Sunday, 21 July 2013

Acts 7 - How do you read the Bible?

I enjoyed another evening with the Cotswold Humanists on Wednesday of this week.  Once again they were debating religion and I joined Sharon and a friend at what was a very stimulating and thought-provoking evening.

They showed a DVD of a debate between the late Christopher Hitchens, billed not just as an atheist but as an antitheist and Douglas Wilson, Minister of a Presbyterian Church in Moscow – an American evangelical.

That evening in the Echo was an account of members of PG Wodehouse’s family getting together locally to celebrate the centenary of Jeeves – it was a shared love of PG Wodehouse that broke the ice for Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson.

It was good to see that the two were engaging with each other and sharing their thoughts together, each listening to the other.

The discussion that ensued was good – and good to have an opportunity to share something of my faith with people from the Humanist group in that discussion – in a way that listens to one another.

My biggest frustration in watching a film like that is that Christopher Hitchens describes a version of Christianity he rejects that I too reject and is so very different from my understanding of the faith.  Douglas Wilson was not as I feared he might have been, but again I found his description of the Christian faith not as I would make it.

And that I found was frustrating.

One of the things that Christopher Hitchens kept on coming back to was the ugly side of the Old Testament – the viciousness and utter brutality of some of what was described there.  In his view to be a Christian was to accept the whole view of God from the Old Testament, lock stock and in a disturbing way smoking barrel.

That’s one of the things I simply do not accept.

For me there is a very real sense that the whole of the Old Testament, the Law, the Prophets and the  Writings is fulfilled in Christ.  If we as Christian people are to value the Old Testament as we should then we need to learn to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus.

That, I believe, is one of the things that Jesus shared with his disciples.  Indeed it was the most important thing he shared with the two on the Road to Emmaus and with the disciples in the upper room subsequently as he opened the Scriptures for them and showed how all the Law, all the Prophets and all the Writings find their fulfilment in him.

I have a feeling that what Jesus shared at that time then shaped the way his followers read the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

One of the things that was new about Jesus was the way he offered his followers a way of reading the Bible, the Old Testament, that some people found offensive.

I think it really is important that we grasp that there are ways of reading the Bible that we as Christians need to be aware of if we are to be true to Christ and true to our Christian faith.

How I wanted the opportunity to share those insights in the context of that discussion with Chrsitopher Hitchens.  How important it is.

One of the things I think is interesting to look out for in reading Acts is guidelines it offers for reading the Old Testament.

This comes to a head in what happens in the aftermath of the tensions that had arisen between the Hellenists and the Hebrews among the followers of Jesus.

Hellenists and Hebrews had fallen out.  The widows of the Hellenists were not receiving the support that was their due.  At the prompting of the Apostles the Church in Jerusalem set aside seven to meet those needs – it is no coincidence they were from the Hellenists community – all with Greek names.

One of their number made his mark in a way that has left its mark on the church ever since.

His name was Stephen.

Like Peter and John and others before him he faced a tough time.

He fell out with members of his own community.   The Hellenists were the Jewish people who were quite happy to take on board elements of Hellenistic culture and language.   Indeed they used Greek as their main language.   In Jerusalem there was at least one synagogue which met where people used not Hebrew as the language of prayer, but Greek.  They used the Greek translation of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings as the basis for their worship and the services they shared.

It was some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrneians, Alexandirans and others of those from Cilicia and Asia.

These were Jewish people of the Jewish Diaspora in North Africa and over into Asia minor – Hellenists, Greek speakers they used Greek in their synagogue as they gathered together.

But as Hellenists, greek speaking Jewish people in Jerusalem they were fiercely jealous of the traditions of the Jewish people in Jerusalem and in particular they were passionate about the importance certain things they felt were central to their Jewishness..

 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.

The Hellenists set up false witnesses who laid a very specific accusation against Stephen and they bring that before the people of power in Jersualem – the council, made up of the Herodians, the Priests, the Sadduceees – the power people of Jerusalem.

Notice their accusation …

They 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.’

It’s exactly the false accusation levelled against Jesus at the trial – that he would destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days – Matthew 26:61.

And all who sat in the council looked intently at Stephen and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Don’t just think ‘angelic face’ ‘a cherub’.  The word ‘angel’ literally means ‘messenger’.   He had about him the feel of one was a messenger – who had a message from God.

