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Why we are not religious

by on May 14, 2015

the-sprit-of-godAt Canterbury Community Church we have always thought of ourselves as more a movement than a religious organisation. Acts 7, which we looked at at our last gathering, explains why.

THE UNCONTAINABLE GOD

Acts 6:8 – 7

We are hearing today about the first Christian martyr. Stephen was killed – murdered -for his faith. The story starts off as an orderly courtroom scene, but ends in a furious outburst of violence, a lynching. We want to look at this account and try to understand, why did Stephen die? What was it that made these Jews in Jerusalem so angry that the mob stoned him to death?

It’s hard for us to imagine people getting so angry about religious questions, in Australia we don’t care that much about religion do we? Except those who want to get rid of it! But in fact Church history has seen many martyrs, many people who died for their faith in Christ. And the past century, the c.20th probably had more martyrs than any other century. Today we hear about many Christians in Syria and Libya being killed for their faith in Christ. We know why Muslim extremists hate Christians. But what about these Jewish people in Acts? What was it about the faith of Jesus that made them get so violent? Let’s take a look.

We know why Stephen was dragged before the court in the first place. He was telling people about Jesus, and something that Stephen was saying, offended the Jews’ love of their temple and their traditions. Acts 6:13:

They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for 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.”

This holy place: they were standing in the temple as they spoke. Luke tells us they were false witnesses, Stephen didn’t really say those things. But what he did say about Jesus clearly made the Jews feel insecure about their beloved temple. What exactly was Stephen saying, that upset them so much? Luke is about to let us hear the answer from Stephen’s own lips.

The temple: up until now all the action in this book Acts has revolved around the temple. it’s there that the first Christians are meeting each day to celebrate together. it’s in the temple that the council has held their courts to punish the apostles.

But very soon now the events of Acts are going to spill out of the temple, burst out of Jerusalem, and explode across the world. The temple will be left behind. So now it’s time for us to understand why the temple matters so much.

For the Jews the temple was simply the centre of the world. The world was a round disc, like a dinner plate, and at the very centre of the disc, there was a wonderful mountain,the place where heaven touched earth. It was the dwelling place of God himself, God’s presence in their midst. That place was the Jerusalem temple. Go far away from this temple, and you’re out in the cold and dark, far away from God.

The threat that someone might insult or destroy this temple, was the worst imaginable blasphemy. Better to murder someone than to insult the temple.  It was that important. But that’s what Stephen stands acused of: of blaspheming and threatening the temple. That’s the charge he has to answer as chapter 7 begins. 7:1-4. READ

“God’s first appearance to our people wasn’t here at all. It was in far off Babylon. And notice what God did: he called Abraham to move. Go out, Abraham. Even when he got to the promised land, God kept Abraham on the move, he didn’t get to settle down anywhere. And God told Abraham what would happen later”: v.6-7. READ

Again God would call his people to move, he would call them out of Egypt. First he appeared to Joseph, and had him sent out of the promised land, down to Egypt. Later when God appeared to them again, it was somewhere else: READ v.31-34

God appeared in the wilderness, that was the holy place where Moses saw him. And again, Moses gets told to move. “Go back to Egypt, Moses”.

Stephen’s point? God is this sort of God. He moves around. He appears where he wishes. He causes people to move. He surprises you. Look for God, where is he? – he’s in the wilderness in the bush. He’s with Joseph in the prison. He’s with Moses on the mountain. He’s with king David, hiding in the hills.

Stephen is not saying God is everywhere. No, that’s a modern idea. He’s saying that God is dynamic, not static. You can’t pin God down and say, ‘He’s there. That’s the only place to find him.’ God will not be contained like that. As the Mr Beaver said about Aslan, “He’ll be coming and going…One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

That’s how Stephen is describing Israel’s God Yahweh, but he’s saying it to the most temple-loving people in the world. I wonder if you can see the problem forming here?

Stephen spells it out, he makes the problem explicit. The other main theme of his speech is how the Jews have always hated this sort of God. READ v.9

God appeared to Joseph in wonderful dreams: but his brothers hated this, they wanted to shut him up, so they sold their brother into slavery. There they are sitting at home in the promised land, but where is God now? He’s in exile, with Joseph, God’s holy place is now a prison cell down in Egypt, where Joseph sat rotting. Later Moses came to help his people Israel in slavery. But they couldn’t accept that God was moving through this man. READv.25-27

The Jews were so set against a dynamic God, that even when God had led them through the Red sea, they wanted something safer. They wanted a god they could pinpoint and say, there he is. And so while Yahweh God is descending on Mt Sinai in smoke and trumpet blast, with all his dynamic power on display, and Moses is up there hearing God’s own voice, the people are down below planning a statue of a calf. A golden calf. “That’s the sort of God we like. It sits on it’s pedestal and behaves itself. We’ve got it under control.” READ v.38-41

“That god up there on the mountain, we don’t like that sort of thing. It makes us uncomfortable. Make us a golden calf.”

