I know there are some people in this church who have visited Westminster Abbey in London over the past few years. If you have, you might have noticed a striking new set of statues on the outside of the church, above the main doors. They are statues of martyrs of the twentieth century – people who followed Jesus faithfully and paid for it with their lives.
The statues include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was part of the underground opposition to Hitler; he was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945. Father Maximilian Kolbe is there too; he was a Catholic priest and Auschwitz inmate who willingly gave his life in place of another prisoner condemned to die. There’s also Janani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda who was shot and killed by General Idi Amin. Oscar Romero is there too; he was a Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador who was murdered by government death squads as he was celebrating Mass.
Of course there have been many others who have paid with their lives for their allegiance to Jesus. I remember five men whose stories made a great impression on me when I was a young Christian: Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully and Pete Fleming. They were missionaries who were killed by Guarani tribesmen in Ecuador in 1952. I think of Tom Fox, a Quaker and a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who was murdered by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade in Iraq in March 2006. I think of the thousands of Christians who have been killed by extremists of various kinds in recent years. It has been said that in the twentieth century more Christians gave their lives for the Gospel of Christ than in all nineteen previous centuries. They remind us that martyrdom is not a thing of the past: it is still with us today.
And of course we need to acknowledge at this point that the Church has a sad history of persecuting others too. Christians have burned other Christians at the stake as heretics. Christians have imposed state-endorsed forms of Christianity on others. Christians have perpetrated oppression and violence and murder against Jewish people. This is a sad part of our history and completely contrary to the teaching of Jesus, and we need to acknowledge it, repent of it and ask forgiveness for it.
This morning in our reading from Acts we meet the first in the long line of Christian martyrs, Stephen. Who was he?
We don’t actually know a lot about him. We know that he was a ‘Hellenistic’ Jew – in other words, although he was a Jew by race and religion, he had probably been raised in a Greek cultural context, and his first language was Greek, not the Aramaic spoken by most of the Jerusalem Christians.
We’re told in Acts that those early Jerusalem Christians lived a lifestyle of voluntary communism, sharing all their possessions and giving to the needy, especially the widows and orphans among them. This included a daily distribution of food to believers who couldn’t support themselves. Apparently there was some rumbling about the Hellenist widows being neglected in this daily distribution. The apostles wanted to make things right, so they appointed seven Hellenists to be in charge, and Stephen was one of them. But Stephen’s talents weren’t confined to administration; he was also a gifted evangelist. He’s described in Acts 6 as ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (6:5), and we’re told that ‘Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people’ (6:8).
But not everyone was happy with Stephen’s message, and some actively opposed him. They accused him of blasphemy, and he was arrested and brought before the same ruling council that had condemned Jesus. Luke tells us ‘They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us”’ (6:13-14).
This story is told in Acts chapters 6 and 7; our first reading for today comes at the very end and doesn’t really make sense unless you know the rest of the story! Most of Acts 7 is taken up by Stephen’s defence - a long, rambling sermon about Jewish history that has many Christians yawning for most of the chapter! But Stephen’s not wasting his time; he wants to make two points. First, you can’t tie God down to a Temple made of stone; he’s always on the move. Secondly, God’s people have always rebelled against his voice, the most recent example of that being the way they rejected Jesus. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” Stephen asks; “They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (7:52-53).
Not surprisingly the leaders were angry at these accusations, and they quickly turned into a lynch mob; they took Stephen out of town and stoned him to death, as we heard in our reading. Luke doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat this tragedy. I don’t get the impression that Stephen had a morbid desire for death, and his Christian friends certainly mourned for him; Acts 8:2 says ‘Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him’.
But if we look a little closer at Luke’s story we can see God bringing good out of this tragedy. First, the one who held the coats of the executioners was a young man named Saul; later on, of course, he became better known as the Apostle Paul. Many scholars have speculated that when Saul saw the faithful way Stephen met his death, it might have been the first link in the chain that eventually led him to Christ. Secondly, that day a severe persecution broke out against the Church and most of the Christians were scattered. However, Luke tells us that ‘Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (8:4). So the action that had been intended to stamp out Christianity only succeeded in spreading it!
I find that the story of Stephen challenges me in several areas of my life. Perhaps as I share them with you, you’ll be challenged too.
First, the story of Stephen challenges my desire to be popular and to have an easy life. I have a good friend who used to teach a workshop called ‘Sharing Your Faith without Losing Your Friends’. It was intended to reassure people that there’s a way of talking to your friends about your Christian faith that won’t automatically lead to you losing all your friends! But it is kind of ironic that for most of us, the biggest disaster that could result from our telling others about Christianity is losing our friends! That was the least of Stephen’s worries!
The fact is, of course, that there’s a comfortable version of Christianity that sees the Christian faith as one of many good stress-reduction techniques. Churchgoing, Bible reading, and prayer will help me cope with the pressures of my busy materialistic life. But I don’t need to go public with it, and I certainly don’t need to change the basic orientation of my life to practice it.
