Sunday, May 18, 2014

Prayer and the Martydom of Stephen

The Stoning of St Stephen by Rembrandt
courtesy Wikimedia
Stephen is hauled up before the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – accused of blasphemous teaching against Moses and against God.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit , he tells the story of Israel, from Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, and how often Israel had rejected God’s messengers and his Law. He concludes:
Stiff-necked and un-circumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit – as you fathers did so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? They killed the ones announcing beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered – you who received the Law as delivered by angels, and did not keep it!”
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart , and they gnashed their teeth at him.  But being filled with the Holy Spirit and gazing up to heaven, he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said “Look! I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God!”  But they cried out with a loud voice and closed their ears and rushed with one accord on him, and casting him out of the city they stoned him; and the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And kneeling down he cried with a loud voice “Lord, do not hold this sin against them .” And saying this, he fell asleep

I was asked to preach this Sunday at Church and this was the first of the set readings. The other was John 14:1-14. Jesus is in the Upper Room talking to his disciples
 “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God, and trust in me. In my father’s house there are many rooms  if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also can be where I am. And you know the way to the place where I am going”.
Thomas said to him “Lord, we do not know where you are going , how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered “I am the way and the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known  me, you would have known my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say ‘Show us the Father’?  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own, but it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me because of the works themselves. Truly, Truly I tell you, anyone who trusts in me will also do the works that I’m doing ; In fact they will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father!  And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son . If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

Wow! In the sermon I tried to explore three questions:
  1. What does Jesus mean by this?
  2. What did it mean in the life of Stephen?
  3. What does it mean for us?
Before we go any further there is just one point we should clear up. The NIV had three errors in its translation of this passage, two of which were corrected in the 2011 edition but they still have “You may ask”  instead of “if you ask”. This is simply wrong, the Greek is perfectly clear, every other translation I can find gets this right, and I’ve no idea why they do this.  All translations have their advantages and disadvantages but for anything difficult you should never rely on any one translation or commentary. (While we’re about it, the “me” is optional - two of the earliest MSS omit it as does the RSV and it may have slipped in through copying   and a few omit the whole of verse 14.)

25 times in John Jesus says ”Amen, Amen” “Truly, Truly I say to you…” The other Gospels simplify it to one Amen but there is good reason to suppose that this was what Jesus said when he wanted to emphasise something particularly.  Jesus language is often quite poetic, especially in John, and in Hebrew poetry you say the same thing in slightly different ways. (Your kingdom come – your will be done on earth as it is in heaven).

Jesus goes on immediately (v15) to explain this further: “If you love me you will keep my commands, and I will ask the Father and he will give you another helper to be with you forever” This other helper is the Holy Spirit, so that (v 20) “you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”  He goes on (Ch 15) “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

“my words remain in you ” means a lot more that simply remembering what Jesus said. It means even more than “you live by my teaching”.  The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). The sense is captured quite well by the hymn:
“Breathe on me breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.”
So when we ask “in Jesus name” we are able to do so because the Holy Spirit works within us to open our hearts and minds to what Jesus wants us to ask.   “In Jesus name” means when we are remaining in Jesus, in his love, as a branch of his vine, with the Holy Spirit working within us and helping us pray as Jesus wants us to pray.”

Which brings us to Stephen. When we meet him in Acts 6 he is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (v5) He does “great wonders and signs among the people” and his arguments for the Gospel are based on “wisdom and the Spirit” (v10).  He’s hauled up before the Sanhedrin and his face was like the face of an angel. He tells them the story of Israel and of God’s wonderful plan for rescuing creation through Israel and his Messiah, the Righteous One, denouncing them for resisting the Holy Spirit. When they heard these things they were enraged – the Greek is “cut to the heart” very like the hearers of Peter in Acts 2 but with a very different result.  Stephen is “Filled with the Holy Spirit” (v55). They rush on him, cast him out of the city and stone him.

And he prays . First he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”  He’s dying. He is in Jesus, Jesus is in him, and he is offering himself up to Jesus in union with him – just as Jesus offered up his spirit to the Father.  And he kneels and cries with a loud voice “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In Luke Jesus says “father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and later “Cries with a loud voice “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” But with Stephen the order is reversed. Everyone standing by would have heard his loud cry – certainly including Saul.