Can you see the pattern Stephen is building up here? You guys always hated how God that moves and breathes and surprises you. You always turned away from him. Or as Stephen says at the end, “You always resist the Holy Spirit.” 

Later they wanted to build a temple , a house to put God in. But Yahweh was not that keen on getting a house to live in! READ v.48-49.

This god cannot be contained in a place. No, he makes himself present where he chooses, and through the people he chooses. The Jews always hated those people. v.52 “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One.”

And now God has made himself present fully and finally, through that troublemaker Jesus of Nazareth. v.52 “Your fathers killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

“The God of Israel came near to us in Jesus, and you sent him outside the city and murdered him. God sent him, like Moses: and just like Moses you pushed him aside. Rejected him. This uncontainable God – you hate him. And the ultimate proof is what you did to Jesus.” That’s Stephen’s message.

“What use is the temple then? What use is anything made by human hands? We cannot contain this god in any box or building. He always bursts out and confounds us. And now he’s done it again, in Jesus of Nazareth. You know, the tomb couldn’t hold him, either.

And at this moment, at the climax of the speech, Jesus comes on the scene, in person. All through Acts, Jesus keeps coming on the scene. You just never know when it’s going to happen. It happens now, the heavens open, and anyone looking could see Jesus, alive, standing at God’s right hand, in the place of power. But Stephen is the only one looking. v.56 Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

The tomb couldn’t hold him any more than the calf or the temple could. Because that’s the sort of God our God is – he’s uncontainable. And so Stephen has to die. Because that sort of God he sees is not acceptable.

And I reckon we’re not so different today. Would we have murdered Stephen? People are still desperate to box in God. We build buildings and say that’s a holy place, that’s where God is. We call it a church. As though a building could be a church. We all do it. We point to a man and say that’s a priest, he can get you a hearing with God, if you pay him. We point to a statue and say God is there. God is in this piece of bread. We’ve got him trapped, he’s in our hands, we can hand out God where we like.

And we love our rituals and ceremonies, our forms and our traditions. Not wrong in themselves, but we so easily use them to box God in. Keep him under control. Make him predictable.

But friends, this God is not trapped in places, or in rituals or statues. He is not limited to a priesthood who can dispense him like soda water. He does not live in buildings.

God is Spirit: he moves. This is what we mean when we say God is Trinity. Father, Son Holy Spirit. We are saying that God is not static or predictable. He makes himself present wherever he wants to. He is Spirit. And he makes himself known through persons, not through objects. Let’s repeat that: through persons, not objects. And first and foremost he makes himself known through his son Jesus. Father, Son, Spirit. That’s what God is like.

It’s pretty uncomfortable for us, isn’t it. All our religion and institutions and priesthoods, all the ways we try to tame God and make him manageable – Jesus explodes all that. The day of pentecost blows all that away.

And that’s why from day one Christianity was never a religion, not an institution, from the start it was always a movement. Next chapter the Christians get expelled from Jerusalem, and they go out everywhere, and wherever God takes them they gossip about Jesus. They had no priests, no holy men, no temples or buildings. Just little people, led by the Spirit, with the news about Jesus on their lips. And no one could contain this. The might of Rome could not stop it.

Well, you might look at the church today and wonder, what went wrong? How did it get to be so stayed, so static, so settled and institutionalised? Over the centuries things went wrong, the love of boxing God in crept back, and a crust of institution formed over the faith. Priests, temples, the whole works – it all came in again. We still want a safe God, one you can pin down.

God will not tolerate that forever. And recently something new has happened: our society has turned its back on the institutional church. They stopped coming. And you know what – I’m glad. It badly needed busting up.

Meanwhile God is still calling people out to him, calling you and me to be part of this movement. The movement in which God comes near and is present here through people – through people who belong to Jesus. We have been part of planting this church here in Canterbury, but we never wanted it to stop there. We never hoped to grow a church, and settle down. No, what’s needed is a movement, there are a million people in this part of Sydney who need to hear about Jesus. What’s happening here needs to go much further, and keep on going.

God is still Spirit: a God who moves on people. You never know where he will move, who he will touch. You and I can’t control this, can’t contain it. And now he is bringing that movement into your life and mine. He is going to do unexpected things with you – take you places you never imagined. Jesus is going to make himself present here, through you. Are you ready for that?

The people in Jerusalem were not ready for that. That’s why Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died. And as he died, he said, “Father forgive them.” Now who does that remind you of? Whose words were they? It’s what Jesus said at the cross. It’s Jesus, turning up here, speaking through this little man Stephen. Where is God now? He’s not in the temple – they’ve dragged Stephen out of there. No, God is here, present in Stephen, even as he dies. And he’s here, moving in your life and mine, present through us as we follow Jesus.

From → General

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