Sunday, June 26, 2011

A down-to-earth Trinity - Stephen's Story

Today, I have a text.

Acts 7:55

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

What do you make of the trinity?

Are you drawn to mathematical conundrums?

Three in one and one in three?

What about a pictorial representation – three overlapping circles in a kind of venn diagram?

What about an ancient philosophical way of putting it … three persons, one substance?

What do you make of the trinity?

If God is love – there is within the very nature of God a dynamic of love – God Father – Son – Holy Spirit.

If you have any awareness of the liturgical year you will have noticed I marked Pentecost Sunday and celebrated the Holy Spirit, but as for the Sunday after – I ignored it, Trinity Sunday.

Too difficult. Not important.

Actually, I have come to value more and more the trinity at the heart of our faith … I do believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But I guess I find it something difficult to explain.

In a sense I prefer to start with the reality on the ground. I prefer to start with stories, real stories, of real people.

One of the stories that still sets my spine tingling is the story of the first Christian Martyr, Stephen. It’s a story I remember being told vividly when I was quite small. It has always made an impact on me.

There’s something about the story of Stephen that to my mind goes to the very heart of what the faith is all about to me - it is a three dimensional, living faith that finds its focus in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Stephen had an incredibly strong sense of the reality of God. The God whose involvement with people is told in the great narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 of Acts is a wonderful re-telling of the heart of the Old Testament story. There are a number of points in the New Testament where the Old Testament story is played back. This is one of them.

It’s a great speech.

If you want to tell a story you need to have a really strong start and know exactly where you want to finish. Stephen knew exactly where to start … and he knew at what point he wanted to finish. And that is all to do with God.

He really has a great way of telling a story … Are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin … becomes for Stephen, Brothers and Fathers, listen to me.

A hush falls over the gathering and everyone is listening. And the fist wors say it all.

The God of glory.

This is the God at the heart of Stephen’s faith. It is the God who is at the heart of my faith. This is God, the God of Glory. Glory that’s an incrediblby solid, tangible word. The Glory is made real in tangible ways in the Old Testament, often in a cloud – a really strong sense of the Glory of God.

The glory of God is real, all embracing, all powerful – but the glory of God appeared to Abraham … and then Stephen is off. For this long, long speech he recounts the way in which this God of Glory is the God who involves himself with Abraham, with Issac, with Jacob, with Jacob’s sons, with Joseph, with Moses, with Aaron … the story builds up towards a climax.

And what Stephen builds up to is the climax that this God then takes up his dwelling place with the people in a Tabernacle tent. A special place where God’s presence is released among the people. That tent is then taken by Joshua into the promised land. And the tent remained simply a tent under David. But then Solomon built a house for him.

You reach verse 47.

And that is the Temple.

The temple had been destroyed and re-built. And over the last fifty years a brand new incredibly big and glorious and powerful temple had been in the process of being built all over again.

By now the people associated the presence of God with this location, this place. And this place was all important.

But this is the point at which Stephen has reached the finish he wants to come to.

No, the reality of the God of Glory that he believes in is that this God of glory cannot be contained in any so called ‘house of God’ made with human hands.

Veses 48-50

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?”

That’s the point at which Stephen turns on the people in front of him.

They have confined God to the temple, to its rituals, in its monstrous rebuilt state … and it had become a focus in itself. This is the indictment Stephen lays against the people.

That’s the first thing – let’s start with the greatness and the glory of God and realise the God we believe in is always beyond us, never to b e tied down to human institutions. We must be so careful not to reduce this God to the human way we have of doing things.

But there is another dimension to Stephen and what he does.

As he gets to the point at the end of his speech of the God of Glory who is everywhere … he then focuses in on Jesus Christ.

The whole story of this God of Glory has been leading up to the point of its fulfilment … and the tragedy as far as Stephen is concerned is that the powers that be in Jerusalem, that element of the Jerusalem hierarchy that is firmly in collaboration with Rome, has secured the power-base of Herod’s re-built temple monstrosity, have rejected the Rigtoeus One who has come.

Jesus Christ it is who has made such a difference to Stephen that he has come to model all that he does on Jesus.

If you think about the mark Stephen makes he is one who is Christ centred, and one who embodies in all he does the very essence of Christ’s ministry.

