The Mission - Week Four: "No Easy Way Out"

This week we are continuing the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks--a sermon series entitled, "The Mission: Living the Christian Life--Like A Christian."

Each week we have been wrestling with the question, "Jesus is Risen... Now What?"  And each week we have taken on a different aspect of the Christian life: faith, courage, love and now today we'll be exploring forgiveness.

To begin with, I need to state something obvious:  Forgiveness is hard.  It's not easy to forgive when you've been terribly wronged.  I have some experience with these kinds of things.

For example, I stopped watching American Idol when Chris Daughtry was voted off the show.  Chris Daughtry was the bizzomb.  I totally had a man crush on Chris Daughtry.  He wore cool clothes and was the first real rock and roll singer on American Idol.  I don't count that Constantin kid.  You might remember the year that Chris Daughtry should have won American Idol.  It was the year that people lost their minds and voted for that weird guy who looked like he had Turrets when he sang.

At any rate.  I never forgave American Idol.

I also never really forgive any team that beat my beloved Broncos in the Super Bowl--or the New England Patriots, who I just can't forgive for being so evil.  Oh, and I have never forgiven the Jacksonville Jaguars for beating the Broncos in the playoffs in 1996.  Don't get me started on how much I hope the Seahawks crash and burn this year.

Oh, and I have never forgiven Dennis Deyoung, the lead singer from Styx for breaking up the band after forcing them to basically perform a rock opera with lines and acting and everything on their 1983 "Kilroy was Here" tour.  After which he retreated to his palatial estate in Chicago to record an awful album or two, including one that was entirely of show tunes.

Come on.  I know some of you feel me on this.  No one?  Okay.  These unforgivable things are basically just unforgivable in my own personal, twisted book.  I get it.

Seriously, though.  There are lots of things that we all struggle to find the will to forgive---things that aren't lame and petty like the things I just mentioned.

Maybe a family member has done something to you that hurt you so deeply--you can't let it go.  Perhaps a friend betrayed you--stabbed you in the back and the wound was so unexpected and brutal, you carry it with you everywhere.  Maybe your spouse has acted in a way that you feel like you can't forgive--through infidelity, emotional or physical abuse that you can't just dismiss.  Or maybe an authority figure like a coach, a pastor or teacher did something or said something to you that has never left you--in fact, you remember it like it was yesterday.  It could be that someone abused you, attacked you physically, sexually... and the images and bitterness remain with you like it happened yesterday.

So yeah... Forgiveness is hard.

Today we are going to be studying a passage of Scripture from Acts chapter 7--the story of the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen.

What I want us to hold on to as we study is this one very big, very challenging idea:  Genuine Christian forgiveness is difficult---but life-giving.  Let's find out how something some difficult can be so vital to our living the Christian life.

Let's read:
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
First, can we say that this is probably the worst response to a sermon--ever?  I've been criticized for preaching too long, for using props, for not acting like I was a funeral, for walking around too much... it's a long and awesome list.

But I have never been dragged out and stoned to death... yet.

Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew, which means that he was Jewish, but of Greek descent.  There was a conflict between the Palestinian Jews and the Hellenistic Jews at that time, a conflict that grew over time.  Lots of Greek Jews were accepting Jesus as the Messiah and becoming Christians, but they were feeling as though they weren't really being cared for by their fellow Jewish Christians.  So the apostles identified seven people to serve as deacons to help settle some of these things so they could teach and preach.

Stephen was one of the first selected.  Interestingly, he was actually betrayed by his own people--his fellow Greek Jews.  They began a smear campaign to try to discredit him and he ended up standing to defend himself in front of the Sanhedrin--the Jewish religious council.  Stephen begins to preach to the Sanhedrin and all of the people in the peanut gallery who had accused him.  The sermon is bold, full of truth and also extremely inflammatory.  He basically accuses the Jewish leaders of not only being responsible for Jesus' death, but for not being faithful Jews.

When the Holy Spirit comes upon him, his face shines like an angel---a way that Luke, the author of Acts indicates that something incredible is about to happen.  Stephen actually gets a glimpse of the other reality that is heaven--the fabric of time and space gets ripped a little and he can see Jesus actually standing on the right hand of the throne of God.  Our creeds indicate that Christian belief regarding Jesus' place near God is "sitting" rather than "standing."  Jesus' standing is important, then.  More on that later...

So Stephen's accusers rush at him, cover their ears and yell at the top of their lungs.  They don't want to hear his words.  They don't want to see him as human, for that matter.  And think about this---these are people that he would have known.  They were his neighbors, part of his community.

Being stoned to death was a horrible and terrifying way to die.  It also took a while.  People had to get up close and personal when they participated in a stoning.  There was no trial here.  No Romans to mediate.  This was a lynch mob.  A lynch mob made up of people who knew Stephen.  They threw rocks at him---aiming at his head, his body, trying to inflict as much damage as they could.  I am sure that some of them cheered when someone's throw connected in a particularly awful way.

