Facing a difficult choice

Sermon for Bramley St Peter, 1 May 2022
Readings: Acts 9:1-6 / John 21:1-19

Once upon a time there was a man walking in some remote mountains, many miles from any road or town. He got lost and didn’t know which way to go. It was a hot summer and all the streams were dry, so after two days of walking he ran out of water.  He knew he would die if he didn’t find water soon. So he prayed that God would send him water.

The next morning he saw a small hut or bothy and walked towards it.  The door was open, but there was no one there. In fact, nothing but an old water pump set into the floor.  Ah! He thought, there must be a well under this hut. So he started pumping – up, down, up, down, up, down – but no water flowed.  After a couple of minutes he gave up and sat down on the floor crying, thinking he was going to die of thirst.

Just then, he saw a bottle in the corner.  He went over and picked it up.  It seemed to be filled with water, but there was a handwritten note tied to it.  “Use this water to prime the pump”, it said. “Don’t forget to fill the bottle when you’re finished.”

Well, that gave him a whole new problem.  “What do I do?” he thought. If I follow the instructions, how do I know the pump will work?  The well may be dry, and I will have missed my last chance of a drink.  But If I drink this one bottle, that will be the last drink I ever have.”  He closed his eyes and prayed.  After a few minutes he thought he heard a voice say “Read and act.  Read and act”.  So, with trembling hands, he opened the bottle, opened the top of the pump and poured the water into the priming chamber.

Up, down, up, down, … drip, splash. Up, down, and the water started pouring out.  With a huge laugh of relief he looked up and thanked God, and drank his fill of water. He had a good night’s sleep, and drank more in the morning.  Before leaving the hut, he refilled the bottle, put it back on the floor and added a note at the bottom for the next visitor: “believe me, it works”.

Source for story: https://moralstories26.com/man-lost-in-desert-leap-of-faith-story/ (altered)

We all have choices in life.  Some are trivial: what colour shirt to wear, what to eat for dinner, where to go for a day out.  Some are more important and will affect our future life: what subjects to study at school, which job to apply for, where we live. 

One particular type of choice that we have as grown-ups is our vote – which politician we want to represent our local area.  I hope that all who have the vote this week will use it to elect one of the Bramley councillors.

In all these cases, we have a genuine choice. We might listen to different people’s advice and opinion, but we have to make our own mind up.  Just occasionally, though, we find that although we may seem to have a choice, there is really only one thing we can do.  It might be that the person you love most asks you to marry them, and the only answer is – (yes, yes, yes)

The two Bible stories we heard today are both about people who faced an extremely important choice. As important as the one the thirsty man faced.

Saul had been very doubtful about Jesus.  He didn’t believe that Jesus really was the Messiah, the saviour the Jews had been waiting for. So after Jesus was crucified, and his followers started going all round their country and beyond telling people that Jesus was alive, Saul was angry.  Not content with arguing with them, he started threatening them and having some of them sent to prison. Then came his encounter on the way to Damascus in Syria.  Hearing a voice that said it was Jesus, condemning him for this persecution, because every time he hurt a Christian he was hurting Christ himself. 

In the blindness that followed, he was faced with the most difficult choice of his life.  Either he tried to ignore what had just happened and carry on as someone who opposed and hated Christians, but maybe that would mean remaining blind for the rest of his life.  Or accepting that he had been wrong, that Jesus really was alive, and that he had caused real sorrow to Jesus and real injury to his followers.  What that would lead to, he could not know.  But over the next few days, he came to realise that it was really no choice at all.  When God sent the prophet Ananias to him, Saul was ready to accept Jesus into his life, and his blindness was at an end.  He had started a new life with a new name – Paul.

Peter was faced with a similar choice.  Unlike Saul, he realised while Jesus was still alive that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. But then he messed it up by running away when Jesus was arrested, then denying three times that he even knew him. Like Saul coming to realise what hurt he had caused to Jesus and his church, he was a broken man.  Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples at Easter, Peter and some of the others went back to the life they had before, fishing lake Galilee. When faced with a big choice, it seems easier to ignore it and fall back on familiar routine. 

