Friday, September 30, 2005

Sunday School Lesson: Stephen the Faithful Servant

Lesson: Faithful Servant

Purpose: To help us recognize and be grateful for the Spirit’s gift of leadership in the church.

Scripture: Act 6:8-15, 7:53-60

The infant church had been growing rapidly. This growth was not only in the number of believers and their faith, but also conflicts inside the church and persecution from the outside.

One conflict which may not seem very significant to some of us appears in Acts 6:1-7. We learned in previous lessons how the community of believers lived in fellowship, sharing meals and possessions. In this passage we learn that one group of believers felt that they were being slighted in the daily distribution of food. By this time, in this rapidly growing congregation, the twelve Apostles realize that they cannot handle every task personally. They need help.
Verse 2b: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables."

Needing help is not a bad problem to have in any congregation, but it is a problem that has to be dealt with. Our Leadership Committee has been meeting for the past six weeks making sure that we have a person for every job in the church for next year and that every person willing and able has a job. This is my first year on this committee and it is not as easy as you would think. We cannot simply toss everyone’s name in a hat and start drawing names to fill the positions. We have to make sure that each nominee is paired with a position which will compliment the person as well as the person benefit the position.

In Acts 6, the twelve essentially appointed a Leadership Committee. The task was to appoint seven men "to wait tables." They asked the congregation to select "men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom..." Qualities that we still look for today. One of the seven selected was Stephen, the faithful servant of today’s lesson.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
(Act 6:8-15 ESV)

It’s difficult to tell, but the accusations may have been coming from one synagogue or from several. Jewish history claims as many as 400 synagogues in and around Jerusalem in the first century. The Freedmen were descendants of emancipated Jewish slaves. One interesting note is that some of the protesters were from Cilicia, the home country of Saul (later known as Paul) who is also mentioned in our next passage. We know that Saul was a Pharisee. Could he have been one of those who brought the original complaint against Stephen?

What position in our church would be equal to "waiting on tables"?

How would you describe the folks in our church who do the everyday jobs?

How is Stephen described in verse 8?
"Full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people."

What reaction do you think we would get from the world around us if everyone in every position in the church "did great wonders and signs among the people"?

Would the reaction be positive or negative?

Do you think that much of the problem was simply because these people could not understand such wisdom coming from a "table waiter"?

What does it mean to be "full of God’s grace and power"?

Why is that many times people become their angriest when confronted with truth?

The biggest problem I see today is that many (if not most) folks deny that there is "truth". Many people believe that the only definition of truth is what each person thinks is true, so there are as many definitions of truth as there are people defining it. When confronted with "THE TRUTH" those who hold to their own personal truth cry the "I" word. Intolerance. "THE TRUTH" is seen as intolerant to the idea that all values and truths are considered equal. Many people place a blanket label on Christians as intolerant, homophobic, or bigoted. Many are, but most are not. Most of us truly do "hate the sin, but love the sinner". This is a concept that many find difficult to understand.

But then there are the folks with the idea that if they are not making people mad, that they are not serving God properly. They believe that the Gospel is and should be offensive. The more they offend through their witness, the more righteous they think they are. Baloney. If you ARE righteous, you may possibly be persecuted for it. But when folks retaliate to your obnoxiousness do not claim that you are being persecuted for righteousness sake.

When his accusers were unable to defeat Stephen with debate, what did they do?
They resorted to deceit, conspiracy, and lies.

What are some ways that modern Christians handle disagreements?

When we read the next section of scripture we’ll see an example of Christian love that would be difficult for anyone to live up to.

Acts 7:1-53 is the longest sermon in the book of Acts. Basically Stephen gives a history lesson of Israel. The theme is that throughout their history the Jewish people rejected those who God sent to lead them. They rejected Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, they practiced idolatry in the desert and disobeyed God by building a Temple. The ultimate rejection was of Jesus. This same Sanhedrin to whom Stephen gives this history to is the same as the one who condemned Christ not long before.

How much time did Stephen have to prepare his sermon?

Did all of this detailed knowledge of the Old Testament come off the top of his head?

How well would any of us do, off the top of our heads, telling the story of the Old Testament?

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."
(Act 7:51-53 ESV)

This is the conclusion of the sermon. Based on this paragraph how would you describe Stephen?
Courageous? Brave? Crazy for Jesus? Sold out to God?

you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
(Act 7:53-60 ESV)

Stephen did not fight back or vow to get even. Why is it important that Christians not respond in vindictive anger when facing opposition?
We should always remember the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus on Calvary.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.
(Jam 1:19-20 ESV)

The main point of contention between the Sanhedrin and Stephen is very similar to what they accused Jesus of. They claimed that Stephen said things "against this holy place (the Temple) and the law."

How do we as Christians feel when someone (even someone from within the church) challenges one of our doctrines or traditions, or the indisputable, absolute, factuality of scripture?

Is it possible that certain doctrines or traditions could hinder spiritual growth among believers?

Many people see truth in the scriptures, yet have problems accepting as absolute fact a six day creation, or a virgin birth, or a worldwide catastrophic flood.

Should these folks be stoned?

But they are challenging our basic doctrines and beliefs.

Should we exclude them from worship and communion?

But they don’t accept every statement of our creeds.

