TELLING THE STORY
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A few weeks ago Nicole and I went to an event put on by a couple of organizations called Facing History and Ourselves Canada and the Azrieli Foundation. Facing History is an initiative to help students engage with the past, while the Azrieli Foundation seeks to put out stories of Holocaust survivors and make them known. The evening basically provided a forum for two men to tell their stories. One was Nate Leipciger, a survivor of several Nazi concentration camps and a death march. He was taken to Auschwitz with his father after they were separated from his mother and sister, whom they never saw again. The second man was a residential school survivor. Theodore Fontaine. He was taken from the only home he had ever known at the age of 6 in 1948. They have both written books. These books were read by over 100 high school students from around the province, who all had a chance to make some art to reflect the stories of these two men, to meet them, and to get to know them.
The whole thing was very moving and spoke very much of the power of story, particularly when it comes to trauma. The power of sharing stories. Mr. Fontaine spoke of starting to write his own story down years ago, submitting a piece anonymously to a paper out west. He spoke of a friend contacting him and asking if he were the one who wrote the story. His friend told him “I thought I was the only one.” The power of a story. One of the speakers from the Azrieli Foundation shared what she described as a teaching coming out of Jewish mysticism – “A story can change the world.”
A story can change the world. A story can save the world.
The power of story.
The power of story is something that is very much in evidence in our text today. The story of Stephen. The first martyr for our faith. The man who is remembered on the day after Christmas. Someone has said that this is to remind us that it’s not just about a nice story of a baby in a manger and friendly animals all around and so on. This story that we tell, this story that we are caught up in and called to live as followers of Christ engenders opposition to the point of costing lives. We’ve looked at opposition from within the early church. This morning we’re looking at opposition from without. It’s all centred on the figure of Stephen. We heard last week about seven men who were chosen to wait on tables or to keep accounts. Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolaus, and Stephen – a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.
Oftentimes in church, particularly a smaller church, our roles are not simply restricted to one thing. Such was the case for Stephen. We are told by Luke that Stephen did great wonders and signs among the people. Just as was the case with the apostles. Just as was the case with Jesus. We are seeing the life and work of Jesus continuing in his followers. Often for us, it’s not the case that we meet opposition to our faith as much as we meet indifference, but it’s not unknown to face opposition, and followers of Christ have been met with opposition from the beginning. Again we see the parallels with Jesus. False charges being brought against Stephen. “He’s saying Jesus will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed down to us!” Stephen being brought before the council (the Sanhedrin). There is a widening of opposition in our story. Where formerly it had been temple leaders opposing the apostles, we see here that the people are stirred up along with the elders and the scribes. All who sat in the council looked intently on him. The same word Luke used when he described the people in the synagogue at Nazareth looking at Jesus. They looked intently at him and his face was like the face of an angel. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would be with his followers and would help them to speak is proving to be a sound promise.
Stephen begins to speak. He doesn’t mount what one might think would be a typical courtroom defense, seeking to put doubt in people’s minds about his accusers, or prove their falseness, or try to explain what it was he’d been talking about. He tells a story.
We like to call it God’s Great Redemption Plan. God’s Great Salvation Plan. Love’s redeeming work is how one hymn puts it. We may need to explain words like redemption and salvation. The plainest way I can put it is that God’s Great Salvation Plan is God’s plan to make everything right. If there is one common conception in our world today I would argue that it is things have gone terribly wrong somehow. The story of how God set about, is setting about, will set about putting it right. Whether we tell the story in the face of opposition or in the face of anything from mild curiosity to deep interest, we should be able to tell the story too. The Holy Spirit will help us tell the story. People have an interest in talking about the transcendent. They have an in interest in talking about matters of faith. We all of us hold a faith position you see. If your position is that when we die, we cease to exist and it’s just nothingness for us at that point, that is a matter of faith. People have an interest in hearing you share your faith. Some of you have heard me share the story of one our Thursday night volleyball/dinner sessions with our friends from Horizons For Youth. There weren’t many kids out that night – only four – but it was enough to field two teams. Later on after we ate we were talking about careers and education and one of the young people out of the blue asked “How do you find your path?” She wasn’t talking about career path, she was talking spiritual path. This led to a half hour long discussion about matters of faith and ultimate meaning and the story of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit and what all these things meant in our story. There is an openness to hearing about these things. They were all looking on intently.
