Beloved

By Ryan Sanders
In eLetter, Faith & Belief
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This morning I read Acts 13, a chapter in the impressive saga of Paul's first missionary journey. After a wild time on Cyprus, (striking a sorcerer blind and whatnot) Paul and Barnabas travel to Pisidian Antioch where they find a hearing. The leaders of the synagogue there are receptive and attentive. It appears that their preaching might have great effect. But then this happens:

On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him. — Acts 13: 44-45

Imagine yourself on a mission trip to some place you've never been. After one night of sharing, the locals start to invite their friends. On the second night the place is packed, people crowding in to hear the good news about Jesus. Certainly, this is a thrill that every Christian has dreamed about.

And then imagine that the leaders of the local religion — the very ones who invited you to speak in the first place — turn on you. They start to question…then argue…then belittle. In fact, the scene gets so heated that they become verbally abusive. They call you names. They throw shoes. They "heap abuse" on you.

What a let-down! And after such a promising start to your trip! What do you do next? Start a fight? Withdraw? Call home? Ask your translator where you can find a cheeseburger and a Coke? Watch what Paul does: 

Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” — Acts 13: 46

Maybe it's surprising that Paul abandons them so quickly to their unbelief, but what I found interesting is his reason: "since…you do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life."

These are men who had abused Paul. They were rude. They opposed the message of the gospel. And Paul's conclusion, his sentence against them, more dire than any accusation of malfeasance or sinfulness, is that they have bad self esteem. They don't see themselves as recipients of God's gracious gift of life.

Certainly, this could be sarcastic. Paul could be mouthing off, but I think there might also be something deeper here. Paul understands the starting point of grace, which is the humility to receive it.

Years ago, I read a book by the mysteriously engaging Brennan Manning called Abba's Child. In it, Manning asserts that there is one starting point to faith, one deepest truth we must accept, one foundational worldview that sets us on the path toward life and fellowship and spiritual growth — the idea that we are God's beloved. Manning writes:

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence...Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.

Paul's response to the rabble-rousing Jews in Prisidian Antioch is not to call them "children of the devil" (though he wasn't afraid to do that to his opponents; see verse 10.) His accusation is that they don't believe themselves to be beloved of God. That is the identity they are unwilling to take, but it is the first step that might have led them to humbly receiving rather than jealously competing. It is the step of taking God's grace seriously. It's acknowledging that you have no hope of competing with his furious love. It's confessing with Peter that you have no one else to run to besides him "who has the words of life." It's rolling up your pant leg to let the Lord Of the Universe wash your feet.

Richard Foster wrote, “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence."

More than being a father to your children, deeper than your identity as a wife, more fundamental than being a teacher or a businessman, or an elder, or a church-goer, or a disciple, more important than your marital status, your sexual identity, your financial security, your party affiliation, or your alma mater, you are, at your core, an object of divine favor. Before you are anything else, you are deeply loved by your heavenly father. 

How are you accepting his love today? How are you embracing your identity and destiny by letting God love you?

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