Peace be with you!
The devil challenges our relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit through brutal acts of injustice. Watching a loved one suffer from cancer, especially when it is terminal, is difficult beyond any imagination. God did not create us to make us suffer – that is the work of the devil. This week a five year-old identical twin, Ben, died after suffering for four months from Stage IV glioblastoma, a brain cancer. His mother, Mindy, blogged throughout the journey and kept her focus on God’s will. The blog entry about the night Ben entered heaven reflected all of the emotions Mindy and her husband are going through – the sadness of never seeing their son on earth again, the joy of knowing Ben is in heaven and no longer in pain, and the anxiety of having to tell his identical twin, Jack. Fortunately Jack noticed Ben was missing and took comfort in knowing Ben, his twin and first friend, was in heaven with Jesus. Mindy writes,
You see, heaven makes all the difference. Because God conquered death, He paved the way for us to be with Him forever. In eternity. Because we serve a Living God who loves us even more than we can imagine, we can have confidence in His ability to care for our loved ones after they take their last breath. Because of heaven, I know that I will be reunited with my Benjamin again someday. And so will Jack. And the rest of us that love Jesus.
Mindy’s words are a true testament of faith as she leans on God the Father for comfort. Ben is in a better place – free of pain.
The devil has been working against God the Father since before creation. When Jesus walked on earth, the devil tempted him for forty days in the wilderness. After Jesus conquered death and ascended into heaven, two groups emerged – the Jewish authorities who rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the apostles who witnessed and experienced Jesus’ ascension after he gave them the Holy Spirit. Stephen is one of the seven men chosen by the twelve disciples to share the good news with other communities (Acts 6:1-6).
Before our reading, Stephen had just finished delivering a sermon to the Jewish authorities who rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Stephen outlined the Jewish heritage to show how the Israelites have a long history of rejecting God’s prophets and leaders. The Israelites believed they were better off in Egypt than in the wilderness – even though in the wilderness, they were with the Lord and headed to the Promise Land. The Israelites rejected the Ten Commandments Moses delivered from God and made their own idols. The Israelites have killed other prophets in the past for speaking God’s message and judgments. The Jews rejected Jesus’ good news and killed him for speaking blasphemy, and therefore they reject Jesus as the Messiah. Stephen challenged the Jewish authorities about where God is really presence. The Jewish authorities believed God lived within the walls of the temple, but Stephen stated that God is present everywhere — including when the Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years. God is not confined to a building but is readily available to everyone everywhere.
In our reading today, we see that the Jewish authorities do not like what Stephen is saying. They believe Stephen is speaking blasphemy against God the Father. The good news of Jesus Christ breaks down everything the Jewish authorities believe is true. Their foundation would be broken down if they accepted the good news. Not only that, but the good news challenges their political views and how they would influence the local politics.
The Jewish authorities just cannot let Stephen go on spreading this “blasphemy,” so they take the necessary actions to stop him: they stone him to death. The brutal act makes us squirm in our seats; after all, Jesus warned us this would happen. Stephen is the first of many martyrs. There are still martyrs today who are killed for believing in the good news of Jesus Christ. For instance, just this week news broke about Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag, a young pregnant mother who was sentenced to death by a Islamic judge for converting to Christianity and marrying a Christian husband. The brutal acts against Christians do not end with the Bible but continue into the present.
Stephen is not afraid to die. He looks towards heaven and sees Jesus standing ready to lift him up (Acts 7:56).
Whether our lives end in martyrdom, are cut short by a devastating illness, or last until old age, one thing is certain: we all die. Stephen understands this life on earth is temporary and not the end. Jesus promises death is not the end, but life continues in heaven with the promise of eternal life from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
As the Jewish authorities stone him to death, Stephen echoes Jesus’ dying words by saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59 NRSV). Stephen puts his life in God’s hands, because he knows he is going to join God in heaven. Before he dies, Stephen also prays for Jewish authorities, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60 NRSV). Stephen understands this is an act of the devil, and his reward is waiting in heaven.
Like Stephen, Ben, the five year-old identical twin, falls victim to the devil’s curse of death and dies fighting for the good news. Like Stephen, Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag is being killed for standing up for her faith. Like Stephen, we threaten the traditions of the authorities and face being caught between the devil and God. Like Stephen, we stand with God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and will not give in to the devil’s demands. Like Stephen, we hold on to the promise of eternal life in heaven with the Triune God –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for giving us the hope of eternal life, no matter how our time on earth ends. Help those who are experiencing suffering for their faith and especially provide strength and hope to our sister Meriam Ibrahim. Be also with Mindy Sauer and Ben’s whole family and comfort all who mourn. Thank you for the rich promises you give us because of Jesus. Amen.
Please answer the following reflective questions in the comments below. Please agree to disagree and be respectful to each other. (If you have not already done so, please also take a moment, to sign the behavior covenant by commenting on it.) You can answer as many questions as you would like.
- What encounters with death have you had that made you struggle with faith?
- In what way do Jesus’ death and resurrection provide you with comfort in those situations?
- Write a letter on Meriam Ibrahim’s behalf to repeal the Islamic ruling to have her hung for her religious convictions. Information as to where to send the letters can be found here.