But Jesus didn’t let him get away with that. He appears on the lakeside, as he had in the locked room in Jerusalem. Three time he asks Peter “do you love me”, and three times Peter replies “Yes, Lord, I love you”, as it were cancelling out the three denials. Each time Jesus responds with “feed my lambs” or “feed my sheep”, meaning that he was being invited to become the first leader of the Christian church. 

What was Peter to do?  Poorly educated fisherman, could he really take on the responsibility of leading a church that was soon to face persecution?  Would he not be better just carrying on the life he knew?  But the large catch of fish that morning had just shown him that if he listened to Jesus and believed him, he could do more with Jesus’ help than he could ever do on his own.  Like the man in the hut, what seemed like an either/or choice was really no choice at all.  It needed a leap of faith that would transform his situation entirely.

Many Christians can tell of a time when we faced a choice like this: maybe at a youth group or evangelistic event.  Maybe during an Alpha course. Maybe by reading the Bible for ourselves or talking to Christian friends. Whatever the circumstances, we found ourselves with a choice – carry on with life as we know it, tackling all its difficulties ourselves, or throw our lot in with Jesus and his church, declare ourselves his followers and enter on a journey with an unknown ending.   At that moment, often there is no real choice.  The only answer to Jesus is “Yes yes, yes.”

If you haven’t yet come to that decision point in your journey of faith, or if you think that moment might be now, listen to some familiar words of Jesus: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Listen, and act. And refill the bottle for others.

1279 words

The Bible in a Year – 8 December

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8 December. Acts chapters 26-28

These final chapters of the book of Acts seem to modern readers to have a strange emphasis.  There are nearly two whole chapters (27:1 – 28:16) covering Paul’s last journey from Jerusalem to Rome as a prisoner awaiting trial; and yet only the last  two verses of the book cover his two years in the Eternal City: “He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (28:30-31).  What it does not mention at all is Paul’s death, though it is usually assumed that at the end of the two years his appeal was heard and refused, and he was executed.

Going back to before his last journey, the two rulers who had interrogated him in Caesarea, Agrippa and Festus, had agreed that “this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor” (26:32). So should Paul have not made his appeal?  He could, it seems, have saved his life and gone back to preaching in the eastern Mediterannean area.

But on the other hand, if he had not let himself be taken to Rome, with all the dangers that the journey involved, he would never have had the chance to preach to the Jews in Rome, and thereby establish the Church in Rome.  A church which over the next few centuries so influenced the society in which it was situated that the Emperor was eventually converted, and which became the centre of the Christian faith in Western Europe.  The Bishop of Rome, under his alternative title of Pope, is still the most influential Christian leader in the world.  And all because Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to seek the Emperor’s final decision on his case, even although that decision seems to have gone against him.

Jesus once said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Paul understood this: his own life was sacrificed, but in a way that led to billions of people becoming followers of the Jesus who had appeared to him on that road to Damascus.  From that moment on, his life had been devoted to Jesus, whether in good times or (more often) in difficult and dangerous circumstances.   That unswerving devotion to a cause greater that one’s own comfort or even survival is a challenge to all of us who count ourselves as Christians: are we willing to suffer, as Paul did, for the faith, and for the sake of others who may come after us?


The Bible in a Year – 7 December

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7 December. Acts chapters 23-25

The parallels between Paul and Jesus did not stop with him going up to Jerusalem and being caught up in a mob with false accusations.   Like Jesus, Paul is brought before a series of courts – the unnamed tribune in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananias, the Roman governor Felix and his successor Festus, and King Agrippa.  None of them (apart from Ananias) could see the point of the charges brought against Paul, because like those against Jesus, they had to do with Jewish ‘law’ (religious rules) and not the law of the land under the Romans.  If it were not for Paul’s Roman citizenship which had already got him out of danger twice, he may have been handed back to the Jews to be killed. But he uses his privilege again to claim the right to appeal to the Emperor in Rome.

