7/3/16 - Framed - Stephen

The Bridge Life Connection

Framed: Stephen                                                                                             Sunday, July 3, 2016

Speaker: Justin Douglas, Lead Pastor

Well, hello and good morning again. This is our final Sunday in our series titled Framed. We see injustices all around us. It does not take long watching the news to see injustices, right? Small and large. Even in our lives, we see injustices all around us. And we desire a few things. We desire to know the truth about what's happening in those injustices. Usually maybe there's like shadowy stuff happening, and we want to know what the real thing that's happening behind what we're seeing is, and so we want the truth to be illuminated. We want to know why this is happening. We want to know who's wrong in a situation. We want to know how it can be made right.

And through this series we've talked about how even shows, many shows, have this theme of justice woven in and out. Very popular TV shows that we watch like CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, etc., Making a Murderer, which is a big, huge Netflix show, all the new O.J. Simpson stuff that's been coming out lately is all themed around the idea of justice. Was he guilty or innocent, right? And it's like why do we care about this when this happened so long ago? Because something about us yearns for justice, things to be made right. I remember growing up, my parents are here today, I remember growing up and my Dad would always have Matlock on, and we'd watch Matlock. Right? And so maybe you remember that. That's a show with the theme of justice woven throughout it. You might even see some characters in that who are clearly framed, and then Matlock you know got 'em off. You know, like that's awesome, right? When you're like at the very end, like, truth wins in the end kind of type deal. And we love that. Something about us is tuned into those stories where there's resolve at the end and there's justice.

Here's what we've been saying through this whole series, though. That's not an accident that we're drawn to stories where injustice happens and then resolution happens because the wrong is made right. It's part of the reality that you and I are not an accident. We were created in the image of God, and the image of God desires to redeem the brokenness, to restore the injustice. And so when you find yourself in a place where injustice is being done to you, you long for it to be made right. When it's not even being done to you, but it's being done to someone else, you could even see that and say, 'That is wrong; that needs to be made right.'

Something within us desires for things to be made new. This is not an accident. That's what we've been talking about through this whole Framed series - it's not an accident. But we live in the here and now in a very broken world, and daily we navigate all kinds of injustices. It could be your co-worker, it could be your boss, it could be your family; we could go on and on about all the injustices small and maybe even large that you might have to navigate in a day or in a week or in a month.

So the last three biblical characters we talked about are characters who are persecuted, even killed, for false reasons. And now we're going to continue. Even from where we left off last week, we talked about Jesus last week, and Jesus was crucified. As we pick up the story there, three days later Jesus rose from the dead, resurrection, this is what we celebrate on Easter, and Jesus is with the disciples for a little bit. And then He says, "I must leave so that one greater than Me can come," and at this point one greater than Him is the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus ascends. Shortly after this is what we call the Day of Pentecost. This is the day where the Holy Spirit comes. "And all the disciples were in one place," is what the passage tells us. And then what we see is by the end of this day, they add 3,000 to their number.

Think about that real quick. Let's say, you know, we're here at The Bridge, and we're having a typical Sunday, and by the end of the Sunday, we add 3,000 to our number. Can we just talk about how that's going to change a lot of things, right? Like that would be crazy! Could you imagine how that might have been on this day? There's a reason we celebrate this day. And they kept growing from there.

So this growth came with all kinds of new challenges and needs that the church had to fulfill. And so they would distribute food to the widows, okay? They shared a lot of things. Now in distributing food for the widows as they continued to grow, this put all kinds of pressure on the leaders, the disciples. The disciples were the only real leaders. Also they were in charge of spreading the Gospel, teaching, ministering, again to people who maybe never met Jesus, maybe didn't know Jesus. So they're like saying 'Jesus said this, Jesus said this.' They're the ones who were right there while Jesus shared that parable, and so everyone wants to go to them and hear from them. 'What did He say? What did He mean when He said this? What does this mean?'

And so they're constantly teaching. But then also on top of all that, they're in charge of distributing food. {laughs} They've got a lot going on. We're talking in charge of distributing food, we're talking that could be a daily thing that they have to go back to, and here's the deal. You have different widows in different classes of Judaism, and when certain widows feel like they're getting neglected for the other ones, it creates a problem, and this is exactly what happens. There's this problem of 'Are they favoring one group of people over the other group of people?' And probably what's happening is they don't have time to pay attention to the details. They're just like, 'We are just so overwhelmed with all the stuff we have to do.'

