..."and a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the way of holiness; evil minded people shall not travel on it, but it shall be for those wayfarers who are traveling toward God. (Isaiah 35:8, adapted)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

To Be Like God: Forgiveness & The Stoning of Stephen

Forgiveness: a living principle born in the depths of the very heart of God! The experience of forgiving is one of the pre-eminent experiences of God toward mankind. When God asks us to forgive He wants to engage us in something fundamental to Himself. That engagement is not a mental concept but a life force! In calling us to forgive, God is asking us to be like Himself in the most radical way possible. What an opportunity to honor Him and follow Him!

In the last few weeks I have been reading Acts 7 where it recounts the stoning of Stephen. I have been overwhelmed with what it is saying, and challenged so thoroughly that my socks seem to spontaneously fall off! :)

Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, delivers one of the most challenging sermons ever preached, stirring up such passion and hatred that a crowd decides to stone him to death. His response is reminiscent of His Lord's magnanimous response: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7: 60) (compare Luke 23:34). Stephen dies forgiving, he also dies beholding "the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55-56). It says he simply, "fell asleep" (Acts 7:60).

Perhaps he felt the pain of the stones, but death, as we generally regard it, is not an accurate word to describe his passing into eternity. He "fell asleep" basking in the glory of God. He entered into a full experience of forgiveness. He imitated His Lord in the most glorious fashion.

And do you know what? I have a deep sense that there is a direct link from this act of forgiveness to the conversion of a young onlooker of the stoning. That young man's name was Saul, who shortly thereafter, became the apostle Paul. Saul got something that day, or perhaps I should say, something got him. He didn't know he got it, but I sense that what he saw and experienced in Stephen's death was powerfully working in the deepest part of his heart. His mind was confused, but this supernatural act of forgiveness was deeper than that, and it was bringing him to Jesus, the One he had been persecuting, hidden, or perhaps not very hidden at all, in Stephen.

This is the kind of experience God wants to bring us into. We see forgiveness as something we "must" do, and no doubt about it, we must forgive. What we do not so clearly see is that we GET to forgive and that this kind of forgiveness is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. Somehow I think when someone harms me or crosses me that I should defend myself or somehow protect myself, either offensively or defensively. This is human thinking. God calls us past that to divine experience. He offers us an opportunity to be like Him.

If God alone can forgive sin, and God alone can, why does He want us to engage in acts of forgiveness? He wants us to enter into His nature, to see and understand things from His perspective and to actually feel in our human bodies what forgiveness is all about. Do we not feel unforgiveness in our bodies? Tightness, coldness, darkness--we know about that. God wants us to "feel" forgiveness, not for the sake of a novel emotional experience, but to experience the transformational power of what forgiveness brings. When God forgives us, we are changed--body, soul, and spirit. When we forgive, we reflect who God is, we become like Him by valuing what He values, by doing what He does, by making a way possible when there is no way.

When Jesus says, "go the extra mile," "turn the other cheek," "give them your cloak, too," He is calling us into the radical stream of the Kingdom of God. These words are not a game of psychology but an expression of who He is and how He lives toward us. They are the kingdom of God here and now. So often when something bad happens we tend to think, "I'll be glad when this old world ends and the kingdom comes." Guess what? The Kingdom has already begun to arrive and you and I, as we follow God into radical forgiveness, are it! Or at least its beginnings!

One day everything will be put under His feet! Thank God! But He is asking us not to identify with the old regime, which is the Law at best, and the kingdom of darkness at worst, but with His very forgiving and universe-transforming nature. We do not clearly see the value of so great a love! We do not see clearly how or even why, good triumphs over evil. The prince of darkness lures us into playing his way, a way of retribution and revenge. You have felt the death of it, perhaps now you can begin to see why. God chooses to invite us to look for the humble little path, which if followed, opens up to a wide place where we "see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." The Evil One promises instant retribution, he fails to say what comes with the package. It is not life.

We get opportunities to forgive all the time, but we don't value them as opportunities. We don't respond as sons and daughters of Forgiveness . I'm not sure why we as humans are such a grumpy lot. But I do know that I see more clearly what an opportunity God is holding out, so gently, yet so powerfully to me. And I want to be like Him, I want to side with Him, I want to expand His Kingdom with Him, I want to honor Him and show no allegiance to anything dark. So I close by saying that I want a life that is so wrapped with God that He will recognize Himself in me.

It says, "Stephen, full of the Holy Ghost,"...and that is what it will take to get it...being "full of the Holy Ghost". For this kind of life, and this kind of forgiveness originates in and is powered by God alone. We cannot do it, that is plainly evident. We merely have to surrender to Him. But that is a joyful, albeit challenging, thing. I'm not saying that He won't roll us down the hill pretty fast to shake the darkness loose from us. I'm not saying we won't have to be martyred to get there. I'm not saying anything but that is where I plan to be headed and that is where I want you to be headed, too. You can go as far down this path as you want to, the choice is yours. So don't say I didn't warn you. Dare say we will scarcely recognize each other when we get there, which is probably a very good thing.

Forgive. Be like your God.

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