Imagine a person who makes life difficult for you. Somebody you know is going to do or say something damaging or hurtful when you see them, or someone you feel you need to be careful what you say around because they may blow up at you or cut you off and make excuses for themselves. These are people in our lives who feel like a burden and continually cause saddness, stress and heartache. Maybe you know more than one person like this... Have that person in mind this morning.
Paul & Barnabus at Iconium
Take a look at Acts 14:1-6,19-22. Paul & Barnabus went to this city, Iconium, to share the Gospel of Jesus. Spent a considerable amount of time there, and ran into some opposition. Fled to Lystra & Derbe.
This is something we've sen in Acts before and will see again. The disciples in the early church faced much persecution. When people take a stand for Christ and share the news of God's love for them, there are some people who wil lnot only disagree, but will also get angry and lash out at those sharing the message. But there is something more going on here that I want to focus on today.
As you read on, Luke, the author of Acts) describes some events in Lystra-a healing, the people want to worship Paul & Barnabus...but there is something that happens here starting in v. 19
The people opposing them followed them to Lystra where they did stone Paul and left him for dead. He did survive, but you can imagine the kind of pain he must have been in afterward. Imagine what having rocks hurled at you until you were unconscious would do to you!
It wasn't enough for Paul & Barnabus to get away from these people...they stuck with them. They kepts hanging on. They came around and caused more trouble. They spread bad rumors and poisoned the crowd against them. And they caused serious injury to Paul.
They keep going...and going...and going
Take a look at how these to men of Christ responded, though. (v.20-2)
They continued to do their work sharing the gospel, and even returned to the cities where they were attacked. After facing these kinds of attacks, I think the natural response would be to say, "OK, enough is enough. I'm done." As I read this, I found myself asking, "What possessed these men to keep going? Why would they even go back to places where they KNEW there would be persucution?" They even told the new Christians is those cities, that harships such as what they had just a part of life as a follower of Christ. This is kind of like slamming your fingers in a doorway over and over.
The heartbreak of being the church
When I told you to think of somone who causes you stress and heartache, I dont imagine you thought of someone who was wanting to stone you to death, but I think there are some similarities here. Throughout our lives, we find ourselves in relationship with people who are a burden to us-a lot of times these are members of our own families! Sometimes they seem to have a grudge against us, and are always finding ways to pick at you or cause you to question what you did wrong or make you feel guilty...there is a constant tension there. Sometimes they are people who always seem to have problems...or are upset about something....they may blame you...or do things that directly affect you and drag you into the situation. Sometimes they do seem to stick with you. You may have to get away from them at times, but there is some kind of connection that keeps them around. The things they do and say can often feel like rocks being hurled at you...throwing your life into chaos and disorder and pain.
Over the past several years of observing people, I've come to realize that this is a fairly common part of human interactions-especially when we, as Christians, are doing the work God has given us to do. When we show concern for people's lives and reach out to them...it can open up wounds and misunderstanding in their lives that lead to backlash. When we work with one another to grow in the new life Jesus has given up-to learn to truly know and trust in God, we expose longheld habits and beliefs that are hard to let go of. This can create some tense and difficult interactions.
I remember when I first indicated that I was feeling God calling me to full time ministry, I was told that although ministry is very rewarding, it is also very heartwrenching becauce of these kinds of interactions with poeple. Jesus told us to love one another as we love ourselves. This means that if we are truly being the church as Jesus as called us to be, we are investing our lives...or love...into other people. Sometimes loving...and doing what is best for someone based upon our own love for God...isn't what they want to hear, so they respond in ways similar to these people who attacked Paul and Barnabus. It can be painful to have someone respond that way when you've put so much effort into helping them.
How do we respond?