It is a wonderful picture of an  inspirational person …

Good standing
Full of the Spirit
And of wisdom
Full of Faith and the Holy Spirit
Full of grace and power

One who recognised he could not do it alone, but who knew he was not alone – he had that sense of the Spirit filling him with that strength that he did not have on his own.

That wisdom, that faith, thar grace and that power are evident in the account Stephen gives of what is at the hearat of his faith.

What’s interesting then is that his speech amounts to a reading of the Old Testatment.  Acts 7 is one of those chapters in the New Testament that sums up the Old Testament.

Stephen’s account of who the people of God are begins with Abraham who obeyed God’s command and entered into that covenant relationship with God that was sealed in circumcision.

Stephen skips through the story of Isaac, Jacob and the twelve sons of Jacob who become the father figures of the twelve tribes of Israel and then Stephen focuses on the story of Joseph, and then Moses and the forty years that passes after his flight to Egypt.

Then Stepehn focuses on the sense of the presence of God that comes to Moses as he encounters the name of God in the burning bush.

Then comes the account of the exodus and the wandering in the wilderness.

And again the focus is on the presence of God that finds its focus in the tabernacle that follows the people on their journey through the wildnernes.

The story turns to Joshua  and the settlement in the land – the story fast forwards to David, the great king and he reaches the point at which Solomon builds a temple.

So far, so good.

This is a reading of the Old Testament that would have pleased the Council and the people of power in Jerusalem.

But then Stephen homes in not on the glory of the temple as they would have expected.  Instead he draws attention to a strand in the Old Testament story that comes in with the prophets that is critical of the decision to build a house for God.

This is very interesting.

But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
49 “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?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?”

It is at this point that Stephen interrupts his story.

It is as if he has got to the point of what he has to say.

The whole message of the Old Testament is about the presence of God with his people – where the God of creation touches earth and is made real in the presence of the people.

Then instead of tracking through the dominant line – he focuses on the line of the prophets.   He doesn’t recount the kings … but instead focuses on the prophets who stood out against the kings.

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever 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.’

Luke has been careful to identify who Stephen is addressing – this now is the council – the power people who keep the Temple running with its exorbitant tax system.  The people Jesus had vented his anger on in exactly the way the prophets of old did – turning the tables of the people who carried out that tax system and saying of them and the Heoridain powers that be – my father’s house should be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.

Why does Stephen take this line?

My thought is that this is the kind of way that Jesus had pointed when he had shared with those two on the road to Emmaus and the disciples in the upper room.  This is the way the line of the prophets finds its fulfilment in Jesus.

It is in Jesus that the presence of God is made real.  The veil of the temple is torn in two at the cross.  The presence of God is opened up through Chist.

Those who hear his words and act on them are like the wise man, Solomon, who built his house, the house of God, on the rock.

Paul later would speak of all Christian believers as being the very temple of the Holy Spirit.

This is where God’s presence is let loose – no longer in a specifc location in a house made of stone – but in the hearts of all who follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This was what the fulfilment of the Scriptures meant in the lives of the followers of Jesus.

And just as the powers that be took offence when Jesus mapped this teaching out and spoke of his own resurrection when he said that the temple would be desttoryed and rebuilt in three days, so too they took offence when Stephen followed that way of reading the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

What happens to Stephen is moving.  I want to finish with that.

But what is going on here is fundamentally  important for us as Christians when it comes to reading the Bible.

We are offered here a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t go with the main line of the kings – but focuses on the prophets who spoke out against the kings.   And sees in Jesus the fulfilment of those prophets.

And sees that in Jesus the very real presence of God is let loose in the world.

I come back to the conversations Christopher Hitchens had with Douglas Wilson – what I would be wanting to share is that actually Jesus offers us a radical new way of reading the bible and that is what we are called to follow.

Like Stephen let us seek to be of Good standing
Let us seek to be Full of the Spirit
Let us seek to be full of wisdom
Full of Faith and the Holy Spirit
Full of grace and power

So that in our reading of the Scriptures we can discover the Christ who brings the very presence of God into our lives.

In the Autumn for our Harvest collection we are going to be thinking of the persecuted church and those who face persecution for their Christian faith in the Middle East at the moment …

The final part of Stephen’s story is an inspiration as he embodies that Spirit of Christ in the manner of his dying, finishing with words of forgiveness that are full of grace.

When 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.

Then Luke strikes an ominous note that sets the scene for the next part of our story …

And Saul approved of their killing him.

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