“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:44-59
Many and varied are the masks of sin. Medieval Catholics placed sin in one of seven categories: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. I suspect that much of the articulation of sin for them was influenced by the Ancient Greek philosophers – specifically Aristotle. Aristotle (who lived almost 400 years before Christ) preached a doctrine of moderation. He, and the Medieval Catholics would have looked to something like Proverbs 30:8, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”, as their guiding light, hoping to keep from acting on sins like lust, but not to be so holy that they became prideful, to care only enough that they were not prone to excessive anger and wrath but not to become so detached that they fall into sloth… to work enough that they avoided envy, but not so much that they fell into greed and gluttony. It can become a complex system of understanding and managing sin – something we often practice today without understanding it or where it comes from and it often fuels the “little indiscretions” that litter our lives from time to time. Unfortunately, this teaching does not truly fit with either God portrayed in the Old Testament (“Be Holy as I am Holy”) or Jesus (“Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”). Jesus doesn’t ask us to micromanage sin – He asks us to follow and obey Him, keeping our eyes on Him rather than ourselves and our sins.
This, in a roundabout way, was what Stephen was trying to tell the Jewish leaders. You see, if we follow the path of moderation, rather than Jesus, we blind ourselves to one sin that does not fit in the seven categories… for it is one that only God’s people can commit: the ransom of God to the world. Throughout the Old and New Testament, as well as much of church history up to and even today, the people of God have struggled with the temptation to try to hold God hostage in one particular place and charge the world admission to come and see Him and His blessings. Granted, most would not be so bold as to bar entrance to visitors to our churches, but many churches may hold their ministry in reserve for those who have demonstrated more commitment and who are therefore more deserving of their help… at least in their perspective. Yet Stephen reminded the Jews, and he reminds us, that God does not simply hang around in the boxes we make to hold him – no matter how elaborate we design them.
The heart of the matter is this: we as Christians do not own either God or the Good News (Gospel) that He has. We receive Him into our hearts and are blessed by Him, but we do not own Him. If anything, it is the other way around. By receiving Christ as our Lord and Savior, we become His. It saddens me how often I hear worship songs and hymns whose basic theme is “Jesus is my best friend because He does this and that for me”, while there are relatively few songs that say “I am Jesus best friend too and here is how I serve Him”. Likewise, the precious gospel – “by grace we have been saved through faith, and not by works lest anyone should boast” is not ours to keep, but entrusted to us for our salvation and that we should then give it away. Faith, like love, is grows by giving it away.
Let us therefore not grow weary in doing good, nor in avoiding sin. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Finally, let us remember the words of Stephen, the first Saint of the Church, who reminded us that God does not dwell in houses made by hands nor in boxes dreamed by arrogant hearts. God seeks the redemption of this broken world and His word will accomplish what it is sent to do… with or without us. So let us be God’s and share His love freely, as He has asked us.