The balance between religious and secular law is another one that is familiar to us.  People of faith living in a multi-cultural society have to consider both.  In many ways the two reinforce each other – to love your neighbour and to keep the civil peace amount to much the same thing.  But sometimes the two clash, and then we have to make a choice.  If you want your son brought up in the understanding of your own faith but the local state school wants to teach about all religions and atheism equally, is it right to refuse to send him to those lessons even if it risks a fine?  If your place of worship is vandalised by non-believers, is it more important to show an example of “forgiving your enemies” according to religious teaching, or to expect the police to prosecute them, and risk increasing division in the local community?   If you belong to a religious tradition that is strongly pacifist, but the country you live in has compulsory military service, is it right to refuse on grounds of conscience and risk imprisonment?

Where is the balance, in other words, between obeying the law of the land and following your religion?  There are, of course, no right answers.  Paul knew that, acknowledging that there was a risk he would end up being found guilty of sedition under Roman law and executed (25:11) but for him, obeying Christ was always more important.

The Bible in a Year – 6 December

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6 December. Acts chapters 20-22

These chapters cover the end of Paul’s missionary journeys, as he returns to Jerusalem where he knows (from his own revelation and the prophecies of others) that he will be arrested and tried.  But he goes voluntarily, like Jesus on his own final journey to Jerusalem, believing that this is God’s will.  In each place he goes along the way, where there are existing communities of Christians, he makes his farewell speech, sometimes (as at Troas, 20:7-11) lasting all night.

We can get an idea of what his farewell speech would have focused on from the episode in Miletus (20:28-35) where he summons the elders (whom he also addressed as “overseers”, the term for what became bishops) from the church in the region known as Asia (meaning part of what is now western Turkey, not the whole continent) and speaks to them, urging them to be pastors to the church members like shepherds with their sheep, to teach the message of God’s grace, and to watch out for charismatic leaders who might lead people astray by ‘false’ teaching.   These remain the core responsibilities of bishops and other ministers today. They all face the tricky task of balancing these duties of pastoral Care, preaching and teaching, and making a public stand against any challenge to the Church.

In Jerusalem it happens just as predicted: Paul is arrested following a mob charge that starts with a false accusation that he has brought Gentiles into the temple.  When brought before the tribune (a low level Roman official) he avoids being flogged by playing the “get out of jail card” of Roman citizenship that I mentioned a couple of days ago.

The sensitivity over who was entitled to use the Temple was nothing new, as it had been a sacred site for the Jews for centuries. Even in today’s news, there is controversy over Jerusalem because the United States wants to have an embassy there. This would apparently be seen by Palestinians as recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and therefore (though there is no apparent logic in this) denying their rights to a share of the city, in which the Temple site (now a Muslim holy place) stands.

Christianity, although regarding Jerusalem as a holy place because of Jesus’ death and resurrection there, makes no territorial claim to it.  To visit the holy city as a pilgrim must be wonderful (I have yet to do it) but it must also be remembered that Jesus called the Temple “a house of prayer for all nations”.  Jerusalem’s role now should be to welcome all who worship the God of Abraham, and to “pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6)  is a command that never ceases to be relevant.

The Bible in a Year – 5 December

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5 December. Acts chapters 17-19

Paul is often held up as the example of a great evangelist, indeed one of the greatest orators, for he was able to be (as he writes elsewhere) “all things to all people”.   Among Jews he argued as a rabbi using their scriptures (17:2,11); in the debating place among philosophers he used the dedication of an altar to an “unknown God” to start speaking of the true God who is invisible but knowable (17:23); he could quote secular poetry (17:28) as well as religious texts. Not only was he gifted in public speaking but he could work with individuals too, Romans (18:7) as well as Greeks; he could encourage individuals who only had a limited understanding of the faith but going deeper with them (19:1-7).  He could also write complex theology in his letters.   If that was not enough, he performed healing miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus, as Jesus had done himself (19:11-12)

But in all this he continued to face opposition from many quarters: from Jews who opposed him as a heretic, from Greeks who scoffed at his illogical claims of resurrection, and from Romans who thought Christianity a dangerous cult.  There was opposition too from the idol-makers whose livelihood he had disrupted (19:21-40).  These various groups seemed to be able to draw on a “rent-a-mob” who didn’t even know what they were supposed to be demonstrating about (19:32).