And so they say, 'Let's appoint seven new leaders.' The primary immediate function of these people, they need to be godly, but the primary immediate function is that they're going to serve these widows, and they're going to be the food center. They're going to be the food bank, kind of, of the first century church. And the name of these individuals in the Greek is Diakaneo. This is where we get the word deacon. If you've ever wondered what the biblical function of a deacon is, it's a food pantry. Like, that's what we see here in the text.

And so this is happening right after Jesus ascends. This is all happening pretty quickly. And so what happens after this story, they install these seven deacons. One of them is named Stephen. This is the one we will be focusing on today. After the disciples create this position, this position of deacon, they install these seven people into this leadership position under them, then the number of followers of Jesus increases again. Another big one. But there's this crazy detail that the text says. This is in Acts. It says, "A large number of priests became obedient to the faith." Let me say that again. "A large number of priests became obedient to the faith." So priests are becoming followers of Jesus now.

Now, this is awesome for the church. They're reaching all different people in their time and place. This is also dangerous for the church. Here's what I mean. We talked about this a little bit last week about the history and the time and place, so if you missed that message, you can go back and listen to a little bit of the historic context of what's happening here.

But for the religious leaders of Jesus's day, for those who ran the temple, to see some of their priests begin to leave the temple and begin to worship with the church, this was like a slap in the face. Not only...in two ways: 1) because it created instability within the religious system. To see a priest walk away meant that priest probably had people who followed him. What's happening? Why are these people leaving? That was one piece. The other piece was the piece of stability as far as doctrine. Oh, my goodness, look at this. This new movement of followers of Christ is threatening us. So this is dangerous for the church. They're starting to actually convert priests from the temple to join them. This is infuriating.

So here's where we pick up the story. This is all what's happening, okay? Jesus has died, resurrected, ascended, Holy Spirit comes down, the church grows so rapidly that they have to install these new people called deacons, these new people called deacons start distributing food. In their distributing of food, they're even converting priests, like priests are coming to the faith, and here's the story of Stephen.

"Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the synagogue of freedmen as it was called, Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria, as well as the provinces of Sicily and Asia, who begin to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke."

So he performs these great signs and wonders, and this is a picture of the Spirit is at work in the life of Stephen at this time. And that same Spirit that lived in the life of Stephen, just so we know, so we can be clear, lives in you and I. Sometimes we don't think about the power of God. The power of God, even at the end of this passage, where it says that the Spirit gave him words to speak even, gave him wisdom. That same Spirit is alive in you and me.

Now there's this one interesting part of this passage that says 'synagogue of the freedmen,' and I want to just unpack that for a quick second. There were Jewish people who were held captive under Pompey, okay? And we talked about this briefly last week. But these Jewish people held captive under Pompey were set free, but they lived in Rome. They were moved to Rome, they were captive, taken to Rome. They ended up setting up homes in Rome, living there. But they built their own synagogue in Jerusalem. So they had their own place of worship. So there's all these different sections of Judaism, they build their own.

Instead of losing their religion while living in Rome around all the pagan worship, they actually became more and more zealous for their faith while they lived amongst the pagans. And so they would come back to Jerusalem, and they would see their fellow brothers and sisters that were Jewish living amongst pagans there, and like allowing for some of the pagan worship or being, you know, maybe too liberal, you might say. Does that make sense? And they would freak out. They would lose it. They would be like, 'No! We need to be this!' And like 'Rowr!' And so, rowr, right? {laughing} And so...that's the doctrinal term for it actually. No, I'm just kidding. And so they would be upset and this would cause friction.

So by the way, these people aren't only in friction with like Christians, they're in friction with even their Jewish brothers and sisters. But here, they come across Stephen. Jesus has recently died; this is a new movement. They've recently gotten their numbers like moving to where people are actually noticing who they are, and they get into a conversation, and Stephen's like, 'No, Jesus was the Messiah.' And they're probably like, 'No way. No, he wasn't, blah blah blah blah blah. The Messiah doesn't die. The Messiah's a king. He sets up a throne, He rules the world, He defeats Rome, that's how it works.' And like, and so there's this argument that ensues, and it seems that Stephen kind of wins the argument. That's the way it ends. He was given wisdom.

But here's how the story continues. "Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." So they persuaded some men to say that. That's important, okay? "So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses who testified, 'This fellow never stopped speaking against the holy place and against the law, for we have heard him say this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.'" And so the plot against Stephen begins. It begins largely out of fear. Fear that our doctrine is being changed, things are different now, this is not okay, what they believe is not okay. Fear of the political structure falling apart. All of this fear, and how does it continue?

