First United Methodist Church
May 7, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Under New Management
John 14 is one of the most basic and important passages in Scripture. How can we know the way to God? Only through Jesus. Jesus is the way because he is both God and human and he is totally comfortable in both realms. By uniting our lives with his, we are united with God. Trust Jesus to take you to the Father, and all the benefits of being God’s child will be yours. Jesus says he is the only way to God the Father. Some people may argue that this way is too narrow. In reality, however, it is wide enough for the whole world, if the world chooses to accept it. Instead of worrying about how limited it sounds to have only one way, we should be saying, “Thank you, God, for providing a sure way to get to you!”
As the way, Jesus is our path to the Father. As the truth, he is the reality of all God’s promises. As the life, he joins his divine life to ours, both now and eternally. Jesus is the visible, tangible image of the invisible God. He is the complete revelation of what God is like. Jesus explained to Philip, who wanted to see the Father, that to know Jesus is to know God. The search for God, for truth and reality, ends in Christ.
Let us pray:
Loving God, may your Word speak to us about the way we live our lives. Be our fortress and strength, providing shelter and foundation for daily living. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, and all who hear them. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
Our second scripture for today talks about Stephen, who is known for being the first martyr for Christ. As a stand alone text, it can be a little troubling; therefore, before we read it, I want to take a few moments to talk about Stephen and reflect on the way he lived out his faith, because I believe that through his example, we can begin to recognize some of the risks we are called to take as we live faithfully in service to Christ.
Stephen wasn’t one of the chosen apostles – he wasn’t a wealthy, educated Roman citizen like Paul; he was simply a humble person chosen for a humble task, the distribution of food to widows and orphans. Because he believed that his work was something that was necessary for the glory of God, his desire to serve Christ was translated into the reality of serving others.
The Book of Acts traces the lives of the early Christians as they tried to make sense of the gospel teachings in light of their new reality as they understood it. Stephen was an effective administrator. He took care of people fairly and without discrimination. He was chosen because he had integrity, wisdom and sensitivity toward God. One of the reasons that Stephen’s role was necessary is because when Jewish people accepted Jesus as the Messiah, they were usually cut off from their family and ostracized socially. As a result, they depended on each other for food and other resources. As the number of believers increased, many people were overlooked. In order to make sure that all people were taken care of, the church elected leaders to take on this responsibility.
Eventually Stephen was accused of blasphemy and brought before the council. (Acts 6:11-14) When given an opportunity to defend himself against the charges, he chose instead to preach a scathing sermon against his accusers, indicting them for their unbelief! (Acts 7:1-53) By the end of his sermon, his accusers were furious!
We pick up the narrative at this point [Read Acts 7:54-60]:
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 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. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then 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.
Stephen saw the glory of God, and his vision of Jesus standing in the posture of judges rendering a verdict, only made things worse. His words are similar to Jesus’ words spoken before the council and Stephen’s vision supported Jesus’ claim and angered the Jewish leaders who had condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy. They wouldn’t tolerate Stephen’s words either, so his accusers responded by dragging him out of the city and killing him. This is how justice was carried out in the first century.
We can learn a lot from Stephen. Although today people may not kill us for witnessing about Christ, they will let us know that they don’t want to hear the truth and will often try to silence us. Our call to be witnesses for Christ includes honoring Christ with our words and our actions at all times – even if people turn against us for doing the right thing. It is through our integrity and our willingness to live each day as if it is our last, and also to live each new day as if it is our first that ultimately leads others to Christ as they discover the truth themselves! Stephen’s death had a profound impact on Paul, who later became the world’s greatest missionary.
Stephen’s life is a continual challenge to all Christians. His faith enabled him to see the glory of God and to stand up for it. He wasn’t afraid of death because he trusted that Christ’s words showed the way to eternal life. He was secure in his relationship with Jesus Christ, and because God is forever, he knew that his relationship with God was forever.
Stephen’s sermon addressed people who resisted the understanding that because of Christ’s resurrection, we could participate in eternal life. They wanted to keep the world the way it had been, with a certain set of assurances and practices that they treasured. It is similar to what happens when an organization undergoes a change in management. The new managers often want to change things, to modernize equipment and possibly alter some procedures that have gradually become our way of life. Occasionally, management changes also involve a change in personnel. Easter, or the new reality that Easter reveals to us, is like this. It initiates an upheaval in every “business as usual” approach. It exposes us and reveals our stubbornness, among other things. But it also enables us to embrace new technology and new revelations that we may not have achieved if we continued to operate in the way we had under the old management.
One of the earliest names given to Christianity was "the Way." The first use is when Saul, who later becomes the apostle Paul, is setting out for Damascus to persecute Christians. Before leaving on that trip, he goes to the high priest in Jerusalem to secure letters to the synagogues along the route, granting him the right to extradite any people he finds among them who "belong[ed] to the Way."
We are not sure why this particular name was attached to Christians of the first century, but it may have been because many outsiders viewed Christianity less as a set of doctrines and more as a matter of practice, a way of life.
There is truth to that, of course; Christianity is a way of life. It is an approach to life in which we operate by understandings such as "love your neighbor" and "love your enemy" and "turn the other cheek" and a host of other things that Jesus taught by word and by example.
Christianity is also a way of understanding things. For example, Christianity explains the existence of evil as a necessary condition of free will. If God is going to allow us to freely choose to obey him, then the other choice, choosing to disobey him must also be possible. So yes, Christianity is a way of life and of understanding.
But the outsiders who called Christianity the Way because they thought of it primarily as a way of life missed an important aspect of the faith, and that is that following Jesus means we have a direction to go, or a path to follow that helps us encounter the mystery we call God, and a route that leads us to a specific destination, which is eternal life.
The new birth that we continuously refer to throughout this Easter Season is not a magical event that changes a person instantly into the likeness of Christ, but the commitment to a daily journey of intentional, sometimes painful, and always sacrificial work of character formation. When we make this commitment, we are committing to live our lives under new management. Although the Jesus follower must constantly deal with character issues and self-seeking desires such as anger and jealousy, we are accepting a way of life that is transformative and life-seeking. It takes an effort to overcome our natural responses to the things that happen around us, but we don’t do these things alone. Jesus is our life, and he is joined to us, divinely, both now and eternally. Amen.