If Paul had been around today, I am sure that he would have experienced much the same.  Religious conservatives, outspoken humanists and atheists, secular authorities who don’t know what to make of faith communities, powerful lobby groups with financial interests, and crowds of demonstrators – they are all still with us, and the ever-challenging message of the Gospel still attracts opposition from them all.

Paul would also undoubtedly have been a media presence.  His Twitter account would have had millions of followers (and attracted trolls too).  He would have been delighted to have been able to set down his theology in blog posts followed by thousands rather than letters to be heard by a few dozen.   He could have argued with the Corinthians instantly by messenger apps, rather than exchange postal correspondence over a period of months.  And no doubt would have been a popular contributor to “thought for the day” on Radio Athens and a controversial guest on chat shows.

But on the other hand, how long would such conversations endure?  How much of what is spoken, blogged and tweeted today will be searchable even in ten years, let alone two thousand?  The power and longevity of the written word – whether Paul’s letters, or Luke’s record of his travels, has meant that his writings and actions have endured down to this day as an inspiration and a challenge.  Let’s hear it for @Paul_Tarsus.

The Bible in a Year – 4 December

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4 December. Acts chapters 14-16

If you have ever played the board game Monopoly you will understand the term “get out of jail free card”.  Players often find themselves sent to jail, where they must try to get out by luck (throwing a double on the dice) or otherwise pay a fine to get out.  But there are two cards that can be picked up at other times in the game that allow a free exit.

Tactically, it is best not to let your opponents know that you hold such a card, so that it is a surprise when you do.  Also, given you can only play it once, there is no point playing that card when it would only give you a small advantage – on the first or second attempt to get out, as you might be lucky with the dice.  It’s best to keep it until you really need it, on the last chance, to avoid having to pay the fine.

Paul did not play board games as we know them. But the Greeks played dice games so he knew about the balance between good luck and tactics. His “get out” card said that he was a Roman citizen, indeed he had been one since birth, as Luke explains later in Acts.  As a Jew, that was unusual, and there are many discussions online about how that came about. So people in other parts of the empire would not have assumed him to be a citizen (which gave additional rights above non-citizens). But when was the appropriate time to reveal this?

As Paul travelled around, his uncompromising style won him followers wherever he went, but also opponents.  In several places there were attempts to stop him and his companions.  Looking at those in today’s reading, first we have Iconium.  There, his opponents “with their rulers”, threatened to stone Paul and his companions (14:5).  If the rulers were joining in with the mob rather than seeking justice, they were clearly corrupt and his citizenship would have had little effect. In Lystra he was stoned again (14:19), this time by conservative Jews who had been brought in from outside.  They would not have been impressed either.

After returning to Jerusalem to sort out the question of whether gentile Christians needed  to be circumcised (fortunately, the debate went in Paul’s favour), he set out again, this time with Silas, and after some more positive experiences, they ended up in Philippi where again there was opposition.  This time they were jailed on the charge brought against them by a slave owner who claimed loss of income as a result of Paul casting out a spirit of divination from one of his slaves – probably a rather weak basis for jailing someone, even in those days.

Freed by the effects of an earthquake (which is not presented as a miracle, and the region is prone to them) they are told by the police that they can leave.  But that is not enough for Paul.  He thinks the time has come to play the card – “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” (16:37).  “They” are the magistrates, who are forced to come and make an apology in person to Paul and Silas for treating them as slaves rather than citizens.

