Love


And falling to his knees he cries out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7: 60

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts that is within the realm of human endeavor. This is especially true when the person or people that are being forgiven are guilty of perpetrating wrong against their benefactor. The wrong that was done to Stephen in this event from the history of the church in Jerusalem during those tumultuous times that came about after Jesus was crucified was as great as it can possibly get. For Stephen had been tried and convicted of blasphemy against God and was then taken outside of the city where he was brutally and violently executed by means of stoning. Stoning is a highly personal device for bringing about the torturous murder of a victim. This follower of the Risen Christ used his final breaths in order to speak out forgiveness for the people whose anger was being poured into his flesh by the impact of every jagged rock that impacted with his body.

This example of forgiveness is extreme. Yet, Stephen is doing nothing more than following His Master in this attitude of the heart, mind, and spirit. Remember, Jesus also forgave His executioners from the cross as He was establishing this same grace for all of us for the rest of time. In Christ, we are forgiven; through Christ’s blood, we are baptized into eternity as our universal separation from God and antagonism with the Lord are reconciled as Christ pronounces upon us the innocence that only He deserves. For Stephen to be able to forgive the people in the mob that was taking his life from him required something that came from a source that was far greater than anything that he naturally possessed. This was an act of both his will and of his heart, and it was one that, coming in this final moment of his earthly agony, required strength of body and of spirit that was beyond anything that people are capable of doing from within their own resources.

These words are those of the Spirit within Stephen, and this act of forgiveness is supernatural in its inspiration and in its execution. God forgives us because we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord of our lives. Christ retains the role and the right to judge all human hearts and to tender this same grace to all that He deems worthy. Out flawed and frail human capacity to so determine who is righteous and which of us is worthy is no longer in play. Thus, we have no other choice than to follow Stephen’s example and to forgive people in all sorts of circumstances and situations. Forgiveness is complex, and it does not necessarily mean that a person is trusted and accepted fully regardless of what they may have done or the attitudes of their hearts and minds. Yet, forgiveness releases us from being responsible for establishing judgement and tendering eternal sanctions upon others; so, it also allows for us to extend Christ’s call to repentance and enter into restoration of relationship with the ones that have offended against us. Forgiveness enters us into the processes of bringing life after death, and this endeavor is Christ’s ultimate mission and our greatest calling as His people.  

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It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5: 1

Comfort can be a hard habit to break. We like to sit in its presence and luxuriate in its softly enfolding sense of security. It is frequently a condition of the inner person that calls upon us when we are tired and troubled; for comfort brings to mind the ways that we have found personal peace and have escaped from dealing with hard times in the past. Unfortunately, the places that many of our minds call upon us to go can be bigger traps and more destructive than the momentary stresses of the current challenges. Our forms of comfort are too frequently escape mechanisms that divert attention away from dealing with the issues of life and out of an attitude that is focused on loving others and resolving conflicts.

When comfort takes the form of the overstuffed chair of religion, it can be very damaging to our ability to truly represent Christ. Everyone whether raised in a home where God was openly celebrated and worshiped or in one where nonbelief was the mantra, comes from a religious background. Then, we all continue to develop our personal concepts and ideas of who God is and of how He is to be served. Christ sets us free from all of the human devised ideas and practices that divert us from the absolutely freeing truth of God’s Word; yet, most of us still continue to go back to old ways of thinking and to devising our own ideas of what God actually meant for us to believe. We continue to seek to find that comfort inside of ourselves rather than through trusting Christ to give us all that we will need.

In Christ we are given the freedom to be sad, to be tired, to be troubled, and to find comfort in Him when these conditions are present with us. In Christ we are free to care about others regardless of who they are, what they are doing, and how they view our God. In Christ we are released from the need to serve the additional gods of tradition and practice. Christ went to the cross so that we could be free, and He leads us to that same cross so that the freedom that He suffered and died for will be ours in its totality. Freedom comes through trust and by faith in the Lord’s totally loving, superior way of viewing life, and His freedom brings all of the comfort that my weary body can ever need.  

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Titus 3: 4-7

God did not save anyone, ever, because of our goodness or as a result of the work that we have done. Accomplishment in this world is of no value to the Lord. He is interested in one thing, and that is our willing acceptance of Him as Lord over our existence, Savior of our souls, and Perfecter of our hearts. When Paul says that the goodness and loving kindness of God appeared, he does not mean that these Godly characteristics were previously missing; rather, he is indicating that, in Christ, they became present in this world in human form and in His death and resurrection they were made tangible to all of the world in a way that had never been true before. God’s goodness and loving kindness were demonstrated in Christ’s willingness to endure the worst of human violence in order to permanently eradicate sin and death’s true power over people’s lives.

