Acts 6: 1-8.3 (Excerpted) – The first martyr, the first persecution
The word of God kept on spreading ; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. [Stephen was one of those set apart by the Apostles to care for the practical needs of the community.]Then some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. They put forward false witnesses who said, "This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law ; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us." And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.
The high priest said, "Are these things so ?" And he said, "Hear me, brothers and fathers !
[Then Stephen embarks on a long discourse, that I won't read now. The key points to notice about what he says, though are:
he goes back to Abraham's covenant with God...telling the story of origins that they could all agree on.
He covers the whole story of the liberation from Egypt, with particular emphasis on Moses, and then the people's betrayal of the original vision by worshipping idols.
He barely talks about Jesus at all – in responding to the accusations against him he simply affirms his commitment to the true religion of Israel, and suggests that by recognising Jesus as the Righteous One, he is being faithful to that religion in a way his accusers are not.
He concludes thus:]
"You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit ; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute ? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become ; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it."
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God ; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit !" Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he died.
Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.
So, here we have the first martyrdom in the Christian faith, followed by a period of intense persecution that spread the Jesus followers physically into the neighbouring regions.
What can we notice about these events?
In terms of narrative, there's a lot of drama and action in this part of the story. Stephen's like one of those characters that we get introduced to early in a gangster film – too good to be true, he's clearly expendable and likely to die while the more complex characters live on to the end of the film. There's a villainous set up, a righteous death, the scattering of the faithful, there's grief and fear. And at the end of the sequence, there's the shadowy figure of Saul, holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen and then going about ravaging households, inflicting terror wherever he goes. This is clearly the stuff of a sequel.
And, it seems, that the persecution that follows Stephen's death is a kind of dramatic necessity to the big story of Acts. On its own, this new movement was not yet reaching out beyond the communities that it began in. Only with persecution, did the church in Jerusalem scatter and begin to proclaim the Gospel in other areas. It could have gone both ways, I guess...they could have kept their heads down, avoided trouble, and waited for the intensity to die down before returning to their old homes and ways. But they were so captured by this new life they were experiencing that they took their story with them and continued to proclaim their truth. And because they did, we are sitting here today.
In terms of theology, we see the new Christian movement still very firmly locating themselves in the story of their Jewish religion. The arguments in the synagogues are about whether or not they are blaspheming the law, whether they are disrespecting Moses. And in Stephen's long discourse, we can see that he clearly aligns himself with the prophetic, or renewal edges of the Jewish movement down through the ages. He accuses his accusers of being like those who persecuted the prophets of old. It's worth bearing this in mind, as the story progresses and we find Christianity starting to take on a non-Jewish identity and become a religion in its own right. Christianity began as a renewal movement within Judaism, so to understand our roots, it is still important to pay attention to the Jewish myths and stories and rituals and ethics, as well as to engage respectfully with practitioners of Judaism today.
What really finishes Stephen off at the end, though, is his visionary claim that beyond the prophets of old is Jesus, the Son of Man, seated at the right hand of God. Not just a prophet in the lineage of prophets... according to Stephen's vision, Jesus has an exalted status.
I notice the manner of Stephen's death is in some respects like that of his Master – praying for Jesus to receive his spirit, and to forgive those who are killing him. To the end, there is the application of the teaching of Jesus to love your enemies. Those who recorded the story of the faith's first martyr wanted to make it clear that Stephen's execution is not just some tragic and absurd event, but it is held within the death and resurrection narrative of Jesus Christ. Which makes it a death with meaning, and a death with honour.
So, what are we to do with all this here and now?
Firstly, I'd like to remember that in some parts of the world at the moment, there are churches and Christians for whom this story of persecution and martyrdom is a very grim and present reality. They will find a very different encouragement in this text from what we would take from it here this morning. But is this story for us now simply a moment in our history, something to be remembered with interest, or to provoke us to concern for our brothers and sisters who do face death for their faith? Or can the concepts of martyrdom and persecution mean something for us in our daily reality?
I was having a conversation with a colleague recently, and she was saying that it is difficult for her to affirm baptism as a commitment that a person is willing to die for Jesus. I agreed. How can any of us know whether we, if the time ever came, would face even imprisonment for the sake of our faith? But, there is another kind of dying, a daily kind of dying, that over time strengthens us in our identity in Christ, so that external challenges can be faced with the integrity of a Boenhoffer, or a Martin Luther King, a Joan of Arc, an Oscar Romero, or a Dorothy Day.
