit the pattern of Christ. We are part of a long story full of twists and turns. We’re part of a story of falling away and coming back. We are part of a constantly winding path guided by God’s love. God’s grace for us is amazing and the places God will lead us in the future will challenge and bless us.

Wherever you are in your faith journey, God has a word for you. We are all in this story together and we need each other. How can I help you take your next step in faith? How is God calling you in the next phase of this adventure called discipleship? What do you need to follow Christ more faithfully?

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

following the good shepherd (5.15)

Acts 2:42-47
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

John 10:1-18
1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

When this passage begins, Jesus has just healed the man born blind. Many of you know that’s a favorite passage of mine because it has a word not only about Christ’s healing, but also about how we can follow Jesus without really understanding who he is or what’s going on and how that’s OK.

In that passage and in the story of Jesus as a whole the religious leaders are not able to see Jesus for who he is. He doesn’t fit their expectations of a prophet or Messiah. He doesn’t fit into their little box, so they see him as a threat. As the ninth chapter closes, Jesus says that since the Pharisees won’t acknowledge their blindness, since they cling to their way of seeing the world, they will be accountable for their sin. Meanwhile, those who come to Jesus for healing will find forgiveness.

This chapter picks up from there. The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is gaining momentum. Here, Jesus takes the offensive. He says everyone who sneaks into the sheepfold is a thief. In other words, the leaders who seek to control the religious life of the Jewish people are imposters, pretending to be something they are not.

The sheep, the people of Israel, know the true shepherd’s voice. That’s why the crowds come out to listen to Jesus. There’s something about his voice, something about his teaching that draws them in. His words aren’t always easy, but somehow those who hear his voice know him and trust him.

The sheep instinctively follow the shepherd’s voice, but not the voice of those false shepherds. The false shepherds, the Pharisees and temple rulers have to resort to threats and power to gain a following. Plenty of leaders in the Christian church have done the same. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it’s not the way of our shepherd.