The immediate result was …. a disaster for the church. Acts goes on  “ A great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered…except the apostles…. Saul ravaged the church, entering house by house, dragging both men and women to prison.  Apart from anything else, the Jews were not allowed by the Romans to put a man to death. Complaints from the Christians to Pilate would have been very awkward for the Sanhedrin.  Better get these trouble-makers out of the way.

But those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8 tells of Philip (who asked Jesus “Show us the Father”) proclaiming the gospel in Samaria and to the Ethiopian Eunuch. There are now 40-45M members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  Tradition tells that Thomas ended up in India – indeed I have an Indian Christian friend whose family can trace its descent to one of the Indians originally converted by St Thomas.  There are now 25-50M Christians in India. The population of Palestine in Jesus’ day was probably about 200,000. The Church at the beginning of Acts is about 120 people. Acts 9 has Saul “Still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” on the road to Damascus – and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Stephen asked Jesus. In Jesus name. And Jesus acted, and continues to act throughout history. Stephen in his lifetime never saw the results of his last prayers and witness, and so it often is with us. We must do our part, but only God sees the picture as a whole. Yet occasionally we catch a glimpse of part of it – and what a magnificent picture it is.

So what does this mean for us?
  1. Practice We must learn to pray in Jesus name.
  2. Resilience We must not be discouraged or, guilty, when our prayers are not answered the way we would like, even when we feel sure God wants what we want.
  3. Always. We ought always to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1).
Practice. Jesus makes it clear we should pray at least once a day and always pray to align our wills with God’s. “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We need to continually open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, continually mediate on his words so that we remain in him and he in us – so that his words remain in us.

Resilience. Prayer is not magic or a performance. God does not count prayers or weigh them – he listens to them. 

Even when we pray for something to happen that would be very good, that we are as sure as we can be is something that God wants, sometimes this doesn’t happen.  It can be agonizing. And we are tempted to think – it’s only human nature – “If only we had prayed harder”  If only we had been better people.  Well of course we can and should become better people and more prayer would always be good.  But Jesus does not say “if you are a very good person, I will do it.”  Jesus knows that every day we will have committed sins that need forgiveness.   Even the apostles had situations where they prayed for healing with no result (Mat 17:19+ Mark 9:28+)

Jesus himself prayed earnestly that he might avoid the agony of crucifixion.  God could have delivered him miraculously – just as John tells us Jesus avoided a fate similar to Stephen’s when he had enraged a crowd in the synagogue and they took him to be stoned.  Stephen could have prayed that he would be miraculously delivered, or acquitted, or indeed that the Sanhedrin would have been convinced by his eloquence.

Let us not forget though that God has miraculously rescued Jesus, and Stephen, through the resurrection. And  that those who we love who have died in Christ , where they remain in him and he in them,  as Stephen did, are said in the Bible to have “fallen asleep” because of the sure and certain promise of the resurrection.

Always. Jesus taught his disciples that they should always pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1 )

This is surprisingly difficult. I’ve been a Christian all my life and I find it embarrassingly hard to pray on a regular daily basis. Every Jew was expected at least to say the Shema:  “Hear O Israel, The LORD is our God The LORD is one.”   at morning and evening.  Jesus clearly expects his followers to pray at least once a day along the lines of the Lord’s prayer.  It’s important to set aside time to pray but it’s also good to pray in times which are not set aside. Apparently Justin Welby prays when he is running – and obviously at many other times too! Prayer is a bit like running – runners do it to make ourselves fitter and to prepare for the race, to use an image St Paul seemed to favour.

 Incidentally there’s a terrific interview with Justin after coming back from South Sudan and visiting the appalling massacres there, on YouTube. He says “We must be battering at the gates of heaven, remorseless and unceasing prayer. As we pray our minds and hearts are shaped by the wisdom and power of the Spirit of God, and as we pray we engage with God in the struggle against human evil.”

The race for which we are training is not in a stadium, going round and round in laps. It is a road race.  When Jesus says “You know the way to the place where I am going” the word he uses, odos means road or way.  Everywhere in the NT when we hear road or way the original readers hear odos and the original term for Christianity was “the way”. There are many runners ahead of us – Stephen is presumably the first finisher – and many behind us. And all who finish receive the prize – the laurel in Biblical times, the medal in ours.

So it seems to be rather like – a marathon.

To conclude, we need to pray: Practice, Resilience, Always, faithfully remaining, like Stephen, in the way, the truth and the life which is Jesus himself. 

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