Was this the right time to play the card?  After all, they were already out of jail!    Paul’s motive seems, therefore, to have been more about preventing further attacks. If the magistrates realised that these Christian preachers were citizens, they would be slower to apply summary justice, and word would get around that they were not to be messed with. Paul did hold another of these cards, and the time would come to play it.  But for now, the game went on.

What is your “get out of jail” card? What would you say to someone who treated you like dirt, denying you the rights that you know yourself to be entitled to, or regarding you as worthless?  It might be your education or practical skills that shows you are not as stupid as they thought. It might be “someone you know” who can advocate for you, or perhaps a natural or learnt aptitude to charm people round to your way of thinking.  But in all these, the element of surprise is not to be underestimated.   After all, even Jesus lived an ordinary life until he was thirty, and did not reveal himself until the time was right, when John the Baptist had already done his work.

Jesus also held the card that none of us can ever hold – the “get out of death free” card.  He played it on Easter morning, and do you know what – he has given each of us a copy for ourselves!


The Bible in a Year – 3 December

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3 December. Acts chapters 11-13

This passage includes Peter’s arrest, imprisonment and miraculous escape brought about by angels.  But after this incident, we hear little more of Peter, who seems to have fled Jerusalem to save his life for the time being. From other sources we know he ended his life in Rome, where Christian tradition holds that he was martyred by being crucified upside-down.

From this point on (probably about ten years after the death of Jesus), Saul/Paul and his companions become the focus of Luke’s story.  Paul having been converted to Christianity finds his ministry being drawn to seeking converts from among the gentile (non-Jewish) population of various cities in the Roman empire, of which he was a citizen and in which he could therefore travel freely.

This ministry was, importantly, recognised by the wider church: “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (13:2,3). Christian ministry of any kind, from a time-limited youth mission or charitable venture to another country, to the consecration of a bishop, is traditionally marked by the leaders (and often representatives of the congregation) praying for those being “sent out” or “set aside”. Often they will have hands laid on them, or be anointed with oil, as further symbolism of the presence of the Holy Spirit with them.

Paul could not have achieved what he did without help from his companions.  These seem to have included Luke who wrote this book, and also John Mark and Barnabas.  Barnabas, which is a nickname meaning “son of encouragement”, was particularly close to him.  He acted, according to several other New Testament passages, as a courier of money, a carrier and reader of Paul’s letters (which he may well have also written down in the first place) and may also have acted as what we would now call a P.A.

To be the personal assistant, messenger or representative of a “great” person (or even of your manager at work) is in many ways as important as being that person, if your work enables them to achieve what they could not on their own, for lack of time or organisational skill.  Not everyone can be a leader but we can all make a positive contribution to a team in the way that uses the gifts we do have.  If you can be an encouragement to them as well, as Barnabas was to Paul, so much the better.

The Bible in a Year – 2 December

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2 December. Acts chapters 9-10

Yesterday I wrote about the changes that Stephen experienced, and his challenge to the Jewish leaders that they needed to change their worldview too.  In today’s reading, several more people are challenged to similar realignments of thinking.  First we have Saul (later called Paul) whose blinding vision on the Damascus road turns him overnight from a persecutor of the church to its strongest witness.  Then there is Ananias who is persuaded by an angel that Saul is now “one of us” rather than “one of them”.

And then there is Peter.  He is challenged in two different but related ways.   Firstly is the vision of ‘unclean’ animals (non-kosher meat)  which he is told to eat, for “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (9:8). This turns out to be a metaphor for having to accept that Gentiles can be as clean in God’s sight as observant Jews.    And as the Gentiles turn to faith, they receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter realises again that there is no longer any  distinction in God’s eyes between the Jews and the rest of the world.

The lesson about not calling unclean what God calls clean could be applied to many of the ways in which people discriminate against each other in our day – whether on grounds of religion, or ethnicity, gender, age or sexual orientation. “In every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:35) should be a key text for those who would challenge such attitudes.

The Bible in a Year – 1 December

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1 December. Acts chapters 7-8

Carrying over from yesterday’s reading to today’s is the story of Stephen, known as the first Christian martyr.  Given that is my first name, I feel an association with him, though of course I hope I will not suffer the same fate.