All of this is done because God feels great pain when people reject Him. He desires to be in relationship with all of us, and the Lord seeks after everyone even knowing that many of us will not accept that invitation and realizing that there will be a number of us that will openly and actively reject His love, grace, and offer of mercy. When Jesus taught about the shepherd that seeks after the one percent of the flock that had wandered away and into danger, He was speaking God’s heart for the relentless pursuit of any and all who are, in fact, lost in this world. He will go anywhere and endure everything that the evil of this planet can throw at Him in order to redeem one of us. So, too, should we be open to following Christ’s call and His leading into loving others, caring about and for them, and for going where it is needful in order to bring the love of Christ and the truth of His gospel to them.

This willingness to serve the Lord is a sign that we are true heirs of the great spiritual wealth that comes to people who enter into adoption by God into His family of faith. We are made into people that are able and willing to lay down our lives in service to God because of the work of regeneration that the Holy Spirit does in us and the related renewing of our minds from ones that are focused primarily upon our own desires and wants into ones that follow God’s heart and that seek to live in the full expression of love, righteousness, and justice. In all of this there is freedom, for we are no longer required to do good works in order to appear to be worthwhile people in the world. Instead, Christ’s blood has washed us clean and we are proclaimed to be righteous and holy by Christ so that all that we think, say, and do is oriented by the Spirit toward serving God’s will and all constraints upon our capacity to love others are removed by the presence of Godly grace and mercy in and with us through each hour of every day.    

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;

   whoever is discerning, let him know them;

for the ways of the LORD are right,

   and the upright walk in them,

   but transgressors stumble in them.

Hosea 14: 9

The things that are to be understood are the ways of the Lord. That is, righteousness, mercy, justice, peacemaking, and love for people who would otherwise be considered as either beneath that sort of care and concern or who would be thought of as enemies. These are not small things, either, for they frame in a life that is committed to God and that is dedicated to following His will and to being His person in the world. The prophet also sets out an opposing approach to living out our days as those who do not wish to seek out the Lord and engage in following His Word will also travel through life in a journey that has its own consequences and outcome. They are seen as people who stumble and who bump into the obstacles of life in ways that are uncomfortable and that result in spiritual bruising and injury.

Yet, that is not how things often seem. The righteous are known to suffer and to be considered as outcasts in society. Godliness is certainly not always found to be desirable or even acceptable in many places on earth. There is a tension that exists between living as God calls upon people to do so and living in a manner that finds acceptance and favor in our world. Still, we are called by God to enter into wisdom, that is, to follow Him and to adopt the truths of Christ’s gospel as our own. We are to be generous people that give of our wealth and that also give away ourselves in ways that demonstrate grace, mercy, and acceptance to people that do not know God and that might not otherwise encounter the presence of Christ in the course of their days.

The Lord desires for His people to follow Him and to do what is right and just as we go. He does this so that our lives will be conducted in a manner that more fully reflects the glory of His holiness and so that the rest of our world will see that contrastive goodness and seek after it for themselves. He also calls us into righteousness so that life in this world will go well with our own souls. There is something troubling and unsettling about knowing Christ and still living outside of the boundaries of God’s will. When we do that our souls are troubled as we are functioning in a manner wherein our thoughts and actions are set on a collision course with the essence of who we have become as Christ’s Spirit has come to dwell within us. Here, like it was with the recipients of Hosea’s message, we are called upon by God to repent, to seek out the Lord and enter into His will, and to turn away from the ways of the world and to embrace the grace, love, and peace that come from walking along the path that the Spirit sets out for us to follow.   

Jesus said, “They (my followers) are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

John 17: 16

Here is a fundamental truth regarding the way that a relationship with Christ changes people. We are born into this world, and our identity is formed, framed, and established by the values and the priorities of the world. We are inevitably driven by the forces that are generated from the core of this sin-infused and fatally flawed environment. We are all born as children of wrath and iniquity, and our parents and everyone else who seeks to influence us have no ability to change this. They can share their faith with us; however, we, alone, can choose to enter into transformative change. We are granted the opportunity to accept a new identity and a renewed orientation through accepting the offer of redemptive grace that God has provided in Christ.

When we have done this, Jesus claims us as one of His own followers, and His Spirit comes to live within us; so that we are changed from the center of our beings. We no longer find our identity, our values, and our perspective on life in the old places. We now possess God’s heavenly, righteous, and eternal view of what it means to live in this world. We are now empowered and equipped to become people who bring about change in our world, for we gain the ability to see the people, institutions, and organization of this world from God’s perspective, and we have the capacity to embrace His heart of loving grace and His desire to see the fallen restored.