In the New Testament things are very different. The basic message of the early Christians was ‘Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all’, which was kind of ‘in your face’ of them, since the Roman emperor already claimed that title! The early Christians didn’t expect Caesar or his followers to jump for joy over the news that Jesus had dethroned him! But the good news they announced is that the true Lord of the world is not a corrupt politician or a self-serving millionaire, but the Lord who loves us so much he was willing to die for us. The challenge comes when he calls us to turn from our previous allegiances and commit ourselves to him in joyful obedience. Our false gods – whether popularity or greed or nationalism or whatever they might be – must be renounced, and these impostors aren’t likely to cheer about the fact that they’re losing followers.
The late Pope John Paul II understood the cost of allegiance to Jesus. As a young man he lived through the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland, in which almost twenty percent of the nation’s Catholic priests were murdered by the invaders. Catholic youth organisations were made illegal, but young Karol Wojtyla risked his life by taking part in them. Later he joined an illegal underground seminary to study for the priesthood, once again risking his life to respond to the call of Christ. He understood that a Christian has a higher allegiance, and may be called on to pay the ultimate price for it – just as Jesus paid the ultimate price out of love for us.
It’s totally unrealistic for us to think we can follow Jesus faithfully without upsetting anyone. If we follow Jesus, there will be a price to be paid. Please understand: I don’t mean that we disciples of Jesus should be going out of our way to offend people; far from it! But no matter how loving and gracious we are, the offence of the Cross of Christ is still there. The Christian message challenges our self-centredness. It calls us to turn from our sins and live in joyful faith and obedience to Jesus. People aren’t all going to cheer for this. Some will reject it, and they will reject its messengers and those who practice it as well. Faithful disciples of Jesus aren’t surprised by this: we understand that it’s part of taking up our cross and following him.
So the story of Stephen challenges my desire for popularity and the easy life. Secondly, the story of Stephen speaks to my fear. I’ve already mentioned Jim Eliot, one of the five missionaries murdered by Guarani tribespeople in Ecuador in 1952. Some years before, Jim had written these words in his journal: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’. In other words, he had already faced the possibility of death, looked it squarely in the eye, and didn’t blink.
Death is our last great enemy. The greatest weapon used by tyrants is the fear of death. But the early Christian martyrs don’t seem to have worried very much about it. Why is that?
Well, put yourself in Stephen’s place. A short time before the events of this story, the authorities had arrested, tried, and crucified Jesus. That seemed to be the end for him. But then the Resurrection happened! Death had done its worst, but God had overcome the worst it could do. And Jesus had promised his followers that the same thing would happen to them: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:40).
What did Stephen see when he stared death in the face? ‘But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look”, he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”’ (7:55-56). By the way, we needn’t dismiss this as fanciful nonsense; there are many stories of people near death who seem to see familiar faces coming to meet them. But the most interesting detail here is the reference to Jesus ‘standing’ at the right hand of God. In every other case in the New Testament where Jesus’ place at the right hand of God is mentioned, he is ‘seated’, but here he’s ‘standing’. Was he standing to welcome his faithful follower? We don’t know, but what we do know is Stephen looked into the face of death and saw God’s warm welcome there.
This is what it means to be an Easter people, a people who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. It means that the very worst thing evil can do to us is only temporary. Jesus has promised us a warm welcome into the Father’s presence and a glorious resurrection on the last day. That’s why, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was being taken away to be hanged, he said to his friends “Don’t be afraid. This is the end – for me, the beginning of life!”
So the story of Stephen challenges my desire for popularity and the easy life, and it touches me at the level of my fear. Finally, the story of Stephen challenges my anger.
I’ve already referred to the five Ecuador martyrs of 1952. All five of them were married, and some had children. You might have expected their loved ones to lash out in anger after the men were murdered, but this didn’t happen. Nate Saint’s sister Rachel, and Jim Elliot’s widow Betty, continued to live and work in the area. Eventually they themselves moved into Guarani territory, sharing the Gospel and establishing a church there. Nate Saint’s son Steve has continued through the years to serve the people who murdered his father.
One of the most challenging verses in the Bible is James 1:19-20: ‘You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’. Stephen understood this well. What were his last words? ‘Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. When he had said this, he died’ (7:60). No doubt the spirit of steadfastness and love with which he met his death made a great impression on the people around him – not least, upon Saul.
So this story challenges me to let go of my anger against people who speak and act against my Christian faith. It reminds me that angry words don’t achieve anything. Rather, like Jesus and Stephen, I’m to respond with love and forgiveness. As Paul says, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:14, 20a).
So, to sum up: First, the story of Stephen challenges me to put my loyalty to Jesus ahead of my desire for an easy life. Second, it calls me to give up my fears and put my trust in God who raises the dead. And third, it challenges me to let go of my anger against those who oppose the Gospel, and to respond with love and forgiveness.
So our call, you and I, is to continue to be faithful to Jesus, even when not everyone in our lives is jumping for joy about it. We’re called to reach out in love with the good news of Jesus. We’re called to rejoice with those who respond positively to it, and to continue to love those who don’t. And we’re called to entrust ourselves above all to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has promised that he will not let us down, even in the face of death; rather, he will bring us through death to our own glorious resurrection.