This was a quote I read this week from a Christian “The crazy part of the Gospel is that Stephen would be the first one cheering on Paul when he arrived at the pearly gates.”
Have you ever thought about those who will be waiting at the pearly gates when you arrive. I know I don’t often think that way but this week quote caught my eye. I suppose I always thought about it being Jesus. My grandparents and others who loved me who have gone to be with Jesus before I did. I look forward to the days when I will see them again. The Scripture “Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” is a profound thing to me, but what about others who I may not be as close with?
This quote gets me because of the scandal of it all. Paul coming to the pearly gates not as someone who was just greeted by his friends and family. When we think of the Apostle Paul we often think of him preaching the gospel to all people, but we often forget early in his ministry he wasn’t just mean to Christians, he had them killed. I have always been drawn to the story of the stoning of Stephen for obvious reason as we share a name. Paul had him killed. He approved of his death the text says. Paul would have a reputation of trying to destroy the Christian Church. Many early in his ministry were put in prison, their lives destroyed or in the case of Stephen, murdered.
But as this quote says, I imagine Stephen was the first one at the gate cheering on the one who approved of his death. What a profound revelation. For me at least, I struggle with having a faith that strong. A faith so full of the gospel that I can imagine cheering on those who hate me, or even cheering on those who are against me. Over and over in the scripture Jesus, His apostles, the other disciples, and those who follow him today are called to cheer on everyone who comes to know Jesus. This is what makes the Gospel the gospel. You see all people no matter how horrible they are need Jesus. They will celebrate with us in heaven one day if they come to know Him. No matter if they follow from the beginning or in the end. May we celebrate not just our friends who come to know Jesus but our political enemies, those we dislike and even those who might do us harm. For God wants all people to come to His saving grace.
This lent may we consider not just sharing Jesus with our friend but may we cheer on our enemies.
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But 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.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.Acts 7:54-60 ESV
This week I was confronted with a text that I saw completely differently. One I have heard a hundred times but this time I heard it totally differently. Jesus was with His disciples on the mountain and he asked them who do you think I am, and they say he is the Christ (or Messiah). His next words are what caught me off guard.
The gates of hell shall not prevail against it…I have to tell you I think we all miss the point of this text. At least many of us Christians read over this and think of it backwards. We think of the Church and her people as group in a big castle in need of protection. We need protection from the world, others who think differently, or even Satan himself who is coming after us. What if that wasn’t the point? Are you are reading in backwards? The text doesn’t say the gates of heaven will keep us safe or the gates of heaven will prevail against all attacks.
It says the gates of hell will not prevail against Jesus. Here is the thing. This text assumes that God’s people are on the offensive. Jesus isn’t saying stay safe and I will keep you safe. He is telling us over and over go on the offensive with Him in the lead. In fact he tells us He is Messiah, and will overcome the gates of hell. When we as God’s people proclaim Jesus in our world the gates of hell cannot stand against that onslaught of faith. We as God’s people are called to go and proclaim that he is Messiah and as we proclaim this truth the gates of hell, where our friends and family are being held, cannot be held up. Satan’s power of this world cannot prevail against Jesus’ attacks on him.
Maybe as you are going about your day you have thought about your life as being a place under attack maybe today you can refocus on seeing Jesus as going to battle for you. The gates of hell will not prevail against his attacks. He was defeated on the cross and will be fully defeated when Jesus comes again!
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock[b] I will build my church, and the gates of hell[c] shall not prevail against it.Matthew 16:13-18 ESV
I grew up in a family of three boys. As you can imagine we often had moments of messes and broken things. We wrestled on more than one occasion, and to be honest I am not sure how my brothers and I didn’t break more things. One day when I was probably 9 my older brother and I were playing with a large stuffed animal my younger brother brought home. We did our best WWF style moves and smashed around the family room. While doing this, one of us (I really can’t remember who) smashed into my moms lamp. You know the lamp. The one that was old and had a long family connection. As you can imagine the lamp was in many pieces. In fact so many pieces that we did what any boys do when they have broken something. We ran and hid. We pretended like we didn’t do it. Well mom came home and was upset. No amount of super glue could put it back together. She was disappointed in her boys and quite angry.
Then it happened. You know who came home next. It was Dad. Dad came in the room. He saw what happened and sat all three of us on the couch. I really thought I wasn’t going to make it to my next birthday. He looked at us and said boys this cant be fixed. He didn’t yell in fact he had a large amount of calm. I really was surprised because dad could fix anything. Even he couldn’t get out enough glue and fix it, it would never be right. Instead he did something shocking to us. He went to a special store to buy a new piece. It was quite expensive. For the time over $200 to fix and for our family it was a lot. As a parent I think about how I might have had my boys chip in and help pay for it, but he didn’t. He went and just paid for it himself and mad the lamp new.
As we begin Lent I was reminded of this story. Today is ash Wednesday. It is a day we have ashes put on our forehead to remind us we are dust and to dust we shall return. It is a day to remember the mess we have made of our lives. It has been a mess made from the beginning of time and we as God’s people continue to move and make a bigger and bigger mess. We are marked as people who are a mess. God didn’t leave us in this broken mess. He didn’t just take out some super glue to put us back together. He did something far better. He sent His Son Jesus to be with us and to pay our price. If you go to service today you will have ashes on your forehead to remind you of both these facts. You are broken beyond repair. You are Dust…and to Dust you shall return. The cross reminds us Jesus doesn’t leave us that way. He pays the price and makes us completely new. So on this Ash Wednesday as we consider our sin and brokenness may we be reminded that Jesus has paid through the cross to make us new.
16 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.Genesis 3:14-24
I don’t know what to say. I really don’t know what to say to my kids or to the youth and families that I work with. For those of you who know me, know I am not normally at a loss for words. Today as I watched the events unfold at the capitol I was saddened, shocked and disturbed. What was more shocking to me was the number of posts on facebook about sticking it to people we disagree with politically. Comments like you didn’t speak out this summer when their were riots or you spoke out then and aren’t speaking out now or some other forms of attack on people we disagree with politically. It was ugly and hurtful all around. So how do I talk with my kids and families about what is happening? How should I as a Christian leader respond to this crisis in our world?
I still don’t know for sure? I don’t know if responding to every hateful or angry person on my feed is helpful. My guess it that it isn’t. In fact I think today we need stop and listen not respond. Listen to what God would have us do. Listen to how God is speaking in our lives. Most importantly listen to those around us and have empathy and compassion to those who are hurting on both side. Yes speak against violence in the streets or in the capitol but listen to people.
Today as I went through my day I had the opportunity to sit a listen to a few different people about different situations in their lives. People who in different simple conversations shared their lives. They shared about how they are feeling or how they are doing. Listening allowed me to hear them. So often we are quick to speak and share our thoughts but are we slow to listen. Too often we want to have answers or we want to speak up, but today I was reminded we need to listen more and talk less.
So what I am sharing with my kids and what I sharing with you that are reading this, we live in a world that is angry. In a nation that wants to speak and be heard, maybe we as Christians should stop and listen. Stop and be the hands and feet of Jesus. Let us be peace makers and people of hope. Today is Epiphany. The day we remember that God wants all people to know of his love for the world. Maybe today we can share Jesus with people just by listening and offering peace.
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. 26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.James 1:19-27