Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (April 20, 2008)
"Adjustments" (Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60)

When I was in college, I had terrible migraine headaches. Nothing seemed to help. A friend told me to go see a chiropractor. At the time, I thought it was all a bunch of "snake oil." But I figured, what have I got to lose? So, upon my friend's recommendation, I made an appointment. The doctor took x-rays of my neck and found that my neck was indeed out of alignment. The vertebrae were "stair-stepped" and twisted on their axis. The nerves and blood vessels were all being pinched. After a two-year program of adjustments, the migraines disappeared. Never had one since.

Since then, I've been treated for a misalignment in my hip which was causing some numbness and tingling in my leg. After a series of adjustments ... no more numbness, no more tingling. Julie also has been seeing a chiropractor for some time, and she also has benefited from the adjustments she has received.

Not everyone agrees whether chiropractic treatments really work. But there must be something to it. All kinds of people testify that it works for them. The way I understand it, the philosophy behind chiropractic medicine is that the bones in your back and in the rest of your body need to be aligned. When things are aligned properly, then your nervous system and your circulatory system can operate as it was intended.

When things are aligned properly in the Church, then things work the way are intended. Too often, however, sinful hearts get in the way ... and we get out of alignment with God and with each other. And that's tragic, because we need each other when we are faced with opposition from a world that opposes Christ and his Church.

We are often like the people whom Stephen criticizes in our first reading today: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit." We get stiff-necked and stubborn in the church ... it has to be my way or the highway. We act as if our Baptism did not matter. We know what God's Word says, and how the Holy Spirit directs us through that Word. Yet we still resist him and do the opposite.

In our text, Luke brings up an early conflict that illustrates this. It was a conflict between those whom he calls the Hellenists and the Hebrews. The Hellenists were Jews who had become Christians, but spoke Greek and were very much influenced by Greek culture, as was much of the Mediterranean world of that day. In fact, these Hellenists were probably born outside of Palestine, since there were many Jewish communities in places like northern Egypt and Asia Minor, where Turkey is today. The Hebrews were Jews who had become Christians, but spoke Hebrew and who felt that Greek culture conflicted with their way of life. They looked down upon the Hellenists.

Here was the situation. In those days, widows in the community were cared for by a daily collection of food which was given to the widows. Apparently, the Hellenist widows were being neglected. The Hebrew widows were being shown favoritism.

God says that we are to show no favoritism. Peter learned this lesson later in the vision of the sheet out of heaven where God told him to eat unclean animals. Turns out, the vision wasn't about animals, after all, but about people. And so Peter said, "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality." (Acts 10:34) And the apostle James wrote, "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." (James 2:8-9)

It's natural to care for those whom we like better than others. But what comes naturally is also sinful. And the other person whom we like better than others is "me" ... also known as "myself" and "I." We like to guard our own domain and look out for our own interests ... which is really not "looking out" at all, but rather "looking in" ... it's "looking in" to our own needs and wants at the expense of others. Our gaze is directed to the wrong place. You and I need a spiritual neck adjustment.

How did the Church respond to the situation between the Hellenists and Hebrews? They made an adjustment. They made an organizational adjustment in order to better care for each others' needs. The Twelve Apostles called all the disciples together, and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And that's exactly what they did.

The Church is free to make adjustments along the way to meet the needs of its people. The one thing that must never be adjusted is the ministry of the Word. God calls pastors to serve congregations with Word and Sacrament ministry. But the way the Church arranges itself, the way boards and committees work, the helping offices like elder, deacon, deaconess, Sunday School teacher, trustee, and so forth ... these can all be rearranged, renamed, or even recreated in whatever way God's people decide is best. God has given us a lot of freedom in these matters. There is no divinely mandated form of church organization, other than pastor and people together, hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments.

