Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
An old preacher was dying. He sent a message for his doctor and his lawyer, both church members, to come to his home. When they arrived, they were ushered up to his bedroom. As they entered the room the preacher held out his hands and motioned for them to sit, one on each side of his bed. The preacher grasped their hands, sighed contentedly, smiled and stared at the ceiling. For a time, no one said anything. Both the doctor and the lawyer were touched and flattered that the preacher would ask them to be with him during his final moments. They were also puzzled; the preacher had never given them any indication that he particularly liked either of them. They both remembered his many long, uncomfortable sermons about greed and covetousness that made them squirm in their seats. Finally, the doctor said, “Preacher, why did you ask us to come?” The old preacher mustered up his strength, then said weakly, “Jesus died between two thieves … and that’s how I want to go too.”
The early Church as described in the Book of Acts was not afraid of death and dying. The Apostles in Jerusalem taught boldly that the sting of death could hold no power over them for Jesus Christ had destroyed death once and for all, and the Father had raised up Jesus and all believers to a new life. And so the apostles willingly faced death. A century later, in the city of Carthage in North Africa, the theologian Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” He argued that persecution actually strengthened the church; as martyrs bravely died for the faith, onlookers converted. That may not seem possible today, but it was a mark of the early church. In scripture we read the stories of the first witnesses and martyrs of John the Baptist, Stephen the Deacon and James the Apostle, and their deaths. Countless unwritten stories of martyrs would follow in their wake.
Surprisingly, for an often overlooked saint and martyr, there is more recorded in scripture concerning Stephen, than there is written for most of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Almost the entire 7th Chapter of Acts is dedicated to his sermon before the Sanhedrin, but Stephen’s story actually begins in the 6th chapter of Acts, where we read that the church which was almost exclusively Jewish was growing in number daily. There were two groups of Jews living in Jerusalem. There were the Hellenistic or Greek Jews who may have been born outside of Palestine, spoke Greek, and had adopted many of the Greek customs, and then there were the Hebraic Jews, those who were most likely born in Palestine, spoke mainly Aramaic, and were culturally Hebrews. There were always tensions between the two groups. People from both religious traditions were becoming Christian in equal numbers. As the church grew, however, it was discovered that the widows from the Hellenistic Jewish community were not being looked after as well as the widows of Hebraic Jewish community. There was blatant discrimination. When the matter was brought to the Apostles, they realized two things –one that the situation was not right, and two, that they were being pulled away from their primary task of proclaiming Jesus Christ as crucified and raised from the dead. To deal with the needs of the widows and the poor, the twelve apostles invited the church to select seven men who would be appointed as deacons. These men would look after the administration of the care of the poor, while the Apostles would devote themselves to the proclamation of the gospel. In the Book of Acts, we read that Stephen was singled out as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Six others were chosen as well, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paramenas, and Nicolas. Interestingly, all have Greek names. This structural change in the leadership of the church brought immediate success. The number of followers increased greatly, and we read that even a number of priests became disciples of Christ. As an aside, it is important to note, that there was no single red-letter date in which the church was born. For generations, Christianity or The Way was simply regarded as a movement within Judaism. The creation of the church was a process which took decades, and in the meantime, Christians worshiped together with their Jewish neighbors in their synagogues.
Returning to our story, Stephen had an advantage over the other deacons. He was also a great orator. This, however, created tension in the Hellenistic Jewish community. They were not all united in embracing the Christian way. They criticized him publicly, but he bested them. Stephen’s critics began to spread falsehoods concerning his teaching, and they raised charges of blasphemy against him. They specifically stated that he was attacking Moses and the Temple. Thus, the scribes and leaders of the Temple took action and arrested Stephen. He was brought to the Sanhedrin, the highest legal council in Israel, to defend his words. In an extended sermon before the Sanhedrin, Stephen outlined a particular history of the Jewish people which emphasized the role of the outsider, worship in the wilderness, and the rejection of the prophets. This discourse contained many things unpleasant to the Sadducees; but the concluding indictment for having betrayed and murdered Jesus whose coming the Prophets had foretold, provoked the rage of his audience. It closed with the testy words, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” The people were outraged by this affront, but Stephen could only see the heaven opening up before him, and Jesus standing at the right side of God.
To the Sadducees in he Sanhedrin, this claim that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God was such great blasphemy that they rushed upon Stephen, and drove him outside the city. Jewish law at that time permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Custom required that the person to be stoned be placed on a high elevation, twice the person’s height, from whence with hands bound, he could be thrown down. It was most likely while these preparations were going on that, Stephen first prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then while they were stoning him, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold their sin against them.” Thus, Stephen became the church’s first martyr.
The word martyr actually means witness, so in death Stephen witnessed to God’s steadfast love. In his death and dying, he pulled himself up from under the crushing stones to pray. And who did he pray for? Himself? Save me. Lord, stop them. No. He prayed for his accusers. And what did he pray for? He prayed for their forgiveness. Like Jesus’ own words at his crucifixion, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold their sins against them.” And when he said this, he died.
There is an interesting twist to the story. It was the responsibility of those who had accused Stephen to throw the first stones, and so we read that the accusers laid their coats down so they could do this at the feet of a “young man named Saul,” later to be known as St. Paul the Apostle. He approved of the brutal killing of Stephen. But, he also heard the martyr’s prayer for forgiveness. Stephen’s death that day had a massive impact on the church. It launched a persecution. All the Christian community, except for the apostles, fled the city of Jerusalem which is where we will resume our story next Sunday.
The legacy of the early Christian church is our story. It is the story of the martyrs and their sacrifices. They were common men and women who believed boldly in Jesus Christ’ death and resurrection and his commandment to love their neighbor. They didn’t hide behind the safety of silence or the law. They spoke and lived God’s Word whenever and wherever it was necessary. Whether it was safe or not to speak the truth, they were willing to live and die for the truth of Jesus Christ. But my friends, the witness of the martyrs did not end with the early church. Generation after generation, men and women have dared to speak and offer their lives for the life of others. This was true of missionaries who spread the good news throughout Europe and New World. It was true of Jan Huss, in the 1400’s, who was burned at the stake for his convictions in liberating the Czech church. It was true of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who returned to his native German in the years leading up to World War II, who died in a Nazi concentration camp. It was true of the Naval Chaplains Kirkpatrick and Schmitt who continued to serve aboard the USS Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor and who ultimately lost their lives.
My friends, when we remember the life of Stephen, we remember all of those who have walked in his footsteps of Jesus and dared to speak out. And we pray that you and I may dare to find our voice and speak and live the word of Christ in this great world of silence as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.