Sacred space – where?

The ‘Holy Place’, the ‘Holy Land’. Well known phrases but ones that should not go unchallenged. There is an interesting early church servant called Stephen. Acts 6 says of him:

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 

His wisdom did not go down to well with Jews of Cyrene, Alexandria, and those from the provinces of Cilicia and Asia (Acts 6:9) who arranged for false accusations to be made. I consider that one of the marks of jealousy (root: fear of losing one’s place) is to spread rumours and allow half-truths to remain unchallenged. The end result was that he was brought before the Sanhedrin.

His speech is most interesting. Faced with the accusation that he was claiming that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs of Moses, he embarks on a history lesson. A story well recited by all present, but leading somewhere. Let me pull a few things out, before we get to the point being driven home that he was addressing a

stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!

Throughout the speech there are geographical references, and they are references to where God was at work. We have

  • God appeared to Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia (7:2)
  • Later, though with the promise of the land, Abraham did not have even enough ground to put his foot on (7:5).
  • God was with Joseph in Egypt (7:9), paving the way for the people to live in Egypt.
  • Bodies were brought back to be buried (7:16), but to Shechem now located in the despised territory of the Samaritans!
  • Along comes Moses educated in all the wisdom of Egypt (7:22).
  • It was in Midian in the desert near Mount Sinai (7:30) that the burning bush took place. A place described by God as holy, yet an unknown place that could not be revisited as a shrine. A mobile location.
  • Moses led them out and “in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert” (7:36) miraculous wonders were performed.

Startling references to where God was at work – outside Israel, outside the so-called holy land. Very reminiscent of Jesus’ reflections in his home town (Lk. 4) of where (outside Israel) and to whom (non-Jews) God was active! This backdrop sets Stephen up to push the point home. He goes for the Temple.

The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands (7:48).

By contrast the Tabernacle cut across ancient and modern views of sacred space. Shrines and temples are almost invariably built around a theophany, a space considered sacred, the Tabernacle though was mobile. The sacredness had to do with the “pattern he [Moses] had seen” (7.44) and the teaching value that resulted, not with its location.

The end result was two-fold: first the vision Stephen had of the Son of Man at the right of God, surely a clear reference to the Son of Man who came to the Ancient of Days on the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7; hence I do not read that as a reference to the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, and certainly not when Jesus spoke of the sign of the reality being visible to that generation.). The Son of Man (Jesus) was given the authority and the kingdom. Holy space is where there is an opening for Jesus, not a building designated as a sanctuary. The sanctuaries of God are to be planted throughout the earth.

The second ramification of Stephen’s speech was that Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned.

The ongoing ramification? Cloaks were laid at the approving feet of Paul. But later the mantle of Stephen would rest on him. The persecutor of the ‘Stephens’ became the one who no longer built his security around his ethnic nor geographical identity, and became as radical as Stephen was. And for us? Defend sacred space or become vehicles that open up sacred space.

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