"All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel." Either that means he had baby skin or like light was on him, I don't know, but something was going on. "Then the high priest asked Stephen, 'Are these charges true?'" So the high priest gives Stephen a chance to respond as it would be, and Stephen responds all right. He responds and takes the whole chapter up. Okay, like, he talks for a whole chapter. He goes through all of like Jewish history, he's linking all these things together, he's talking all this stuff, like for a long time he's sharing all this different characters of the Old Testament, sharing how they connect with Jesus. I mean, it's kind of like he's filibustering his own trial. He goes on and on, okay?

And then at the very end, he kind of hammers it home. Now we're not going to do the whole chapter 7. If you would like to read that, I'd encourage you to read it. I think it's phenomenal what he says, but like we would be here for another 30 minutes if I read that whole chapter, so you maybe this week should take time to read it. But I want to fast-forward to the end of his speech. His conclusion kind of gives you an idea of what he thought of the individuals he was talking to. {laughs} Here's how it goes.

"'You stiff-necked people...'" Well, that's a good way to close. You know, they only have your life in their hands. And then he continues, "'...your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised.'" Like the imagery there is very interesting. "'You are just like your ancestors. You always resist the Holy Spirit. Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?'" Which is such an interesting statement because they celebrated the prophets, and he's pointing out was there ever a prophet you didn't persecute? In essence, 'history is on my side. You've persecuted the ones who are bringing you forward, who are revealing God, and now you celebrate the very ones you persecuted.' This is great stuff. So "'Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.'" Jesus. "'And now you have betrayed and murdered Him. You who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.'"

Now this is what you call a mic drop. This is just like, bam! Right? Like, if there was like emojis, you would see like fire emojis and 100s. Like right? Like he's keeping it 100 and this is fire ending. Like this is the way you end a speech. Here's the deal. It's not the way you end a speech if the people you're talking to have the power to kill you. Right? Like you may want to tone it down, but no he is zealous for the faith, he believes in Jesus, he believes wholeheartedly in the church. And here's the other thing. He believes that these people that he's standing before don't get the picture of God's grace. They're living under the law. They're condemning tax collectors, they're condemning prostitutes, they're walking into temples and saying, 'Oh, I'm so glad I'm not like the tax collector.' And you're just like, 'Hold on! Were we ever supposed to be prideful and boastful about our position with God?'

And so Stephen is calling them out for their pride, for the way they see themselves. Now how do you think the Sanhedrin responded? You know, maybe lean over to your neighbor and say, 'Here's what I think happened next.' Okay? I don't know, take a guess, think about it. Here we go. "When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 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. 'Look,' he said, 'I see Heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'"

Now, gnashing your teeth, in ancient culture, is a sign of judgment, it's a sign of condemnation, it's a sign that means you are sinning, and as that is happening, I am gnashing my teeth in disgust for the sin that you're doing, that you're saying. So here, you have all of these people, multiple people, close to 100 people probably in this room maybe even more depending on how many actually came to testify, and they're probably all gnashing their teeth. Like, think about that. That is a scary scenario. And this is happening, and then Stephen is like, 'Okay, well let me say one more thing, just so you know, right now I see Heaven opening up and I see God and I see Jesus seated at His right hand.'

How do we think this is going to go over? {laughing} Right? Like, maybe just let them gnash their teeth and like just get out of here, you know, maybe with a beating, but you know, the point is is that Stephen is very interested in saying, 'I'm going to challenge your doctrine. I'm going to challenge your belief here.' The belief that God is somehow only in the temple. The belief that Jesus is not the Son of God. The belief that Jesus was not this figure that literally brought grace, that ushered in a new era of how to know God. If you believe that, I've got to challenge that. So he even challenges it in the vision that he says he's seeing.

"At this, they covered their ears and yelling at the top of their voices." Kind of like have you ever had someone you've walked up to and you've been like, 'Hey, have you seen the new...whatever TV show's on," and they're like, "La la la la la la la la! Don't want to hear it!" Or it's like a baseball score. I'll never forget the World Cup was on once, and I was like in the back of church for like an evening service, and I was checking the score, and I checked the score and the guy in front of me had like the USA shirt on, and I was like, 'Hey, man, just so you know the update, we're up 4-0,' and he's like 'Ohhhhhh, I'm DVRing it!' Like I was like, 'I'm so sorry! I can't take it back!' Like you know, so you know the moment when you're like out but I'm like ready to put my fingers in my ears and no one can tell me. Like that's what they're doing now. Now they're like, 'La la la la la la la, we don't want to hear it. We don't want to hear any more of your blasphemous words that you have to say because you're challenging the imagethat  we have of who God is. We live in a box, and the box we've created for who God is is good and it's fine and we do not want to be challenged. You're challenging it, Stephen, and it's not okay.'

