As of yesterday we finally have our two candidates for the US presidency. It’s been a long process, and now (finally) we can focus on issues and character and leadership styles for the next five months. Reaching this point in the election season brings to mind past candidates—winners, losers and those who never got to complete their run for the highest office.
This past week we remembered Robert Kennedy’s assassination during his run for the presidency in 1968. That anniversary reminds us that, whatever your party or political beliefs, we haven’t seen anyone since who can articulate a uniquely American vision of community and justice and dignity and compassion. Here’s a quote from one of his speeches:
“For the fortunate among us, the…danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men and women than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged--will ultimately judge himself--on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”
Kennedy gave that speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966. Amazing.
Today we begin the first of two messages on Stephen, the leader of the group we learned about last week—the ones who were given the responsibility of managing the ministry resources of the early church. Stephen fits this quote from Robert Kennedy in that he stood as someone of promise, of ability, and that he gave up his personal ambition and any hope of financial success in order to serve Jesus Christ. What he chose to do with his gifts and abilities would end up costing him his life, but in the renewed, transformed, radical values of the Kingdom, we see Stephen as one of the great success stories in the New Testament.
8Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
11Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God."
12So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
15All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
In our text the church is taking shape within the backdrop of 1st century Palestine. This was a region torn apart by economic hardship and conflict, still reeling from the brief ministry of someone who was called the Messiah, and on top of all that, it was occupied by the Roman Empire. These were definitely ‘interesting times.’
We pick up the story with Stephen and his ministry within the early church. Stephen’s power—personal, spiritual and organizational—has rankled the cultural leaders of his day. He was rocking the boat, and the self-appointed captains of that vessel didn’t like it one bit. They tried to engage him head-on, but they couldn’t defeat him fairly. So naturally, they decided to go after him by any means necessary. They accused him of bogus offenses, had him hauled into court, and produced false witnesses to make the charges stick.
The idea of ‘truth’ is really important in this story, as it is in all of Luke’s writing. Lies are a common way to discredit something we don’t like. But lies that go unchallenged work their way into our consciousness and take on the look and feel of truth, and that’s dangerous. Last week a friend sent me an excerpt of a letter by Jay Leno, supporting the president and the war while sounding like someone who was running for office. The letter sounded fishy, so I checked it out on Snopes.com. Have you heard of Snopes? It’s a site devoted to checking on the things people tend to circulate by email, and then reporting on whether they’re real or fakes. Snopes told me that there was a single line in the letter that was really from Jay Leno, and that the rest was made up.
There are other, more serious, lies that make their way into our consciousness and start to sound like truth. The most damaging one is this: More people have died in wars over religion than in any other.
Now while that may have a ring of truth to it in this anti-religion age, there’s no getting around the fact that it is patently false. Let’s just consider, for a moment, the ‘big three’ industrial-strength killers of the last century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao. These guys were directly responsible for tens of millions of deaths. They were also aggressively, passionately and explicitly secular down to their shoes. Those three—those three non-religious dictators—killed more people than all the other wars in history put together. Can we just agree right now, right here in this place, just as a bonus for showing up this morning, to make a pact that we will stop throwing this one around as if it had any basis in truth?
The truth matters. And if we’re going to be witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ—what he did, what he offers and what he promises—if we’re going to be witnesses to the gospel we have to make sure we’re being faithful witnesses about other things as well. The truth matters. The truth is a habit worth getting into.
The role of the witness—of being an agent of truth—in Scripture, is highly valued.
In the Judaism at the time of Jesus, two people had to agree on an account of something in order for the courts to accept it as truth. That made witnesses extremely powerful back then, and made their honesty crucially important. In Luke’s writings he builds on that tradition by calling those who share their faith ‘witnesses’. They were called to testify to the truth of what they had seen, and their developing understanding of what it meant.
Being a witness in this sense was more than just testifying to a set of facts, though it was at least that. Bearing witness was deeper—it was the way a life could be seen as evidence of a deeper truth. That’s why God places such an enormously high value on our honesty—‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.’
Being a witness also came to mean more than just playing a minor role in the story of the gospel. The Greek word that translates to ‘witness’ came into English as the word ‘martyr.’
Think about that for a moment.
While we’re remembering Robert Kennedy today, I want to share another quote of his with you:
“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and with their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of our society.”
In a real-world church we set aside personal ambitions and comforts and exchange them for the opportunity to blend passion, reason, courage and faith in Jesus Christ as we seek to address the world’s problems. We accomplish that by renewing our commitment to be a real church in the world—a real-world church—by being engaged in the culture around us, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.