Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Acts 7:48-60 and Galatians 5:19-26) transports me to a small provincial town in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 19th century Russia, where an elderly monk, Father Zosima, is counseling a woman who is struggling to recover her faith. The novelist has his monk give some simple advice, strive to love your neighbor actively. . .then you will believe without doubt. She questions this advice, saying that already loves humanity so much – she often dreams of forsaking all that she has and becoming a sister of mercy. Then Father Zosima tells a story of a man who once confessed to him that the more he loved humanity in general, the less he loved the particular individuals he encountered. And the wise monk concluded his counsel with these words, love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.
Today’s passage gives us a beautiful illustration of someone who lived out Father Zosima’s counsel, who loved the particular individuals he encountered, embodying the harsh and dreadful love toward those who raged at him and ultimately killed him. Stephen, the first recorded martyr in Christian history, was trying to engage in dialogue and bear witness to a “stiff-necked” group of people, people who resisted the sacred Spirit that enables such dialogue to be productive. Instead, these folks followed in the footprints of the zealous religious leaders who came before them, persecuting the prophets and murdering the messenger who spoke of the coming Messiah, and then killing Christ.
It’s an understatement to say that Stephen’s conversation partners didn’t like what he said. Had they been in the electronic age, they would have been typing away in all caps. He would have been on their televised blackboard for daily battering. Given their lack of technology, though, all they could do was gnash their teeth in fury. Stephen maintained his connection with the Spirit in the face of their resistance, and calmly told them about his vision of Jesus, standing at God’s right hand. At this, they covered their ears, yelled at the top of their lungs and rushed him, dragging him out of town so they could commence stoning him. And here’s perhaps the harshest and most dreadful love of all – Stephen’s last words, as he got down on his knees, was Lord, don’t hold this against them. He never once wavered from the Spirit of love, even as stone after stone came crashing down on him.
When the story tells us that Stephen’s opponents resisted the Holy Spirit, and Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, we would do well not to turn the presence or absence of God’s Spirit into an abstraction. Being filled with this Spirit signifies a very real and recognizable ethos, a disposition, a nature, that is indeed holy. One of those resisters who participated in Stephen’s stoning later came to know and accept that Spirit for his own. Saul, renamed Paul, wrote an eloquent description about how that Spirit manifests itself in everyday life and conversation – you know that Spirit is present when the ethos, the disposition, the nature of a person expresses love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness and gentleness, and self-control. In contrast, Paul said, we know that a diabolical spirit is present when the ethos, the disposition, the nature of a person foments hatred, discord, and dissension.
We might all dream of loving humanity so much we would forsake everything to go and serve. But then we have to wake up and encounter real people. We enter into conversation and attempt to share our portion of the truth with particular people down the street, or at work, or in church, or in our family, or we turn on the news and hear about a maniacal minister in Gainesville. More often than not the people we encounter will provoke us, push our buttons, irritate us; we’ll find them to be stiff-necked in their refusal to accept our vision of Jesus and in their resistance to our overtures of peace. Instead of productive dialogue, we might just encounter folks who gnash their teeth and cover their ears and yell at the top of their lungs. This is where love becomes harsh and dreadful. This is not the love of our dreams. This is the wide-awake world where the temptation is always to stiffen our own necks, to gnash our own teeth, to cover our own ears and yell right back. Saint Stephen and Father Zosima teach us that if we really want to sustain our faith, though, we have to maintain a different Spirit; we have to communicate a different Ethos, with a different disposition and nature that keeps us in that sacred space of joy, peace, love, gentleness, and kindness, no matter what comes back at us. Paul ends his description of this Holy Ethos with what I imagine was his attempt at a bit of humor: after all, he said, there’s no law against it.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.