Summary: Look at Stephen the martyr & how we are called likewise to rediscover our voice in sharing our faith & speaking prophetically too
Acts 7: 51-60
Summary prior to Acts reading
Stephen is in Jerusalem around AD 30. He is one of the most trusted men in the Church; a very good man who the Bible says was full of both the Holy Spirit and love. The early Christian community trusted him & chose him to be treasurer of their money, which was used to care of widows, orphans & poor people.
But if he was popular among in the Church he wasn’t amongst the ruling Jewish people. They plotted against him as of course they did the other apostles, & they made false accusations against Stephen, bringing him to a trial in a Jewish court. Stephen defended himself by looking back at the history of his people – the history of Israel. He takes his accusers on a journey through the Old Testament recalling Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph & other Old Testament heroes.
He builds up to tell his hearers that all through their history they have been disobedient to God.
Rediscovering our voice - Stephen
We are called by the lectionary to encounter the stoning of Stephen, & the reading is very long one – 60 verses of Acts 7! Because it is so long we only heard from the end of the lectionary during our worship & I summarised what happened before that – when you get home read it through yourself.
So Stephen defends himself against his accusers as we have said by looking to the history of his people – the history of Israel, highlighting not just how they were God’s chosen people (as we are now as explained to us in the reading from 1 Peter) but that they had this amazing tendency to rebel & turn upon God & His message.
He basically says to them – you are murderers & faithless people just like your ancestors. He says to them all they care about is the tradition & ritual, that they care nothing for the reality of God’s Spirit.
So they stoned him, & he became the first recorded Christian martyr.
Stephen’s response was the same as that of his Lord at Calvary – ‘Father forgiven them for they do not know what they do’.
Today we look at what it means to be martyrs because that is what each & everyone of us is called to be; not the kind we sometimes hear about – I often hear older folk say things like ‘Oh I’m a martyr to my arthritis or my bunions’ – No not that, but real martyrs who like Stephen are prepared to lay down their lives because they are faithful to Jesus.
In these days of religious fundamentalism there seems to be something worrying & dangerous in this word martyrdom doesn’t there? It conjures up for us images from Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine of suicide bombers. We recall shattered London buses & Underground stations or burning cars at airports or a little further back the Twin Towers doesn’t it?
But whatever those who do such evil things may believe to suggest they are real martyr’s is offensive in the extreme. You see there is I think a big difference between the inhumanity of the terrorist & the true Christian martyr. The terrorist kills others but a real martyr dies so that others might live. I think we need to reserve this most noble word martyr for the real martyrs who die that others might live in freedom, or those who die because they refuse to deny their faith, their God. No let us try to put on one side the vile distorted evil terrorist image of martyrdom.
There is another dimension to this word too, for the original Greek word used for martyr is also translated as our word witness, which gives us a clue to what this is all about.
Jesus calls all his followers to be witnesses to Him even to the ends of the earth.
We are all called to be martyr’s, witnesses to the risen Christ in our lives. In the way we live, the way we spend our money, the way we speak.
In other words to have a very public faith, & there in lies a huge problem for some who believe they are Christian’s, for they – maybe you – want a private faith.
There is that old saying that says ‘all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’ & that is true isn’t it? It is true in the realm of witness & faith too. We have good news to share for Christ who once was dead is now alive Alleluia! If we remain silent, if we withdraw our witness then evil will triumph.
The thing I often hear from people about sharing our faith is that to do so is off putting. People say things like ‘I don’t use words people will tell from the way I live’ – well really? The greatest saints, even Jesus our Lord needed to use words – what makes you think you don’t need to? Could it be that our faith is lacking or that you lack courage?