Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jesus Appears to Stephen and Saul

Introduction
            There is a show on the History Channel called Ancient Aliens.  Have you heard of it?  During the show experts supposedly "investigate" ancient instances where aliens from outer space might have visited the earth.  For instance, one episode investigated the possibility that aliens visited the Earth and helped the ancient Egyptians build the great pyramids.  The main point was it would have been impossible for the Egyptians to build such massive, technologically advanced structures without the help of a more advance species.  Thus, aliens must have visited.  Perhaps I'm oversimplifying their thesis, but you get the gist of it.
            Maybe you like the show.  It's just not my thing.  I like history, but that's just not real history to me.  However, there must be quite a lot of people in America that like the show, because it's been a success and they keep making new episodes.  Well, we have such a thing we call "fake news" so I guess it's only natural that we would have such a thing as "fake history."
            The success of shows like Ancient Aliens is possible because a large portion of our population believes it is quite plausible that aliens exist somewhere in our universe.  A Newsweek article reported that 52% of Americans believe alien life exists.  The reasoning usually goes that our universe is so infinite with so many solar systems, that there must be a planet somewhere that has the conditions necessary to support life and, therefore, alien life must exist somewhere.  And if it does, there is a good probability it is intelligent, maybe far more intelligent than us, maybe intelligent enough that it can travel the universe.  And this reasoning is not limited to fringe groups and conspiracy theorists.   Even intelligent, highly educated NASA scientists argue in favor of the existence of alien life on other planets.
            And yet these same rational, intelligent, scientific people often will be the same ones who cannot accept the supernatural occurrences reported in the Bible.  They may believe in aliens or even that aliens crashed in the Nevada dessert at a place called "Area 51" as perfectly reasonable, but reject the idea that Christ rose from the dead as totally ludicrous.  They accept aliens as rational science, but reject a risen Christ as superstitious nonsense.
            I'm not saying that aliens do not exist.  Maybe they do.  My point is this.  There is absolutely no definitive evidence that aliens exist.  In fact, one could argue there is far less credible evidence for aliens than many of the supernatural miracles we find in the Bible.  So, it is not that aliens are more rational and reasonable than the Son of God rising from the dead.  Both ideas are really based on faith supported by a certain amount of mental reasoning.  However, in the end, it's what you choose to believe that makes the difference.  And it would seem that in our modern culture, it will soon be more fashionable and acceptable to believe in aliens than to believe Jesus Christ rose from the grave.  What do you choose to believe?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
            Those who are Christians, who are truly saved, believe that Jesus lived and died and rose from the grave.  True Christians believe Jesus is alive and has appeared to his followers and may still appear to us today (in one way or another).  I have discussed several stories about Christ appearing to his followers in bodily form during the first forty days after his resurrection.  But then Christ ascended to heaven and is no longer on the earth in bodily form the way he was in those first forty days.  Since then, the risen Christ is present with us in spiritual form, through the Holy Spirit.  And so today, I want to share two stories from the Book of Acts in the Bible.


Jesus Appeared to Stephen and Saul             The resurrection appearances we will examine today were witness by two very different people--Stephen and Saul.  Let me give some brief background on each before we read their accounts from the Book of Acts.
            First there is Stephen.  Stephen was one of the first deacons of the early Church.  The Church was growing and the Disciples had a problem.  There were so many new people joining the Church who needed nurturing and assistance it was consuming too much of the Disciples' time they couldn't focus on teaching, preaching, and leading the Church.  So they decided to select a few godly men to serve as deacons who would focus on caring for the needs of people in the church--especially assisting with outreach to widows.  Stephen was one of the godly men they chose.  We will also see Stephen became the first martyr of the church recorded in the Bible (a martyr is someone who loses their life for the sake of the Christian faith).
            The second person we will see who witnessed the risen Christ was a man named Saul.  Now, this is not the King Saul of the Old Testament, but you probably have heard of Saul, but by a different name.  This Saul in the New Testament is usually known by the name Paul, the Apostle Paul.  Paul has been called the most influential Christian figure of the New Testament (besides Jesus) and the greatest evangelist of the church.  The Apostle Paul wrote nearly half of the New Testament and he traveled all over the known world converting people to Christ and planting churches.  God used Paul to spread Christianity so it grew from a small Jewish sect to a world-wide religion (and the largest world religion today).  Saul and Paul were the same man, but before Saul became Paul, he was a very different man.  Before Saul became a Christian, he tried to destroy Christianity.  The Saul of our story was Jewish religious fanatic bent on wiping out Christianity, which he saw as a perversion of true religion and a rival threat to the Jewish faith.
            But first, let's read Stephen's account of seeing the risen Christ.

