Tuesday Re-mix –
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”…While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:51-53, 59-60
Learning to show love to a lost and broken world is hard enough for us as individuals…that challenge is magnified a hundred fold for the church corporately. We, the church, must live in the tension between standing for holiness (separateness, not giving in to the ways of the world) and loving the broken people around us, who are still well-entrenched in the ways of the world. It is tricky, isn’t it?
When I read Stephen’s amazing sermon in Acts 7, and I see him brilliantly making the case for the pattern of rebellion throughout the history of the Jewish people (it is very much like an intervention…laying out all the evidence in a rational and indisputable way) and then leveling his charge against the church leaders of his time by associating them with that same pattern…I think to myself, “Now THAT is definitely going against the grain and calling out an entire culture!” I have seen churches who have no problem with walking against the grain…railing against our culture, screaming at all the sinners in the world and telling them they’re going to burn in hell, even telling them that God doesn’t love them. I have also seen churches who, though they do not say it out loud, their actions convey this same message. It is an attitude which holds truth with a reasonably high regard, but not so much love.
When I read Stephen’s dying words, imploring God not to hold this sin against these people who killed him and loving these very people up to his last breath…I think to myself, “Now THAT is love…wishing the best for people even as they kill you!” I have seen churches who have no problem wishing the best for everyone…not wanting to offend anyone they take tolerance to a whole new level, crafting their every experience, their every message, even the gospel itself in such as fashion so as to leave everyone right where they are, undisturbed by any truth which may make them at all uncomfortable. It is an attitude which holds “love” (or something that looks a little like “love”) with high regard, but not so much truth.
But what I so appreciate about Stephen in Acts 7 is that he strikes a balance between the two extremes. In fact, he would actually redefine what real love looks like. In his case, truly loving his brothers meant saying some very hard things to them, even though it would eventually draw such anger from them, they would kill him. That, it seems to me, is what we must do as the church. We must learn the very difficult position of loving broken people where they are and just as they are, but too much to leave them broken. We must learn to lean against the cultural norms which, if not checked, will destroy us. The church must speak the truth, both to the world around us and to each other…in love. In short, the church must learn to “love against the grain”. That is really the job, isn’t it?
But before I can insist that the church figure this out, I must learn what it looks like for me to love against the grain as an individual. In the political debate raging in the office, what does love look like? At the abortion clinic, what does love look like? In the same-sex marriage issues and the gay/lesbian discrimination issues, what does love look like? In the church business meeting when that mean, hateful person begins to spit venom again, what does love look like? I’ve got to figure that out for me before I can be an influence in the church. That must be my prayer…Lord, let it begin with me.