I've seen a couple of different responses to these kinds of interactions. You can grow very cold and bitter toward other people. When someone has hurt you and repeatedly made your life difficult, it is easy to just give up on them and say, "Forget it. I'm not going to deal with them anymore." You may also lose hope for people in general. You realize that we are all sinful and stubborn in our own ways and decide you just don't want to deal with it anymore. You begin to have a very negative view of people and expect the worst from them. This is the "natural" response that many people have toward one another. The result is that we all isolate ourselves from one another and only trust ourselves. This is exactly the kinds of response Satan would like people to have.
Paul and Barnabus, however, exhibited a Godly response. After being stoned almost to death, Paul got up and returned to the city. Then next day, he didn't brood and complain about how stubborn and difficult people were. He went on and continued to tell peopel about Jesus. When they were done in Derbe, they didn't wach their hands of the places they'd come from. They knew there were young Christians there who needed their encouragement and, I'm certain that they still held out hope that those who opposed them might still hear the Word of Truth about Jesus and turn their lives around. They knew that those people were only responding to them negatively because the the message hadn't worked its way into their hearts yet. It's the same attitude Jesus had while he was hanging on the cross dying, and he said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luk 23:34). He never gave up hope in people even then they mocked him and killed him.
Where does my strength come from?
But where do you get the strength to keep going and pursuing difficult people for God? Paul and Barnabus were able to respond as they did because they maintained close dependance upon the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the strengh to carry on in those difficult circumstances, he helps us to see things from God's perspective, and teaches us to place our our lives in God's hands rather than feeling as though we need to protect ourselves.
Paul and Baranbus had learned trust God's plan for their lives no matter what they faced. I'm sure it was not easy after being stoned to get back up and keep going. Paul had to take some time to connect with God and regain strength from Him.
When we feel as though people are hurling stones at us, we do need to turn to God and rest in Him and remind ourselves that it doesn't matter what other people think about us, but what God thinks about us....and that He is crazy about you! this is what keeps from from growing cold toward others and to continue fighting for their spiritual well-being.
We also need to depend upon the Spirit to help us see past the things they are saying and doing to discover why they are responding so negatively. We need to ask God to help us see peopel the way He does...so that we can stay focused on what really matters. More often than people, when people are lashing out as us, they are responding from deeply help misunderstandings. They feel inadequate or attacked in some way. It is the Spirit who can help us see those issues and stay committed to helping people see the truth about God and respond to them in love.
Truth and Love
When I consider Paul and Barnabus' actions, I see these two major commitments from them. They want people to know the truth about Jesus. In John 4:24, Jesus told a Samaritan woman, "God is Spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and truth." These men were committed to making sure people knew the truth about who Jesus and what He had done for them. They wanted to help them see how their own experiences and the prophecies from Scripture confirmed that Jesus was the Son of God who had offered himself for their sins. God can help us as well, to be committed to helping people-no matter what kinds of hang ups or misunderstandings they might have-to know the truth about Jesus.
The second commitment they had was to loving people. Not a mushy, light-hearted kind of love-but a true heartfelt commitment to them. Jesus also said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13). These two were willing to lay down their lives even for people they didn't know so that they coould know Jesus for themselves. That love allowed them to see past the stones and the hatred toward them and to never give up on people. This is the love that God can fill us with to keep us going as a church.
As we look forward to another new year, God will put us into contact with people who don't know Him...people who have difficulty trusting Him...who will resist efforts to show them God's love. But this is the work of the church, and if we remain committed to Him and remember His commitment to us, He will contine to fill us with His love and give us His eyes on people to enable us to keep going and never give up reaching and helping people grow in Him.
To be the church...God needs us to remain committed to Him, and to ask Him to help us remain committed to loving and sharing the truth about Jesus with people who will sometimes be difficult.
Remember that difficult person in your life...Remind yourself that they are not responding the way they do because they are idiodic or dumb. They are not a waste of your time.They may be stubbornly hanging onto to something right now...but there is always hope in Jesus, and they are worth figthing for. Ask God to fill you with His love for that person and to help you see them from His perspective. Make a commitment to reach out to them in love, and help them to see the truth. Their lives were worth the price Jesus paid...they are worth our efforts to show them who God is.