"So they covered their ears, yelling at the top of their voices. They rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him." Now this is pretty serious actually, because capital punishment really wasn't something the Sanhedrin did. They might find someone guilty, but then what they would do is take them to Rome and get Rome to handle it. At this point in history, we don't see a ton of capital punishment going through the Sanhedrin. But here's the deal. There's no vote. It's not like they pause and say, 'Let's vote on this. Let's vote and let's say he's going to die.' Like they are overcome with such emotion that they rush him out.

There's an interesting mention of this new character in this story while this is happening. This is the next verse. Meanwhile, while the stoning is happening, "The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul." Interesting. The character named Saul seems to be in some level of authority. People are coming and laying their coats at his feet, and he's the only name that's mentioned outside of everyone else in the story. They're just mentioned as teachers of the law or Pharisees, but here we actually have a name. So, very interesting.

Now, as he's being stoned, what is his response to this injustice that he's absorbing? "While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' 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." Now, "fell asleep" is an ancient way of saying he died, so his final words were, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Stephen follows the example of Jesus on the cross. Think about that. Envision it. Take a moment. Like imagination is needed when we dive into these stories in the Bible. Like maybe you need to close your eyes, maybe you can do it with your eyes open, but think about the scene of all these hundreds of people picking up stones and throwing them at Stephen and the terror that he must feel in that moment as he knows how this is going to end. Place yourself in his shoes. And he looks over to Saul, and he says, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And he looks at all of them and says, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

This is a powerful, powerful statement. Why? Why would Stephen say this? Because Jesus showed him a different way, a different way to respond to the injustices of his time. In the face of persecution, not to get bitter, not to hope the worst for the person that's treating you unfairly, but to forgive. And to even go as far, not just to forgive, but to beg God not to hold the sin against them. That's deeper than forgiveness. Forgiveness is just about me letting go. I'm actually inquiring of God to say 'Please let go of this person's sin. Please forgive them of it.' I don't know how this is possible, right? Like some of you are like, 'How is this possible?' Our nature, everything about your and my nature, is self-preservation. So the moment we begin to be in that place of knowing that our death is coming and it's coming at the hands of someone else, curses are what we say.

Here's how, here's one story of how interesting it is in the Bible even. The disciples are following Jesus, they've been following Him almost three years at this point, and they come to a city in Samaria and they're not offered shelter and housing. And in not being offered shelter and housing, two of the disciples say, 'Jesus, should we pray to God that fire comes down and just burns up this whole city since they didn't offer us a place to stay?' They just didn't offer you a place to stay, and you want to burn down their houses, kill their village, kill the kids. Like you're just...that is the natural human response to injustice, to feeling like you were treated unfairly, that is the natural human response. Jesus shows us a different way. Stephen, very close to Jesus, says that's a realistic model for following Jesus, even though it seems so outside of the realm of realistic.

Now, Stephen's dead. Stephen is only mentioned in this chapter and a half of the Bible. Really, I mean, he's referenced back to that portion of his story throughout the New Testament, but really he's not like a huge character like some of the other New Testament characters. He takes up a chapter and a half, but I believe Stephen is one of the greatest characters in the entire New Testament. I believe his prayer is a game-changer in the movement of Christ. Let's read what happens after Stephen dies. Here's how it goes. "And Saul approved of their killing him," (Stephen.) "On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him, but Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison."

Remember the church was growing. We know there were over 3,000, and so now they have this big following and all of a sudden, a great persecution breaks out against them. This event creates all of this drama, all of these problems. Much of the church packs their bags and become refugees right away. Like right away, they're gone. They go out into the Judean countryside, they go out into Samaria, out into places where they might not even be welcome. But they're clearly not welcome in Jerusalem anymore because Saul is bent on persecuting them. So right here, we see Saul's character. And let's be honest, our nature might say, 'Saul needs to be stopped, he needs to be killed, he's doing damage, he killed Stephen, he's persecuting more.' You'd probably find no greater link to a modern-day terrorist than Saul in the Bible, in the New Testament at least. Saul is terrorizing the early church. Terrorizing. But Stephen prayed for Saul.

One of the most interesting things about the early church was their hope that even the people who are farthest from God could somehow, somehow be redeemed. Somehow that any person, any person, no matter what their circumstance, could encounter the grace of God and it could change their life. They might say something like God is that loving, God is that forgiving, God's grace is that powerful, that even if you're that far from God, even if you're Saul, maybe...maybe God can get to him. And certainly we believe that at The Bridge. We believe no matter your past, your present, that hey, God is that loving, God is that forgiving, and God's grace is that powerful, that it can transform your life.

