We find ourselves today in the sixth chapter of Acts, verses eight through fifteen. The spotlight is shining squarely on the rising star of the early church, Stephen. He is respected by everyone. Prior to our reading, we were told, he was so respected he got to serve on the first committee in the history of the church. (Lucky him!) In our reading for today, his legend continues to grow. He was performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people. That line is significant because he was the first one to perform a miracle besides the apostles. The news of Stephen’s miraculous power spread throughout the land. Everyone must have been excited, except one group, the Sanhedrin. To them, the news of his miraculous power was not welcomed. To them, it meant their Jesus problem continued. They responded to Stephen as they had responded to Jesus and Peter in the past. They had him arrested. Like Jesus and Peter, Stephen did nothing wrong. The Sanhedrin was desperate, so they break the law. Verse 13 says, they found people to offer false testimonies against Stephen. In other words, they found people to lie about Stephen. This is not an isolated case. It is still happening in our time. This is the sad truth.
There are many in our time who hate the church. There are several reasons why. Some have problems with authority figures. Some are spiritually immature. Some are trying to deny the truth, Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Some are mad at the church because of all the scandals. The church is not a perfect institution. We are famous for our self-inflected wounds. Some are mad at God because of the ugliest that exists in our world. There are several reasons why people hate the church, but they all have a single goal. They simply want the church to go away, so they offer false testimony against the church. Today, we will look at two great lies that exist within American society about the church.
This is lie number one: God does not exist. According to the Pew Research group, 7% of the world’s population has accepted this lie. According to Vox, 3% of Americans are atheists. Some high-profile celebrities are in this group. Consider these names with me:
Have you ever known an atheist? Have you ever known someone who embraced the lie, God does not exist. It is a sociological way of looking at life. Every society needs a god, who regulates behavior of his citizens. He is the ultimate judge. In the end, he punishes the bad and rewards the good. Heaven is nothing more than a carrot to lead the people. It is a cold way of looking at life. That is why atheists do not believe in the existence of God.
This is my rebuttal: Christianity is more than a series of laws. It is more than a moral code. Christianity is about relationships. Christianity fills a void in your soul. Consider these three quotes with me:
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once said, “My heart was restless until I found my rest in God”
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) once said, “There is within each person a God-shaped vacuum.”
Rudolf Bultman (1884-1976) once said, “Within each one of us is a faint recollection of Eden calling us home.”
Each one of these quotes from various times in history are telling us the same thing. Our lives are incomplete without God. That is what I have experienced in my life.
For thirty years, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That is why the world was shocked when his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), defected in 1967. In 1978, she became a naturalized citizen. The world wanted to know why she left his Russia, hence her family.
She explained why with these words:
“I found it impossible to exist without God in one’s heart. I came to that conclusion myself, without anybody’s help or preaching. That was a great change because since that moment the main dogmas of Communism lost their significance for me. I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia.”
You can ask Svetlana and she will tell you. God not only exists, but God is also one of the major factors in our lives.
This is lie number two: Life is better without religion. Years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. I am still processing that trip because it is a humbling place. I was unprepared for the spiritual tension. There is no other way to say it. God is doing something special in that land. After all, three major world religions have their origin there, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No place illustrates that spiritual tension more than the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a sacred spot to the Jews because the was where the old Hebrew Temple sat. That is where the Holy of Holies sat, where the Jews believed God resided. It is a sacred spot to Christians because Jesus visited that ancient temple. It is a sacred spot to Muslims because the Dome of the Rock now sits on that spot. It is where Muslims say the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Temple Mount is an incredible place. Side by side by side are the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. The spiritual tension is thick.
Within our world today there are many examples of spiritual tension. The lie, life is better without religion, is built on that tension. Our world is getting smaller. Like it or not, improved transportation and communication is bringing us together! If you just look at the news, then you can see their point. How many religious wars can you name? How many religious wars have there been in world history? Religion is a wonderful flag to wave during military conflict, because it unites the people against a common enemy. No wonder some believe life is better without religion.
This is my rebuttal: Real Christianity has nothing to do with politics. Real Christianity has nothing to do with a rules or beliefs. Real Christianity has nothing to do with being right or wrong. However, real Christianity has everything to do with living your life with God. Jesus is the great bridge between mankind and God. Real Christianity is about building a relationship with God. The people embraced Stephen’s miraculous signs and miracles because they wanted a reminder that God was with them. We love to hear about miracles in our time for the same reason. They remind us God has not forgotten us. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not rules. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not politics. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not customs or traditions. I can not imagine living without God.
His name was Ariel Castro (1960-2013). You remember his story. He held three young women hostages in his Cleveland, Ohio home. On the day one of his victims escaped, he was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. In the end, he pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder as part of his plea bargain. For his crimes he was sentenced to life in prison and 1,000 years without the possibility of parole. One month into his imprisonment committed suicide by hanging himself with bedsheets in his prison cell. During his last court appearance, Castro stood before the judge with his eyes closed. It was like he was trying to escape his reality. The judge ordered him to open his eyes and look at victims. Reluctantly, he did, but he never said a word. He didn’t say a word because everyone knew the truth. Ariel Castro was guilty.
It is a challenging time to be a believer. It is like the whole church is on trial. The whole world seems to be against us. Just like in the days of Stephen, many are spreading false testimonies. In other words, they are lying. They are saying God does not exist and life is better without religion. They are lying to discredit us. We can no longer just stand there with our eyes and mouths closed. We must defend ourselves because we have done nothing wrong. We are innocent and we know the truth. It is all about Jesus. The Master said it himself, in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”