It is well known that Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy as he claimed to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven.  What is less well known is the speech he gave in his defence to the first, trumped-up charge of “saying that Jesus will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” (6:14).   That was the key word – “change”. Religious people don’t like change, they much prefer to stick with the customs they know, whether those customs were started by Moses a thousand years earlier or by the last-but-one vicar twenty years ago.

So Stephen, inspired by the same Holy Spirit who had empowered this church administrator to perform miracles of healing (6:8), gave a long and detailed account of the life of Moses, to demonstrate that Moses himself was open to change in very radical ways.  Here was a man adopted as an infant by a princess and forced to serve the oppressors of his people (presumably a reference to the Romans is implied here), then at the age of forty forced to flee the country and become a nomad for having made a mess of trying to bring about justice, then forty years later at the age of eighty  having a vision of God that drove him back to Egypt to confront the political powers, and finally spending the last forty years of his long life leading millions of refugees out of Egypt to the brink of the promised land.  Moses would have been the first to say that listening to God’s call and obeying it, however much that may disrupt your routine, is far more important than sticking with the routine for its own sake.   “It’s about time you changed, because that’s what God is telling you” was the theme of his sermon.  They did not like it one bit.  And thus ended the ministry of this promising church leader, but like Jesus calling out for forgiveness for his persecutors as he died.

If Stephen is my inspiration, that means that I too have to be willing to change.  Twice I have changed careers, and moved several times, in response to God’s call.  But I am still in middle age and he may call me to change again.  Those who get too attached to a particular way of doing things are likely to be left behind when God moves on with his followers, and I don’t want to miss the boat.

The Bible in a Year – 30 November.

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30 November. Acts chapters 4-6

Following the day of Pentecost about which I wrote yesterday, the Church – at that time seemingly called “The Way” as a sect of Judaism – grew rapidly, with thousands of ordinary people and even some priests (6:7) following Peter and the apostles.  The picture painted here is of a communitarian ideal, everyone pooling their resources and making the best use of available talents, whether in great matters such as preaching and healing, or in the charitable work of sharing food with widows and other poor people.

The exceptions were Ananias and Sapphira, who let the community down by pretending they were sharing the whole value of their property. offence was not keeping some of it for themselves, but lying about the matter (5:4).  Whether they died of heart attack or stroke with the stress of being found out, or whether their sudden deaths were genuinely an act of God, the result was the same – the Christian church or any other religious community has to act on the basis of trust, and any deception ruins not just individual relationships but the well-being of the whole community.

The success of the new movement among ordinary people attracted opposition from the official religious leaders.  It is always so – those at the top of any organisation (including the Bishops of the churches) have so much of their time, effort and maybe even money tied up in the structures and procedures of the organisation that it is very difficult for them to adjust to new ideas or admit that anything that challenges the status quo might actually be the right way forward.  In religious organisations in particular,  the challenge “this is God’s way” is often used to justify quite opposing actions.  This is clearly seen in our own time in the endless arguments between and within Christian denominations about who may be a leader in the church – women? married people? divorced people? homosexuals?  Each “side” will find ways of justifying their position and may even claim to “know God’s will”.

So it was with the Way, the Jesus Movement.  The Apostles claimed that God was on their side, and the sheer numbers of ordinary people backing them could well have been cited in evidence, but so did the keepers of tradition.   The numbers of people backing a change is not in itself proof of the rightness of the cause (just say “1930s Germany” and you get the idea) but ultimately, if we believe God is in charge of human history, then we have to take the long view and wait for his will to be done, eventually.  In any case, arresting and killing one’s opponents is never God’s way of dealing with opposition.

One of the Jewish leaders, Gamaliel, came up with a test that applies just as well to our own arguments: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (5:38-39). It is a test well worth keeping up your sleeve.

The story of my namesake, Saint Stephen, starts in chapter 6 but continues in chapter 7 so I will look at him tomorrow