Monday, May 19, 2014

Spiritual Skydiving

55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Reading the book of Acts, we see how the members of the early church modeled themselves after Jesus, whether it's in the healing of illness, the breaking of bread or facing death. While many of the stories and people illustrate how we should live, the story of Stephen shows us how to die. I know, pondering death seems morbid, something best left to angsty teens wearing black. But, studying Stephen's death can help us to transform the way we live today. When we consider death, we think about what makes life meaningful, for us and those we love.

In the story of Stephen, his accusers say he's trying to alter the law of Moses rather than live into it. They charge him with trying to change their customs. Stephen responds with a long speech illustrating the relationship with God and Israel. He takes up the favorite insult from Moses and the prophets. He calls them "stiff-necked people" and accuses them of having uncircumcised hearts and ears. He reminds them that they are a people who regularly kill the prophets—including the righteous one Jesus. 

Stephen shares the parts of scripture. He gives the history. He knows his Bible. He tells a provocative truth. Stephen repeated the criticisms of leadership that pervade the Old Testament and discovered that nothing changes. Prophets are still despised.

Stephen's sermon is there for us, but I suspect it's not what inspires us to remember him. We remember him for his final actions rather than his words. We remember Stephen because in his death he most resembled Jesus. In his death he gave the most radical message of faith and forgiveness.

The picture the writer of Acts creates is a contrast of opposites. The accusers are so full of rage that they are grinding their teeth and covering their ears. They are like children throwing tantrums. We’ve all seen kids acting like this--and been horrified when they are our own! They are so attached to the toy in the store or the cookie in their mind they explode with inarticulate rage when someone denies them.

Spitting mad, the accusers drag Stephen out of the city to stone him. There’s a frenzy of activity as they take off their coats and pick up their rocks and start hurling them. Stone after stone. Fury after fury.

And then there is Stephen who the Bible says has the face of an angel. Stephen, who lives out today's parenting mantra of "use your words" and doesn't try to hit back. Stephen who gazes upward says, "Look, I see Jesus standing at the right hand of God." Stephen, who as the stones pummel him and the blood begins flow prays for Jesus to take his spirit. Stephen, who when he can’t stand any more kneels and cries out in a loud voice asking forgiveness for those who cast the stones.  We hear those same words from Jesus lips.

Even in his death, Stephen found that peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Like Jesus, Stephen lived into his death. He met death with his best self. Imitating Jesus in life seemed to make death a bit easier. He looked for and saw Jesus in that moment of transition. 

Stephen knew death was inevitable and accepted it. We, too, know that inevitability. We just don’t like to think about it. It is frightening and painful and so we push it out of our minds--and out of our culture. Death is often something that happens separate and apart from our lives. We confine it to hospitals and funeral homes. We shield our children from it.

But then something will happen that brings it front and center in our minds—a friend or spouse or a parent or a child dies, test results come back with bad news, whatever the reason, there are times when we are forced to confront the truth of death. When we do, we take a good long look at our own lives. When death comes close, we wonder how it might change us or those that we love.

And because so many things in life can be illustrated in a country music song, I’d like to take a moment to listen to Live Like You Were Dying by Tim McGraw.

When the person in this song found out he had cancer, he looked at his life in light of his death and made a decision to change how he lived. He chose to read the Good Book, he loved deeper and spoke sweeter and gave forgiveness he’d be denying. He lived like he was dying—thoughtfully, intentionally, lovingly. Like Stephen, he chose to face death with love and forgiveness in his heart rather than anger and bitterness. He also chose to take some real chances by going sky diving and riding a bull.

Both Stephen and the guy in the song let the finality of the death allow them to live their best lives. Instead of fearing the inevitable future, they embraced the here and now. Jesus lived the same kind of life. He knew he was headed for Jerusalem and the cross, but he celebrated Passover, healed the people he encountered, and forgave those who killed him.

What would you do if you didn’t fear death? If you don’t fear death—or the journey to death—you probably don’t fear much in life. If you were no longer afraid what would you do? How would you be a different person today? What is your spiritual equivalent of sky diving or rocky mountain climbing?  How might you love more deeply and speak more sweetly? Would you be a missionary or evangelist? Who would you forgive?

Stephen and those who kill him are two ends of a continuum. Most of us are somewhere in between. At the one end, Stephen discovered strength freedom in seeing Christ and letting go of the fear. At the other end, those who killed Stephen were trapped in their fear and their desire for control. They kept throwing their stones of anger and loneliness and powerlessness at Stephen’s grace. They tried to kill Stephen with their own insecurities and frustrations and desire to stay the same. But, Stephen didn’t yield to their fear and anger. He looked beyond those who were persecuting him and gazed into the face of Christ. He found the strength to forgive what was happening to him. 

And this is why we remember Stephen. Sure, he delivered a pretty good sermon, but he lived an even better one. He delivered a sermon calling people to account but he lived a sermon of forgiveness and transcendence.  

While the people around him were grinding their teeth and shouting and throwing stones, Stephen was living into his redemption even as the life drained out of his body.

This is our call, too. To live into our redemption today and every day, to let Christ’s defeat of death inspire us to live transformative lives. We are to be the living sermons of God’s Word. Another way of saying this is that we are to conform ourselves to the image of Christ--to practice extreme love and forgiveness. Life in Christ frees us to love deeper, speak sweeter, give forgiveness and continue the ministry that Christ started here on earth.

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