And Stephen forgives them.

He repeats the very words of Jesus himself: "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing..."  "Do not hold this sin against them."

Then, as he is dying--delirious from pain, stunned from the rocks ricocheting off of his head Stephen prays from Psalm 31:5--the same prayer that Jesus prayed as he died on the cross.  This prayer is a bedtime prayer---prayed by ancient Hebrew children like "Now I lay me down to sleep..."

And then he died.

There was a not-so-innocent bystander who saw all of this.  A man named Saul, who held the coats of those who were stoning Stephen.  When it said that he approved of this action, it means that he was willing to take responsibility for it. This is our first introduction to the Apostle Paul.  I can imagine that this scene would play over and over again in his head throughout his life.

The scene of a man forgiving the very people who killed him.

So... here's a pretty important question that came up for me as I was studying this story this week:  What was it about Stephen's vision that enabled him to forgive the very people who were killing him?  After all, that's the moment in the story when everything seems to go completely south, right?  He sees the vision of Jesus, relates what he is seeing, and then they execute him.

So what did that vision do for him to get him to a point where he was able to actually forgive people who had not only betrayed him---but killed him in an incredibly personal and horrific way?

The Apostle Paul would alter write in one of his many letters to Christians, "Don't let the sun go down on your anger."

This moment with Stephen is a little bigger than just not going to bed angry, don't you think?

Okay.  Before we go any further---I need to tell you some things about what forgiveness does for you.  I did some digging and several Psychology journals concurred that the ability to forgive actually lowers your blood pressure.  It lowers your resting heart rate.  It results in a decrease in your chances for depression.  And, it lengthens your lifespan significantly.

So being able to forgive might actually save our lives...

At this point you might be thinking:  "I get that--nice.  But you have no idea what has been done to me.  You have no idea what I've experienced.  That person---those people---were way... too... abusive....."

Fair enough.  Here's the thing--at least the way I see it.  You have three choices when it comes to forgiveness.  You can be stupid.  You can be naive.  You can be wise.  Let me explain.

This is being stupid:

It's funny.  But you can see that there's some bitterness at the very core of this statement that's hard to ignore.

Bitterness against someone is like drinking poison and hoping they die.

It's stupid.

This is naive:

"Forgive and Forget," is one of the oldest aphorisms that we can remember from our childhood, right?

But what if it's not healthy to forget?

What if it's dangerous for you well-being to forget?

What if the person you are trying to forgive doesn't want your forgiveness and doesn't want you to forget what they've done?  It really only takes one person to forgive---but it takes two to reach reconciliation.

Or what if you forgive and forget, only the person you forgive just keeps doing whatever it is that is hurting you---over and over again?

It's naive to think that we can forget some of the deep and wounding wrongs that have been done to us.

This is wise:

A wise man once said, "Forgiving what we do not forget creates a new way to remember... We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future."  

We change our memory----into hope.  

So what did Stephen see---what was the vision that gave him the strength to forgive the people who were killing him? 

It was of Jesus standing next to God.  A vision of the future that was already happening.  It was--to use a scholarly sort of word---an eschatological vision of the "not yet" that was breaking through into the "now."  The significance of Jesus standing next to God was absolutely huge.  Such an image indicated that the person standing near the throne was preparing to speak on behalf of the person who approached it.  It indicated that the person approaching the throne was being welcomed, accepted, acknowledged...  

In that one moment, Stephen saw a future so hopeful that all fear left him.  And he was released from everything that fear does to keep us from being the people God longs for us to be.  His vision of Jesus already there--waiting for him in the future--gave him the peace to forgive even the most heinous act that one person can commit against another person.  

Here's the thing... When we are stupid---when we are naive----those are the moments when we are trying to deal with forgiveness on our own terms in our own strength.  Not forgiving doesn't seem to be an option, does it?  Especially when we see how life-giving forgiveness can be.  But then again, simply saying, "forgive and forget" doesn't cut it either.  We can't forget.  We shouldn't forget.  

But when we can forgive and not forget---now that's divine, isn't it?  When we can hold those memories in our hears and our heads yet have them transformed into visions of hope for the future---that's when we know that we have understood something vital about forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not rooted in our strength, but in the vision of Jesus. 

Beloved---you will not ever be able to truly forgive the wrongs that have been done to you until you realize something about them.  

They have already been redeemed.  

What was dead about those things that happened, that thing that was said, that betrayal, that abuse... What was dead about those things has already been resurrected in a hopeful future where Jesus is standing, waiting for you to arrive.  
And that future is not yet----but it's also now.  It's a future that you can see and realize if you are willing to open your eyes.  You can begin even now to imagine it in all of its fullness.  

May you see this future before you---a future that begins now.  May you realize the peace and the unbelievable joy that comes from forgiving and not forgetting.  May you realize those memories you have been holding on to have been redeemed and restored to you in hope.  

May you know without any doubt that genuine Christian forgiveness is difficult---but life-giving.  
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