I used to have a boss who was never really comfortable if everything was going well. At those times when we were on course to hit target, we had just the right number of cars in stock, the sun was shining and there was no crisis for us to grapple with did he relax and enjoy it? No. He would just say, “I don’t trust happy”. He was always looking for the next thing that could go wrong. I wonder if you know someone like that, a bit of an Eeyore? To be honest, I’m like that quite a lot of the time. I find it really difficult to just kick back and relax when things are going well.
At first sight this morning’s reading from Acts might seem like it would encourage this way of thinking, but I’d like to scratch beneath the surface a little bit and see if in reality it isn’t much more encouraging than that.
First, though, a bit of a recap to remind us where we’ve got to in the story of those first followers of Jesus after his death and resurrection. We’ve been following their story through this Easter time in the account of it written by Luke, an account put together after a load of investigation so that those who read it can be sure that it is a trustworthy witness of what happened.
First of all, we heard about Peter’s eye witness testimony to the crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses”. Then we heard about what Peter told those who were convinced by that eye witness evidence to do, “Repent and be baptised everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins might be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”
Last week we found out about what all these new believers got up to, what difference it made to their lives. What people on the outside of the group of the believers witnessed, what they saw them doing, how they saw them living.
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”
In short, then, things were going well. The good news of Jesus’ was being shared with people, they were believing it and deciding that they wanted to live in Jesus’ way. They were joining together in community to do this and more and more people were joining in because it was so attractive.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, what went wrong is that other people started to get upset about what Jesus’ followers were saying and doing. They were offended by the witness statements that they were hearing.
Firstly, their witness was that Jesus, a man, was God. This would have been a deeply offensive thing to say to Jewish believers at the time. It’s a bit difficult for us to get our heads around nowadays. We tend to think that a person claiming to be God probably has some mental health problems. We don’t get angry about it, we just feel compassion for the person making the claim. I wonder what offends you, what makes you personally angry. Maybe if somebody doubts your word, or if somebody else’s behaviour spoils an occasion for you, or if somebody says something out of place about someone dear to you. Whatever it is for you, that is how many people at the time felt about what Jesus’ followers were saying and doing. It was offensive.
Nowadays it seems to me that there are different parts of the Christian witness that people tend to find offensive. The increase in tolerance for other faiths and beliefs has meant that to be honest many people couldn’t care less about whether you claim that Jesus was God. Although, there are some vocal atheists who get a lot of media airtime who get very upset at any mention of God, and also it is worth remembering in this community that the claim that Jesus is God is offensive to many Muslims.
What many more people now find offensive is the idea that one way of living is any better than any other. The Christian witness is that Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins. As a response to this we need to repent, to turn away from our old way of living because we recognise that it was wrong and to decide to live in a new way, in God’s way.
Even if we don’t go out and shove this down people’s throats, even if all we do is live it out for ourselves the very fact that we are changing things about the way that we live because we believe these things can upset people. It upsets people because our different way of living raises questions for them about their way of living. When I am wearing my dog collar and someone swears in my hearing, they quite often apologise. I don’t say anything or look disapproving or tut. Just their perception of what they believe I might think about it is enough for them to think that I might be judging them and so they apologise. Just the fact that we are known to be Christian changes the way that people think about us, act around us, and talk to us and about us. Sometimes those changes will be really hurtful.
None of this would have surprised those first followers of Jesus, and it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus himself warned his friends before he died, he said, “if they hated me they will hate you”.
When Paul was writing to the young church in Corinth he explained it like this ,” To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” It’s like our faith and the way that we live as followers of Jesus has a really distinctive fragrance. To some people it is the smell of life and spring, of rain after a drought. To others it is the smell of rotting meat, of sewage, of death. Often we can’t do very much about how people react to the fragrance of our witness. That’s because it’s not about us, it’s about the person’s reaction to Jesus. That can be painful and hurt a lot, particularly if that person is close to us and we value our relationship with them. So, what can we do about it?
This is where I want to bring in the verses that I would like us to take out of today’s reading from Acts. Stephen, one of the first followers of Jesus has been telling people about what he witnessed in Jesus’ life. Because of this he has been put on trial by the religious leaders of the time and they have taken offense at him and what he is saying.
In the middle of all these angry people and hate that was being directed towards him we are told that, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And a little later that as he died he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
These two verses give us two things that we can do when we are being attacked because people have taken offence at our witness.
The first is to keep our eyes fixed on the glory of God. I find this difficult. When life is tough and people are horrible and things aren’t going right I find that my head drops and my eyes go to the floor. I start believing that the things that people are saying about me is true. I start doubting myself and God. This can be a dangerous place to be. At these times I need the Holy Spirit to encourage me to lift my head. To show me the glory of God. To remind me that Jesus is standing at the right hand of God, on my side, forever. To realise again that Jesus died and was raised to life and ascended to the heavens. Death is beaten. The hardships are temporary. The pain and the sorrow will end. They will not win. They will not last. I will not believe the lie that the good times are the exception and that the bad times are normal. That is the wrong way round. The vision of God’s glory fills me with the conviction that it is goodness and joy, peace and hope that are normal. Everything else is passing away, temporary.
But I still have to live in those times, and the second thing that Stephen did helps me to survive them. He forgives those who are stoning him. We have a choice when people hurt us. If we hold onto that hurt we continue to allow them to have power over us. We allow them to continue to shape our reality. Part of the glory of God is the forgiveness that we have received. As long as we hold on to the offense that others have committed against us, our vision of God’s glory will be restricted. I am not going to pretend that this is easy. We may have been deeply hurt and violated. We may feel that forgiving someone who has hurt us, and may still be hurting us, lets them off the hook. That we need our anger with them to continue. Having said all that, we cannot get away from the fact that all the way through Jesus taught forgiveness, both with his words and with his own actions.
The pains and hurts that happen when people take offense at our witness to Jesus are temporary. We can make them last longer by holding on to them, but part of the glory of God is that we can let go of them by forgiving those who have hurt us. It is my witness that this has helped me survive those times.
So in the end I have to say that I think that my boss was wrong when he said, “I don’t trust happy” and I am wrong when I fail to trust in the good times. We know that difficult times might be around the corner, but even through those difficult times if we keep our eyes on the glory of God, we know that we can trust happy because it will be happy that lasts forever and the difficulties that will fade away as we draw nearer and nearer to witnessing God’s glory in all its fullness.