You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.
– Acts 7:51
I came across this text flying home Saturday, and it startled me. Can you imagine Stephen standing before these zealous Jews and having the audacity to tell them that they are “forever opposing the Holy Spirit”?! These people who have dedicated their lives to the study of Holy Scripture and looking for the things of God are now told they are in direct opposition to the things of God. Based on some heated church meetings I’ve been unfortunate enough to be a part of, I’m not surprised this escalated so quickly to throwing stones in the ancient world.
But it is easy to be on this side of history and see how the Jews were wrong, and even to pity them for being so far off from the truth. The difficult thing is that when we so often see the Jews (or the “circumcised” as Paul will call them in Galatians) on the wrong end of things, they almost always have Scripture on their side. If they were to engage in a debate like we have in modern times, they would destroy Paul because they can “book, chapter, verse” with the best of them. Scripture is pretty clear on their end, problem solved, end of discussion. And then I think of how many times I’ve been in their shoes, or the church collectively has, and Stephen would say, “Why are you forever opposing the Holy Spirit?!”
They had Scripture on their side in Galatians when they wanted these gentile converts to be circumcised. They had Scripture on their side in Acts when they wanted these gentiles to look and act like faithful Jews after they came to believe the story of Jesus (read Acts 15, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and us…”). We had Scripture on our side when we didn’t condemn slavery, advocate for the rights of women, and some even quoted Scripture to segregate the races. And then I think about all of the things in my life that caused me to throw up boundaries and exclude others when I had “Scripture on my side” (or at least thought I did): divorce and remarriage, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, my particular understanding and practice of baptism, the role of women…you name it.
So I’m preparing to preach Galatians this Sunday, and in the wonderful New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, Richard Hays says this, “Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, were pressing for a radical innovation, a community whose identity was grounded solely in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.” And I would add to that, those who then embody the selfless love of Christ in their life together. What if this became our standard, and then we read the Bible through that lens? Or maybe the way Jesus would say it is, put love of God and love of neighbor first, and then prayerfully sort the other stuff out.
Before I’m accused of “forever opposing the Holy Spirit”, I’m going to prayerfully weigh everything through the story of the selfless, self-giving love of God shown in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the call to love others in the same way. I don’t want to be so tied to my particular understandings that I miss the work of the Spirit that is right before me. Would you join me in making that the rallying call of Christianity? It just might be what is needed to advance the kingdom of God in America today.
Yes, it will be messy. It is harder this way. The boundaries aren’t always as clearly defined. But I think the payoff will be the advancement of the story and way of Jesus in the world, which is the point of all of this anyway.