Acts 7:54-58
54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”

57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him 58 and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Jesus Appeared to Stephen
            First of all, we see Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit.  People could tell there was something special about Stephen.  He was humble, giving, selfless, caring, and willing to serve others.  That's why he was chosen to be a deacon who would serve the widows and others in need in the early Church.  Stephen didn't need the spotlight to be on him.  He was a servant leader. 
            Wouldn't you like to be more like Stephen--to be full of the Holy Spirit?  Well, you can't be full of the Holy Spirit if you are already full of yourself!  If you want to be full of the Holy Spirit, you've got to empty yourself.  Get rid of your selfish attitudes, your selfish desires, your ego, your need to be the center of attention.  Then you will be empty and there will be space for the Holy Spirit to fill you.  You will be filled with the Spirit to the degree you are willing to empty yourself.
            According to Acts 6:5, Stephen was also full of faith.  And his faith helped him to see Jesus and to serve him, even when it was difficult, even when the stones were crashing down on him.  The reading makes no mention of him being afraid.  No. We have this sense that Stephen was at completely at peace and willing lay down his life.  And even as he was dying, his faith helped him to see Christ.
            Faith is so important to us.  It is essential.  Faith helps us to see the risen Christ--especially when we need it most, when everything is crashing down around us.  Faith helps you endure for Christ when serving and loving others us hard, when you are frustrated, when you don't seem to be getting anywhere.  Do you have faith?  Couldn't we all use a little more?  The time to strengthen our faith is now, especially before the trials and tribulations of life come.  Better to build that faith when everything is at ease, and then you will have a large store of faith to draw from when troubles come.
            There are ways to build your faith.  Ways that surely helped Stephen.  Prayer is essential to strengthen your faith.  Talking to Jesus everyday helps us  know him and trust him more.  Then when we need to cry out to him because of trials, we already have a relationship to draw upon.  Study and worship are also essential to strong faith.  This is not just going to church and going through the motions, but actually pouring out your heart to Christ and honoring him through your study and worship.  Fellowship is another key ingredient to strong faith.  It is more than just being around other Christians.  Real, vital fellowship is intimately sharing your life and struggles with other believers--trusting them, confiding in them, encouraging and being encouraged by them.  And finally serving others is a tremendous and indispensable way we build our faith.
            Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit and it helped him see the risen Christ in the glory of Heaven even as he was being murdered because of his beliefs.  And the man mentioned at the end of the story, who was complicit in Stephen's murder, was the second man we will read about who had a very different encounter with the risen Christ-.  His name was Saul. 

Acts 9:1-9
1 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.

            Saul was bent on destroying the Christian faith.  He was a very religious person, but his religion--which was supposed to lead him closer to God--actually blinded him to the truth and made him fight against the very God he claimed to serve.  Saul would do anything to destroy the Christians he supposed were threatening his religion. 

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

            The voice speaking to Saul is Christ. Christ asks Saul why he is persecuting him.  But Saul was not persecuting Christ; he was persecuting Christians.  Yet Christians make up the body of Christ.  So persecuting Christians is the same as persecuting Christ.  This is a clue for us if we want to see the risen Christ on earth.  Whenever Christians gather together as the Church, we are the Body of Christ in a very real sense.  One way we can see the risen Christ is through his people, the Church.  And if you turn your back I the Church, you are turning your back on Christ.

