Vicar's Sermon - 14th May 2017
Question: Would you be willing to die for your faith?
Question: would you be willing to kill for your faith?
It is a commonplace that the 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than the previous centuries put together. The 21st century has added to that number. There are Christian people across the world who live in fear for their lives, who are on the move across the Middle East, some in refugee camps and others too fearful even to enter these.
And the collapse of Iraq set alongside continued warfare in Afghanistan has brought about a situation where there are vast numbers of people who are both prepared to die for their faith but also willing to kill for it. These people portray themselves as followers of Islam but they are denounced by most Muslims. Better to refer to them as Islamists rather than to dignify their position by bracketing them with the majority Islamic community who are horrified by their actions.
To die. To kill. Today’s passage from the Book of Acts holds before us the death of the first Christian martyr: Stephen - we, of course, keep his Feast on Boxing Day, he is one of the most revered Christian Saints. But we are also introduced to ‘a young man, Saul’, who will become the great apostle, Paul. Saul, both here and in the verses that follow is shown to be party to the first great persecution of the church: a persecution that resulted in imprisonment for some, possibly death for others and the scattering of the early church out from Jerusalem, out into Asia Minor.
This, Stephen’s death, is a key moment in the life of the church. Trouble has been brewing for some time. We are only given the final verses of a chapter that records Stephen’s defence against blatantly false accusations. Two witnesses, clearly identified as two ‘false witnesses’ have accused him of preaching against the Law (of Moses) and against the Temple. His case rises through the court system until he stands before the Sanhedrin, the High Court, summoned to sit in judgement upon him. Jewish Law commands that he should be warned of his offense and encouraged to desist. The offense boils down to trying to lead the people astray, preaching and teaching in a way that is contrary to the Torah. It is a capital offense: Stephen’s life is on the line, but beyond him, so are the lives of others who believe just as he believes.
So the stage is set. As someone who has just finished watching the latest series of Line of Duty and who is binge watching the American House of Cards on TV this reads like a stich up. An innocent man is being framed. The forces against him are too great. There is evil and malice at work here and we just need someone to speak the truth – to have the courage to stand up to power, to revela the corruption and evil that exists in the state.
And Stephen does this. The whole of Acts chapter 7 records his words in the court room – or if not his verbatim words then the gist of what he said. He was Jewish, albeit probably a Hellenic Jew - someone born outside Israel. His accusers are identified as similarly being from beyond Israel – possibly converts to Judaism (and we know that converts can be more zealous than those born into a faith), or like Stephen, Jews who were born beyond the borders of Israel. We are specifically told that they were from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (so possibly former Jewish slaves) along with others from Cyrenia, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia.
So Stephen makes his defence and my guess is that you could hear a pin drop in the court room as he does so– his accusers are waiting for the slip up, the mistake that will see him condemned. And he speaks to his Jewish hearers of the history of their faith. He tells of the call of Abraham, of the covenant of circumcision. He speaks of Joseph – of how God was with him, the brother sold into slavery in Egypt. He focuses on Moses: of how even Moses was rejected by the Israelites when he intervened in trying to prevent two slaves fighting ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’ He moves on to remind the people that it was this Moses, the prophet initially rejected by Israel who would lead them to freedom. But that even then, having escaped out of Egypt, the people turned from God to worship false idols, the golden calf.
Nothing that he says is untrue but can you see the theme that is building in this, Stephen’s last sermon. The theme is Israel’s refusal to accept God’s chosen one. Israel has a history of rejecting those whom God chooses to rule them, and Stephen is about to turn a corner in his sermon because the link is made very clear: Israel, the Sanhedrin, the very people sitting in judgement on him, they have done it again. They have rejected Jesus, God’s Messiah, and now it is they who sit under judgement. And just to ram home the leader’s failure – all of which has scriptural precedent- Stephen reminds them that there is a strong scriptural argument that runs against elevating to highly the importance of the Temple, (which remember, is just round the corner from the courtroom). ‘The Most High’ he says ‘does not dwell in a house. Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house could you possibly build for me?’
Light the blue touch paper and stand back. The explosion takes place. It is all too much for the members of the Sanhedrin. Nothing that Stephen has said is contrary to the scripture but they don’t want to hear it. And then we come to Stephen’s words in our passage: the One they have rejected, Jesus, now stands at the right hand of God. Quoting Daniel chapter 7 (a key chapter for the early church) Stephen identifies Jesus as being the true suffering servant of God, the one vindicated by God and raised to the highest heaven where he is given dominion and power to rule over the whole earth. They don’t want to hear this, in fact, they ‘cover their ears’ to avoid hearing any more and with a ‘great shout’ they fall on him. There is no formal judgement pronounced: how could there be in amongst the chaos?
They are zealots. They rush against him, eager to show their concern for the law of God as they see it: they must be the first to defend God’s honour. The witnesses play their part in stoning Stephen: knowing full well that their accusation was false they remove their outer garments in order better to cast the first stones, and the story ends with Stephen consciously recalling Jesus’ death in the way that he dies. This is the way of the cross. This is what it means to walk the way of the cross.
What do you see as this drama unfolds?
Courage: on Stephen’s part. I remember a friend from Nigeria saying to me ‘I you are going to be a Christian, be a good one’. His church had been burned down with the people in it
Courage and Corruption: at the heart of the religious and political establishment. And lest we point the finger too easily at others perhaps the lesson for us is to be aware that we are quite capable of being blind to God’s Truth.
Courage, corruption and the challenge of Stephen’s sermon: how well do we know our faith? Where do we sit in the story of God’s people? How do we discern God at work amongst us: would we have recognised the Christ?
The example of his death: his absolute trust in God…but note that he doesn’t quite echo Jesus’ words at the crucifixion, he actually prays to Jesus ‘Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.’ At the time of trial his faith becomes stronger. Pray for grace that this might be true of us too.
Dave Male’s story of Blondin and his wheelbarrow walk over a tight rope across Niagara Falls. ‘Do you believe I can do this? …Then who is prepared to climb in the wheelbarrow?
Finally we see that Stephen’s strength came through his knowing that Jesus is Lord. He placed his trust completely in Jesus as Lord of all. On Monday, at the swearing in of our new church wardens, our Archdeacon (Nick) reminded us that the resurrection of Jesus presents us with a new reality. To paraphrase him; we have too small a view of the world if it is confined to worries about Brexit, Donald Trump, and Syria. For Jesus stands at the right hand of God and He is Lord of heaven and earth. As the hymn says ‘His kingdom cannot fail’. He is working His purposes out and we can either be with him, or against him.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’. In life and in his death he bore faithful witness to Jesus. May that be true for us too.