And here's why I believe the early church believed it...because they had enough stories in their midst that they knew that dude used to be very different than he is now. And I think we have enough stories in our midst that we know, wow, we used to be very different. And this is why the Bible talks about new creation. There's this newness that comes about. We're never beyond the reach of God. I also believe, and I think we believe at The Bridge, there's power in prayer. Prayers get answered. It can even be miraculous. I believe God answered Stephen's prayer.

Saul had an encounter with Jesus while he was persecuting the church. Saul's encounter with Jesus transformed him. Maybe some of you know this, but Saul then later changed his name to Paul. Paul is the second-most popular character of the New Testament, probably, wrote nearly half the New Testament. When we look back at the story and we say 'How do we respond? How do we respond when being wronged?' What if we look at Stephen and say here's an example, a Biblical example of what it looks like to say, 'God, please, please don't hold this sin they did against me against them. Don't hold it against them because I believe You can redeem them.'

The boss that is unfair, throws all kinds of work your way and lets other people slide? Hey, God, don't hold this sin against them. I know You can transform them, I know You can change their heart. The family member that just is constantly treating you unfairly? How do you navigate those waters? Now we certainly need to be processing and saying I need to have healthy relationships, but even in that, how do we say I'm going to choose forgiveness instead of bitterness? I'm going to choose to let God control this because if I pray this type of powerful prayer, I could see something amazing.

Here's my question today for us to wrestle with: If Stephen doesn't pray that prayer, does Saul meet Jesus on the road? Prayer changes things; we believe that. Prayer is powerful. Stephen prayed for that. We need to have these types of prayers when we encounter injustice. So...if we are being wronged, how do we apply this? We pray. We pray for the person, we pray for our hearts to have a posture of forgiveness toward the people who wronged us, even the slightest wrongs like we've talked about in this series. Even being cut off on the road and that first word that comes out of your mouth, saying alright, I know that's part of my character that I come out with that word right away when I get cut off, but how do I start to create within me a posture of forgiveness where that moment I get cut off I maybe say you know what? Maybe that mom in front of me who just cut me off is having a really tough day and start actually making excuses for them. Start actually saying, you know what? I've probably cut people off in my life when I'm driving. Let me bless them instead of curse them. How do we create that posture in our heart? I think that's so important.

Secondly, maybe you're here in this room and you've done wrong to others. Maybe you identify more with Saul than you do with Stephen. And I want to remind you: we all have guilt, we all have shame, all of us have some actions that we're not proud of that we know were wrong. And the truth is God is that loving, I don't care what it is; God is that forgiving, I don't care what it is; God is that powerful...forgiveness is possible. Redemption is possible. New life is possible. So follow Jesus because Jesus transforms us into a new creation.

Now...injustice is all around us; we're not going to get away from it. But how we interact with it really deeply effects our faith. And so I hope through this series we've seen that sometimes God is using the injustice to even shape our identity like we saw with Joseph. Sometimes God is teaching us to be faithful through the injustice like we saw with Daniel. Sometimes God is reminding us that forgiveness is so incredibly vast, it is even for the Roman soldier with the hammer and the nail like we saw in the story of Jesus. And sometimes God is reminding us that our response to injustice deeply matters and can have a huge impact on others like we've seen today in Stephen. So may you find that your response to even the smallest injustices is spiritual. May you grow to have a posture of forgiveness when you're wronged, and may you find that God has given you models that pave a different kind of road, a road that hopes the best even for those who have wronged you. Let's pray.

Good and gracious God, we come to You, we come to You powerless. We recognize that when we are wronged our first response is to get bitter, to hold it against that individual. Lord, we pray that You would do transforming work within us. Put us in situations where we can take steps toward a posture of forgiveness, where our first response can be to forgive when we encounter injustice. I want to especially remember and lift up right now those in the room who have had a deep hurt against them...much more than being cut off in traffic. Lord, I pray that they would remember that You are with them even as they process that hurt. I pray that Your presence, Your comfort, would be on them as even they continue to feel the scars or pain of that hurt that they experienced. And I pray that You would even be working with them to choose forgiveness. Lord, we go through this world, we encounter difficult things, but even in our encountering difficult things, we create difficulties for others. Make us self-aware where we've hurt others, and allow us to come to You with repentance, to repent, to say we're broken, we made a bad choice in that situation because we know Your grace is enough. We know that You desire to forgive us. We know that You desire to make within us a new creation. You would love to see us live fully as image-bearers of You, and so may we boldly choose that. In the name of Jesus, amen.