And Stephen begins to tell this story of faith. “Listen to me,” he says. Listen. I love that. I can’t imagine Stephen was not excited by the story of the God of glory. “The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia…” He takes it all the way back. We didn’t even have time to read it all this morning but do look it over.
He tells the story of a man who stepped out in faith. A man to whom was promised a nation that would blessed by God to be a blessing to all nations. A man who became the father of Isaac who became the father of Jacob who had twelve sons. One of these sons was chosen by God to effect deliverance for his people. The saving of lives. This son was rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery. Years later the actions of Joseph would result in the saving of his family their people. Forgiving them he would tell his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” This is what God does.
Years go by and a king who does not remember Joseph oppresses the Israelites. A program of infanticide is carried out. Moses comes along, he was beautiful before God. This man who would be chosen by God to lead his people to deliverance. This man of whom it was asked “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” which speaks to a long history of humanity rejecting God’s chosen one. This Moses who after leading the people of Israel of out of Egypt promised from God that “God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people…” God’s deliverance met with rejection. The people wanting to worship something made with their own hands – a golden calf. In the midst of all this the presence of God travelling along with God’s people
in a tent. A temple being built as a place of worship. People getting it wrong and turning their worship toward the temple itself rather than God and the ways in which God ordained that we should live. Prophets being sent to remind people and these prophets being rejected and killed. All of these things foretelling the coming of the Righteous One, who was killed.
Who was raised to life. Who brings life. The Righteous One for whom we await. The Righteous One who is with us by the Holy Spirit of God.
This was Stephen’s story. This is our story my friends. The story is ongoing. We’re invited to become a part of the story. We’ve been invited to the table, as it were. How has the story of redemption worked itself out in your life? How is it working itself out in your life? How do you express it?
We need to be able to express it. We need to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit in expressing it. We have a good place to express it within our faith family here don’t we? Do we take the opportunity to share our faith stories with one another? Do we need to create more opportunities? What might that look like? We’re pretty open to things. I said earlier one of the things about a smaller church is that we’re often wearing many hats. Another thing is that we can be nimble, be open to new things, try new things out. Our God is the God of new things after all. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God spoke those words through the prophet Isaiah. Do you not perceive it? Holy Spirit help us to perceive it. Help us to take part.
Near the end of our conversation that Thursday night we were talking about a path. I said that I don’t think we need to make our own path in this life. I believe that the path has been made by Christ. I believe that following Christ in this path is what we were made by God to do, and that in this is life. This is part of my own story and I am founding my life on this Christ, this Righteous One.
We were talking matters of life and death that night. I’d rather do that than discuss the weather or whatever – not that I’m against small talk and I know it has its place. But we’re talking life and death. For some, to be a part of this redemption story has meant death. It did for Stephen. I can’t imagine. He was okay with it. He prayed for those who were killing him. He didn’t ask God to avenge his death or make threats against his murderers. He asked God not to hold this against them. Reminds us of someone else who prayed for those who were killing him. This salvation story is worth basing our lives on. It’s worth dying for. It’s not just a set of ethical principles. It’s not simply a philosophy. It’s not simply a set of beliefs. It’s life.
It’s grace. It’s forgiveness. It’s justice. It’s love.
The last thing I want to look at from our story today is the vision that Stephen has. Visions were what was promised, and throughout Acts we see truths of God being made known through visions. “But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen got to see things as they really are. It would be like us getting a glimpse of the cloud of witnesses by which we are surrounded. NT Wright describes this vision not like seeing a small portal opened up in the sky, but like walking along a mountain trail in cloud when suddenly the clouds lift, and you see everything around you, a green valley below. A lifting of the veil which surrounds us and a glimpse into the throne room of our God of glory. Jesus the Son of Man and Lord of all standing at the right hand of the God of glory, enabling forgiveness and comfort and peace to the last. May God give us such visions. May God grant us the wisdom, opportunity, courage and grace to tell God’s story, to tell and show of our part in it, and to invite others to be caught up in it with us as we go along together.