This is a highly challenging thought; for, my life is still filled with thoughts and actions that look more like those worldly ones that I was born with than they do like the ones that Jesus expresses. Yet, Christ has said that He has taken me out of the world and into His realm; so, the parts of my life that are still oriented to that old, worldly form of thought are the result of my stubborn refusal to let go of them. So, I pray, “Lord, take these unloving, self-centered, and defeated attitudes from my life, and fill me with the newness of your Spirit; so that, I can walk through my life as a person who brings the redemptive power of the love of Christ to the world where I live.”   

But he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefor I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

2 Corinthians 12: 9

We tend to like strength. It is something that is applauded, held up for praise, and sought after by most of us. It is natural to equate dominance and power to authority, and so, we put those who take charge and exert their superiority over others into positions of leadership without much in the way of question or challenge. Yet, we often fight against the forms that this power takes as it is put to use and exhibited, for the more authoritarian the person, the less that individual is likely to function in a manner that could be deemed as godly or Christ-like. The question, “Why is that so?” leads to consideration of sources and forms of real power and authentic leadership in our world.

Christ’s words for Paul give us some guidance in this question. Paul was remarkably well educated and trained, and he had then been instructed in all things that concerned knowing God and the fulfillment of that knowledge that had been established by and in Christ. Yet, all of this wisdom, position, and experience were of no use at all without God’s grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit residing within Paul. So, everything that Paul said, wrote, and demonstrated by the way that he lived was the direct result of Christ’s redeeming grace, sacrificial love, and guiding presence. All of Paul’s authority to speak to others on behalf of God’s truth and for the sake of righteousness came about because of his submission to Christ; so, it was the outworking of Christ’s strength and the authority to rule over the world that the Father had granted to Him.

We can evaluate our world from this same perspective. Where do we see submission to Christ, and how is that form of spiritual humility expressed by people in positions of power and authority? These are important questions to ask, and this characteristic of boasting only in personal weakness is one to seek after in people who are entrusted with leadership in all aspects of life in our world. Reality informs us that there are no perfect people in our midst, and no leader will ever be fully and absolutely submitted to Christ in this life. Yet, we can seek after those that come close and that, like Paul, are striving to set aside their personal power in order to more fully embrace and live out the Spirit’s leading and God’s will in their thoughts, words, and actions. Paul proved himself worthy to be followed because of his weakness in Christ. Are we each likewise seeking to empty ourselves of strength in order to become weak in this same manner, and do we seek to place people into positions of authority because they, too, are following Paul’s model of strength that comes solely from Christ?    

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Titus 2: 11-14

Purification is hard to endure. Most of us do not like it all that much. We may think that we truly want to know God and to be in a relationship with Him through the Son, Jesus Christ, but when the reality of what that means to me is looking me in the face, I am no longer so certain or sure. It is not that I do not love Jesus or believe in the holy God of redemption, it is more that I am not fully committed and so yielded to His will for me and His path for my life in response to that will. So, living as a follower of Christ might seem to be a simple thing until the actual cost of doing this is counted; yet, God does ask me to face reality and to do that very thing. He then asks me to grant the Spirit access to all of the darkened corners of my heart and mind so that every aspect of who and what I have been can be reordered into those of a person who reflects Christ fully in the conduct of my life.

For make no mistake about this fact regarding the world where we live and the age that it is in, we do exist in lawless times. Listen to the dialogue of our day, consider the violence that is present in every corner of the globe, and contemplate how little of the bounty that we possess is being used to care for the millions upon millions of starving and homeless people that are present almost everywhere. This is not a time when the world’s heart is in any way in synch with Christ’s. This world is spinning ever further away from the gospel of grace, love, peace, and redemption that is the center of Jesus’ call and appeal to His followers. As we know Christ, we are to be the people who work to bring about changes in this world. When we listen to the Lord’s voice, He is speaking faith, courage, engagement, and hope to us, and He is saying to us that we are to go out into this world and touch its inhabitants with the healing hand of grace and mercy that is directly attached to Christ’s heart.

The purity that Christ leads us into is not one of separation from the world around us. Rather, it is a form of holiness that seeks to get down into the ragged mess that is life on this planet and that is willing to breathe in the foul air of its most desperate of places in order to hold up the heads of those who are oppressed, defeated, and alone. Christ’s righteousness has no space within it for the categorical rejection of people, and it does not grant to us the right or the authority to make decisions regarding the worthiness or the worth of others. We are to love and to care for all of the people of our world without regard to any consideration beyond that of following Christ and of doing the sorts of things that He did. The good works that we are called to do are real and tangible, they also involve on-going and unceasing prayer, they require sacrifice, and they will bring about personal pain, suffering, and loss. Yet, Christ is committed to providing us with the strength, direction, and courage to go out and to do what He is calling each of us to do. His power and heart for redemption provide the zeal that keeps us going through dark days and hard times as Christ leads His people into the holy work of loving others.     

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