“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.

            Notice, Saul doesn’t know who is speaking to him, but he calls the voice lord.  Saul doesn’t know the Lord, but he knows enough to see if this powerful person can knock him on his butt, he is a lord.  But Saul doesn't have a relationship with this Lord yet.
            The lordship of Jesus Christ is a central theme in both of the stories.  When Stephen saw Jesus, he saw him in a Kingdom. Stephen describes Jesus & God in glory and honor.  They are in the glorious Kingdom of Heaven.  Stephen knew Jesus was Lord and he knew the Lord.  What a contrast to Saul.  Saul is religious, but God is not really his Lord, let alone Jesus. Religion is Saul's lord. Religion is his idol.  He is willing to do anything for his religion, even murder.  But his religion has blinded Saul to the very presence of God.  He doesn’t even recognize Jesus when he appears.  He doesn’t even know he’s been persecuting Jesus, the Lord of lords, this whole time!  What about you?  Have you let religion become your god?  Your lord?  Your idol?

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.

Jesus Appears to Saul
            This story tells us something very important about the risen Christ.  Jesus doesn’t just appear to good people.  He will appear to a murderous, evil man like Saul too.  It’s far safer to be spiritually hot or cold than to be lukewarm.  There is hope if you are going down a very bad road; you can always change when Jesus convicts you.  It's even better if you are fervently racing down the right road.  But the truly dangerous path is indifference, complacency, and apathy.  These are the attitudes that lull us to our doom without us even knowing.  It is when we say, “Yeah, I go to church, but I don’t get all serious about it.  I'm not one of those fanatics.”  Or, it is when we say, “Well, I don’t go to church, but I’m a good person.  I'm just as good as the next guy.  I just don't think I need to go to church.”  These kinds of attitudes seduce us into thinking everything is just fine when really it is not, because we are really just not that interested in a genuine, heartfelt relationship with God.
            Saul was a Jewish zealot bent on destroying Christianity, but at least he was not indifferent.  And Jesus appeared to Saul and changed everything.  We find in Saul a man who experienced the risen Christ in a dramatic way and it completely changed the course of his life.  The change was so dramatic, he even changed his name.  Saul became Paul and he became a Christian Apostle, arguably the greatest of all the Apostles--not because of his ego, but because of his willingness to serve the Lord with everything he had and was.

Do You Know the King?
            The Kingdom of God is all around.  It’s everywhere.  But do you know the King?  You know, it amazes me to think we still have countries in this world who have kings and queens.  And it's not backwards, third world countries.  England still has a monarch!  So you can travel to England ans say you have seen the "kingdom."  But it would be really neat be in England and to see the king.  That's a whole new level.  But suppose you were in England and you were invited to a dinner with the king.  Now we are really getting serious!  And yet, that still wouldn't be as impressive as if you got to talk to the king.  It's one thing to see the kingdom, or even the king, but it's a big deal to talk with the king!  Could it get any better?  Yes!  What if you had an ongoing relationship with the king?  What if you had his personal phone number and could call him anytime?  And what if you friendship was so deep that you could ask him for help if you ever needed it?  And what if from time to time the king called you and asked you to do something?  What and honor!  What a privilege!  What if the king was your best friend?  Now we are really talking!
            Well friends, that is what it means to be a true Christian.  The Kingdom of Christ is all around and Jesus is Lord.  But it's one thing to see the Kingdom (or even to see the Lord), but it's a whole new level of spectacular when you have a real relationship with Jesus, when the Lord is your best friend.  When you can call on him in your time of need and when he can call on you to ask you to do something for him.  That is a real honor and privilege.
            Have you seen the risen Lord?  Do you know Him?  Would you recognize Him if he spoke to you?  Do you talk to Him every day?  Do you have a real relationship with Him?  Could you call Him up if you had a real need?  Could He call on you?  Would you obey if He did?  Perhaps He's calling on you today.