Monday, 1 February 2016

A Manageable God?

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
Then the high priest asked Stephen, ‘Are these charges true?’ To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you...” When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 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. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
Acts 7:1-3, 54-56

Originally selected to distribute food to needy widows, Stephen ends up being the first Christian to die for proclaiming Jesus. Falsely accused of speaking against the law and the temple, he replies by running through the Old Testament story – providing, in the process, the longest speech in the book of Acts. But how does it work as a response?

In part is a recurring theme of rejection, made explicit at the end when he accuses his audience of continuing the pattern of their ancestors, of rejecting Moses and the law, persecuting the prophets, and now killing Jesus (7:51-53).

More significantly, however, Stephen shows that God’s presence and blessing were never limited to the land or the temple. The ‘God of glory’ (where ‘glory’ is regularly associated with the temple) appeared to Abraham not in Israel but in Mesopotamia. The ‘holy ground’ on which Moses met the Lord was miles away from the promised land, and there wasn’t an altar there, let alone a temple! When he says that God does not live in houses ‘made by human hands’ (7:48), Stephen even suggests that the temple has become an idol.

Even so, it is not so much the content of his speech as his vision and claims in 7:55-56 that tip his accusers over the edge, where it becomes clear that Stephen believes the ‘glory of God’ which appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia is now associated with Jesus.

Stephen’s criticism, of course, is not with the temple itself; but, properly understood, the biblical story has a global reach where God’s blessing is not limited to one nation, land, or building. The story of the Bible points beyond Abraham and Moses and the law and the temple to one who would come from the Father, full of grace and truth. That story has come to its climax in the ascended Lord who now occupies the place of universal authority, where God himself dwells.

For us too, perhaps, Stephen’s speech is a reminder that God is not manageable. He cannot be isolated by a particular building or institution, a cherished tradition or ritual, a deeply held viewpoint or favoured version of the Bible. For us too, then, comes the challenge that he will not be captured by anything that might usurp the place that rightly belongs to him alone.

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