Christ’s teaching made people things differently and brought people a fresh awareness of the reality of God … Stephen too is a powerful teacher … and we have a glimpse of that teaching here in Acts 7.

But more than that Jesus put into practice all he taught by bringing healing to the lives of those who were hurting. Stephen first emerges on to the scene when he is one of seven who are identified who are going to take on a very particular task in the early church.

Read any of the Gospels, read Acts and you cannot but be aware that the first followers of Jesus were living, as it were in two worlds, in two cultures. The story of Jesus and the early church unfolds within a Jewish world – almost all of the followers of Jesus and Jesus himself are themselves Jewish. Stephen is clearly steeped in the story of the Jewish people.

But at the same time the story of Jesus and the early church unfolds in a Gentile world, the world of the Roman Empire.

In Christ there is no difference, all are one … the barriers have come down. Now Jew and Gentile are one in Christ.

But that’s not easy. And within this first year of the church’s life the tensions break out between the Hebrews and the Hellenists, the Jewish among the church and the Gentiles.

And this has resulted in some people not being properly cared for … in particular the gentile widows were not being properly looked after. The Apostles could see the problem needed addressing … and they got the whole church community together in order to identify seven men, men they were … and that in itself is interesting as the men were to provide the help needed for those widows … and they were set aside to be servants of the church and Deacons. So alongside the teaching Stephen was essentially in a very practical, caring role – and brought healing to many.

But more than that … Stephen got the message of Jesus. No longer was God’s presence focused in the stonework of the temple … but now in the person of Christ.

Just as Christ had been condemned for his critique of the temple – the accusation is the very one levelled at Jesus – that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days – as if he were to take the place of the temple.

Stephen’s speech addresses that very issue – and locates the presence of God everywhere, and finding its focus in Christ and not in the temple.

Then it is that Stephen is taken out to be stoned to death. And at his death the words he shares echo those of Jesus on the cross. Stephen sees the glory of God … and Jesus in that glory, one with God …

Look, he said, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Lord Jesus, receive my spirit

Then comes the crunch one … for it is on the cross that the forgiveness of |Jesus comes through … and it is here at the death of Stephen that the forgiving love of Jesus shines through him as it had shone through Jesus …

Lord, do not hold this sin against them.

When he had said this he died.

But there is one dimension we have missed from Stephen’s story.

It is something that is there from the beginning of the story.

And it is the something that makes all the difference and for us who seek to grow as disciples of Christ it is the thing that will make all the difference as well.

The thing is that if we stick with the story I have told so far we will be at a loss to accomplish all we are called to accomplish. We cannot do it in our own strength.

It is difficult to see the glory of God in all things around us at times.

The world gets the better of us, and we cannot help all the people we long to help, we cannot keep to the teaching we know makes sense.

On our own we cannot do it.

But we are not on our own. And this is the third dimension to the Stephen story that is so important for us to take on board.

The seven are to be

Full of the Spirit and of wisdom

Stephen is chosen as a man ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit

Stephen was ‘full of grace and power’

He spoke with wisdom and the Spirit

IF we are to see God in all things we need faith … but we cannot have faith simply be believing harder and harder … faith is released in us by a strength and a power from beyond ourselves, the Holy Spirit of God.

If we are to live by the teaching of Christ and pass that teaching on we need wisdom but we cannot have wisdom by ourselves and in our own strength simply by studying harder it is something that grows from deep within us by the working of that unseen power and strength, the Holy Spirit.

And if we are to have the grace to be Christ to others then we cannot do it in our own strength – we need that power from beyond ourselves.

And it is a power … a strength. The very strength we need in the times of weakness we inevitably have.

One verse more than any other stands out for me in the story of Stephen.

It is vese 55

But filled with the Holy Spirit – that’s what we need to grow as disciples of Christ – that strength from beyond ourselves unseen and yet so real.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.

It is as the Spirit of God is within us that we can look beyond the world we see to the very glory of God – and how important it is to have a great big God that we know is there.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Look to God and see Jesus Christ for in Jesus Christ all the fullness of God is revealed – and he is the one who is at the centre of our faith.

That’s it … that’s the trinity brought down to earth – in the experience of this figure from the NT story … and it is how it can come alive for us … not a doctrine to be understood, or a philosophical idea to get your mind round, but a reality that makes all the difference as we seek to grow in as disciples of Jesus.

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