Should they be rejected and told that they are not Christians?

But they are rejecting us. (Just like Stephen rejected the Council.)

In what ways should we be like Stephen?

How many Christians today are willing to die for what they believe?

We can narrow that one down a lot by asking: How many Christians today are willing to live what they profess?

God does not call all of us to be martyrs, but he does call all of us to be "living sacrifices". In some respects, it may be harder to live for Christ than to die for Him; but if we are living for him, we will be prepared to die for Him if that is what God calls us to do.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hymn of the Week

hymn (pr.: ‘him)
1: a song of praise to God
2: a song of praise or joy

We Live
by Superchic(k)
from the cd Beauty From Pain.

There's a cross on the side of the road
Where a mother lost a son
How could she know that the morning he left
Would be their last time she'd trade with him for a little more time
So she could say she loved him one more time
And hold him tight
But with life we never know
When we're coming up to the end of the road
So what do we do then
With tragedy around the bend?

We live we love
We forgive and never give up
Cuz the days we are given are gifts from above
Today we remember to live and to love
We live we love
We forgive and never give up
Cuz the days we are given are gifts from above
Today we remember to live and to love

There is a man who waits for the tests
To see if the cancer has spread yet
And now he asks, "So why did I wait to live till it was time to die?"
If I could have the time back how I'd live
Life is such a gift
So how does the story end?
Well this is your story and it all depends
So don't let it become true
Get out and do what we are meant to do


Waking up to another dark morning
People are mourning
The weather in life outside is storming
But what would it take for the clouds to break
For us to realize each day is a gift somehow, someway
So get our heads up out of the darkness
And spark this new mindset and start to live life cuz it ain't gone yet
And tragedy is a reminder to take off the blinders
And wake up and live the life we're supposed to take up
Moving forward with all our heads up cuz life is worth living

Chorus (to fade)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

My Name is Earl

I am by no means a big television fan. Especially network tv. But last Tuesday night my channel surfing better-half happened to be passing NBC just at the time this new program was debuting.

Earl (Jason Lee) immediately caught my attention. Within minutes I was laughing out loud. It seems that the best comedy is when I am reminded of folks that I can relate to. (Not that Earl reminds me of any of my relatives. It's that other bunch the next county over that I am reminded of most.)

Earl was on a downward spiral. He and his brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) were unemployed. His wife Joy (Jamie Pressly) leaves with Earl Jr. for their friend and bartender Darnell (Eddie Steeples) to whom Earl Jr. bears a striking resemblance.

Things seem to be looking up when Earl scratches off a winning lottery ticket. As he walks across the street with his ticket, he is hit by a car and loses the ticket.

Recovering in the hospital, Earl watches a show where Carson Daly says that all his good fortune is the result of doing good things for other people. Earl discovers karma. Hoping to reverse the course of his life, Earl makes a list of every bad thing he has done in his life and begins a quest to make ammends.

With a list of over two hundred offences, this series is planning for the long haul.

I don't buy into the whole karma thing, but the show is fun.

"Do good things and good things will happen to you. Do bad things and it will come back and bite you in the ass. " - Earl

Let's see if Earl has enough good in him and if this show can answer the age-old question: How good is good enough?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Friendship Plate

We received a pleasant surprise last week. Our friends, Scott and Mary, telephoned to inform us that they were on their way over and that they had something for us. They offered no hints as to what the surprise was.

It happened to be a plate full of Pineapple Upside-Down Biscuits. They got the recipe from Paula Dean’s Food Network show, Paula's Home Cooking. As good as those biscuits were, and as worthy of a write-up, I am not writing about the biscuits. I am writing about the plate.

The Friendship Plate was started on the first Sunday in January of 2005 by Kirk and Martha. (Kirk is our pastor and Martha his better-half. And don’t think bad of me for calling the Pastor by his name instead of his title. To me, Friend Kirk ranks above Pastor Kirk, and so I and everyone else simply call him Kirk.)

Anyway, back to the plate. Here it is:

It reads:

"This plate shall have no owner
For its journey never ends.
It travels in the circle
Of our family and our friends.

It carries love from home to home
For everyone to share.
The food that's placed upon it
Is filled with love and care.

So please enjoy what's on this plate,
Then fill it up again,
And pass along the love it holds,
To family and your friends."

Kirk and Martha thought that this was a great idea for Friendship United Methodist Church and it was and is. Along with the plate of goodies comes a journal in which the recipients can write down what they think of our church or any fond memories from the church and then pass the journal along with something fresh-from-the-kitchen to someone else and so on and so forth.

Anyone who loves our church and reads this journal and finishes it dry-eyed must have no heart. The plate’s first lucky recipient was the newest family at the church. They passed it on to a very special lady who has been a member of FUMC for forty or so years. Since then it has made stops at the homes of other newbies and other long-time members as well as a couple of homes like ours which are somewhere in the middle. The things written in this journal reinforce what everyone already knows: Friendship is a very loving church and is very aptly named.

Tonight I am baking my almost known "ChunkyChocolatePeanutButterBars".

Too bad for the Vines that they have already received the Friendship plate once. They paid some big bucks for a plate of these bars at last years United Methodist Men bake sale, so I’m sure they would have loved to get a plate for free.