Monday, June 16, 2008

A New Set of Values

Acts 7

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, has made a career out of saying inappropriate things and then having to go on his own network and apologize for them. A few years back he had to get on camera and say he was sorry for repeatedly referring to Christianity as ‘a religion for losers.’

The other night Julie, Ian and I were honored to attend a Boy Scout event at the US Embassy, where one of our own young men became an Eagle Scout. As they read through all the requirements and described the things he had to do in order to earn his rank, it occurred to me that so much of it was focused on other people. It was about service and sacrifice, discipline and generosity. I wonder what Ted Turner would say about that.

Where we pick up our story, Stephen is on trial, falsely accused of blasphemy. When he gets his chance to speak, instead of defending himself he retells the story of Israel’s troubled relationship with God’s messengers—with God’s message. When he’s done he looks at the religious leaders passing judgment on him and says this:

51"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."
54When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56"Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
57At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.
1And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.

There are four things to notice about Stephen’s reaction to his predicament.

First, Stephen never addresses the falseness of the charges against him. He willingly surrenders his right to win—his right to be right—in order to proclaim the truth of his faith to his accusers. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine doing that? In our culture we know our rights and we demand what we’ve been told we deserve—those have become our values. We place a high value on winning as often as possible—that’s often a stronger motivator for us than whether we’re being the sort of people that reflect Christ to our neighbors and in our communities. Nobody wants to be a loser, right?

The second thing to notice is that Stephen really knows his material here. He doesn’t wade into the discussion unarmed, and he doesn’t use personal attacks to make his point. Even his angry words are directed at what the people had done, not who they were. Stephen knows the history of his people and the content of his faith. It’s clear that while on the one hand Stephen has an intimate relationship with God, that he also has the discipline to read and pray and study. Stephen is prepared to give and answer for his faith—to be a witness for Christ, even at his own trial. When we talk about being grounded in the Scriptures, this is what we’re talking about…

Third, notice that Stephen never criticizes or even appeals to the secular Roman government. His challenge is to the people who should know better—the religious leaders of the day—his challenge is to them, not to those who haven’t heard or haven’t believed in who Christ is. It’s not power or influence that Stephen is after, but rather the truth—the truth about who God is and what he’s done, the truth about the meaning of Jesus Christ, and the truth about what the life of faith offers and demands of us.

Finally, notice that Stephen chooses faithfulness over his own needs—over his own safety. This is really the most shocking part of the story. Stephen is a star on the rise. He’s the Eagle Scout, national merit scholar and first-round draft pick all wrapped up into one. He has an important job in the early church, organizing the resources that community set aside for ministry. He’s blessed with knowledge and wisdom and leadership ability. He’s compassionate and willing to step out in faith for God. Stephen could have benefitted the church in great ways by staying around for a good long while—by working his way through the ranks over a long period of time. And yet, Stephen believed that being a disciple of Jesus Christ was more important than any of the perks life could throw his way. Stephen knew that if the things he believed were true, then he could never pass up an opportunity to share his faith with the culture around him—even if it cost him something. Even if it cost him everything.

Dennis Prager is a syndicated radio presenter in the States. He’s known for sparking discussions of morality—both public and private—as he comments on current events. Each year, I think around Father’s Day, Prager devotes an entire show to one question. He asks parents to call in and tell him whether they would prefer, if they had to choose, that their kids grow up to be successful or good. What unfolds, every year, is a discussion of values, of what we choose to emphasize in the way we conduct our own lives, and the way that we raise our kids. So many of the parents who call in try to rationalize their preference for their kids to be successful… One father, with no sense of irony at all, said that if his son got into an Ivy League school and got a good job and married well, he could learn to be good later. Seriously.

It’s important every so often to check how our values impact our lives. What we value most is reflected in the choices we make—in the dreams we have—in the goals we set for ourselves and our families.

What does this mean?

The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to rethink and sometimes radically alter what we value. Think back on Stephen. Stephen shows us that the values of the life of faith are different from the values of our world. We’ve heard these before—the bible is full of strange teachings like ‘the first will be last’, or ‘only slaves to Christ can truly be free’, ‘love your enemies’, and ‘you have to die before you can truly live’.

Stephen’s world wasn’t all that different from ours: Money talked back then, just like now; political and military power still ruled; certainly, in most people’s eyes, the ends could justify almost any means, especially if there was a profit to be made. But what ties our culture to the values in Stephen’s day is this: people who refused to live by the profit-centered, winner take all culture of the day—the people who tried to resist those values were considered to be weak, or too idealistic, or maybe even losers.

Stephen’s world was no more resistant to the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching than our culture is, and frankly it was a heck of a lot more dangerous. And yet in the face of all that resistance—against all of the pressure to conform and be successful and win, Stephen was willing to be falsely accused (weak); he refused to win his slam-dunk of a court case (sucker); so that he could bear witness to Jesus Christ (fanatic); and ultimately give up his own life (loser). By the values of his culture—and our culture—Stephen was a failure. And yet the irony is that in his humility and wisdom and faithfulness, Stephen did something truly great.

As we work our way through the book of Acts and learn what it means to be a church in the real world, a real-world church, we have to face the example Stephen set for us. We have to think about what it would mean for us to adopt a new set of values—values that might go directly against what we’ve believed or practiced for most of our lives. We have to face how those new values might change what we teach our children.

Being followers of Christ—being engaged with the culture and grounded in the teachings of the Scriptures and alive to the Holy Spirit—being a new person in Christ means adopting a new set of values.

To paraphrase Dennis Prager’s question for our context: Would we rather be successful or good? Would we rather be financially secure or sacrificially faithful? Which would we want for our kids, if we really had to choose?

Those are hard questions: They’re the kind of questions that make us squirm a little if we choose to wrestle with them honestly. And that’s probably a good thing. Learning to be a Christians in the real world means that occasionally we have to make some hard choices—for ourselves and in the way we raise our families.

At the Scouts event the other night I was reminded of the Scout Law, which says that ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.’

There’s nothing there that makes it impossible to be successful, but there’s an awful lot about being successful that manages to edge out some of these important traits and practices.

The challenge to us as a community of faith in the real world, is to live and teach and give and believe, while we remain engaged with the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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