But notice how Stephen, although called by the church to "wait on tables," was still engaged in proclaiming Christ. All of God's people are to be engaged in proclaiming Christ as "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." (John 14:6) That's part of being a member of God's royal priesthood, proclaiming the "excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)

And like Stephen, we will face opposition when we preach Christ. Stephen's whole sermon in chapter 7 recounts the history of Israel from Abraham to Solomon, how God preserved them as a people, yet how over and over again they rejected the leaders and prophets that God sent to them. He concludes by calling them "stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears." That would be especially offensive to his Jewish hearers. Although they had received the covenant sign of circumcision, yet their hearts were not devoted to God nor were they willing to listen to his Word. Stephen says they were resisting the Holy Spirit, following in the footsteps of their fathers in persecuting and killing the prophets who long ago announced the coming of the Christ, whom they also put to death.

Like Stephen, we should never be surprised when our message is met with a similar response as his message ... anger, rage, murderous intentions ... if not in reality, then certainly in the heart. You have to wonder if Stephen's sermon was cut short by the crowd. He preached a lot of Law, didn't he? Was he getting to the Gospel, but was cut short by a few well-aimed rocks? The thing is, even the Gospel is often met with such a response. Christ is "a stone of stumbling" and "a rock of offense." (1 Peter 2:8) The message of God's love and forgiveness in Christ Jesus is indeed a beautiful message ... God's own sacrifice for sinners like you and me. But people in this day and age don't want to hear that they are sinners. They don't want to hear about the exclusivity of the Gospel ... that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. They stiffen their necks when these things are preached.

Our Lord Jesus was never stiff-necked or stubborn when it came to wanting things his own way. Jesus never needed a spiritual neck adjustment. He always directed his gaze toward his Father in heaven and did his will. Jesus was and is, as Stephen called him, the "Righteous One" who kept God's Law perfectly where you and I have not. Jesus never showed favoritism (nor does he today, and that's Good News for you and me). Jesus spent time with sinners of every stripe. His mercy was given to Jew and Gentile alike. The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism and Jesus never resisted the Spirit's direction. The Spirit directed Christ into the wilderness, where he resisted Satan's temptations. And the Spirit directed Christ's whole life toward the cross where he paid for the sins of the world with his own blood. To all appearances, it seemed as if Jesus was an innocent victim of a greedy betrayer and a bloodthirsty, murderous crowd. But this was all in God's plan. Everything was under control. Nothing happened outside of God's almighty hand, including the innocent suffering and death of God's beloved Son for the life of the world.

In Stephen's moment of crisis, he was strengthened by a glorious vision. He gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and the Risen and Ascended Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus is usually described as being seated at the right hand of the Father, but here Jesus is standing. It's as if Jesus has stood up to view what was happening at the moment, to stand right alongside Stephen, to encourage him in his moment of need, to welcome him into heaven. Jesus is the one who died for Stephen's sins. Jesus is the one who rose to give Stephen eternal life and the promise of resurrection on the last day. Jesus is the one who now stands before the Father and intercedes for all who trust in him (Heb 7:25). Jesus is the one who has prepared a mansion for Stephen, so that at the moment of death, Stephen could say, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," echoing what Jesus said from the cross just before he died, "Into your hands I commit my spirit." Jesus is the one who forgave Stephen all his sins, so that Stephen could look at the very people pelting him with rocks and say, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" also echoing the Lord's words in his dying moments, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Our Lord Jesus forgives us for our stiff-necks, for the times when we resist the Holy Spirit, when we disobey even when we know better. And so, we can come to him with repentant hearts, and he gives us a spiritual neck adjustment. He turns our gaze away from ourselves and toward him. And then he directs our gaze toward our neighbor to meet their needs in love, without showing favoritism. He gets us aligned with him so that we can be aligned with each other and continue the mission of the Church, which is proclaiming Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins.

When faced with opposition because of your confession of faith in Christ, remember how Jesus has given you a spiritual neck adjustment. Now, you can lift up your head and gaze with the eyes of faith into heaven and see Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The same Jesus whom Stephen saw is the one who died for your sins. This same Jesus is the one who rose to give you eternal life and the promise of resurrection on the last day. This same Jesus still stands before the Father in heaven and intercedes for you. Nothing happens apart from his strong hand or his loving care. He sees you and knows what you are going through. A mansion has been prepared for you. Now, you can look at your enemies and say, "Lord, do not hold their sins against them." And when your last hour comes, you also can say, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."


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