Jesus calls us to this when he invites us to 'take up our cross daily, and follow me.' People interpret this key saying of Jesus in different ways. But, in relation to this morning's themes, here's how I see it. Each day, we have the opportunity to conform a little more to Christ, or a little more to the expectations and demands of the culture we live in. For example, we forgive someone, or we hold onto a grudge, we pray about our worries and trust God, or we let our fears make us behave in a stressed and hostile way, we step into the shoes of another, or we judge them for what we perceive as their weaknesses. Each day, in the midst of our normal reality, we are making choices that either deepen our affinity with the path of Jesus' life and teaching, or that increasingly blind us to the presence of God around us. Each day, we either open our heart a little more to others and to their needs, or we close our hearts a little as we focus on our own needs and worries. There is an ebb and flow in all of this... seasons when we are particularly attuned to God, and others where we feel a little stuck or stagnant...for most of us the path of change is three steps forward and two steps back.
But the important thing is that cumulatively, each time we 'die', each time we sacrifice something of our ego, our self-importance, our self-interest, our habitual ways of being in the world, we are building a muscle. This is the muscle that recognises the presence of Christ, and is able to respond in tune with the Spirit. Whenever we sacrifice something of our own comfort for the sake of another, or for the sake of what we hold to be good or true or just, then we take up our cross in that moment. We may never experience persecution or martyrdom for our faith, and God forbid that we should seek it or wish for it. But, if we ever do, this learned process of dying to ourselves, of trusting God, and of valuing Christ above what our society tells us is a good life, this process will hold us in readiness for whatever comes our way, including our own death - timely or otherwise.
Historically, there have been different phases of martyrdom within the life of the Church, and these still overlap today. There were (and are) the 'Red Martyrs' – those who have been tortured and killed for the faith. There were the 'Black Martyrs' – those who fled the Empire into the Desert and lived out their 'martyrdoms' in the spirit rather than the flesh – the ascetic Desert Fathers and Mothers. There have been 'White Martyrs' – those who left the society of the day to enter monasteries, observing rules of common life and a separateness from the dictates of culture. There have been 'Green Martyrs' – saints in the Celtic heritage whose particular calling was into the fusion of contemplation and ecological consciousness, leading to lonely journeys in the wilderness.
In the developed West, there is a need for a new kind of martyrdom. These are people who learn to live in the midst of the culture as it is, while living according to the Spirit of Christ. People who are not world-denying, but whose relationship with the world is transfigured...shaped by a vital awareness of the presence of God in and through all things. People whose ethics and relationships are shaped by a vision of the whole earth reconciled and renewed in God. People who have learned to transcend the smallness of their own prejudices and reactions, to see the 'other' by walking in their shoes. I call these the 'Rainbow Martyrs'. There have always been a handful of these in every historical phase. More are needed now.
These new 'Stephens' will not only look into heaven and see a vision of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, but will also look into all creation and see Jesus in every person, every rock, tree and river, every slum, every corporate office, and their own homes and families.
Will they face persecution? Possibly. A likely starting place for the rejection of these kind of martyrs is in the church. The way of the rainbow martyr is not a way of conformity, in/out thinking, commitment to rules, fear, or restraint. It is not a commitment to a prescribed set of beliefs or experiences. Rather, it is the Way of Jesus Christ – a way of action, justice, inclusion, empathy, freedom, and fearlessness. Unfortunately, to many in the church this Way is foreign. It is not a Christianity they recognise. It is possible that those who will hate and wish to destroy the rainbow martyrs will be fellow Christians...just as those who breathed threats against the earliest Christians were their fellow Jews...particularly the priests and the Pharisees.
These rainbow martyrs will probably also never find their pictures in the lifestyle sections of the glossy magazines, or their names at the top of the rich list. The Way of Jesus is only very rarely, and very precariously, also the way of wealth and success and fame. I will be saying more about this next week, but I am always very suspicious of any spiritual path that is based on, or that promises, special financial gain, or that is very interested in the celebrity of its followers. I cannot see those motives or interests in the Jesus of the Gospels, or the community of disciples who came after him. In fact, the reverse is true. So, given how strongly our culture shapes us into wanting and needing status and financial security, the pain of the rainbow martyr is the pain of having to confront that inner clamouring again and again with the values of the Gospel, and to keep on choosing the downward path.
So, maybe we will never have someone try to kill us for our faith. But following the path of faith in our world today can still be a kind of martyrdom... a path of sacrifice, of daily dying, of being turned inside out and upside down by the rigorous work of the Spirit in our inner worlds. But the gain is nothing less than eternity...by which I do not mean heaven when we die. I mean that we get to see and participate in the heaven that is already permeating the earth...the glory of God, and the Christ who fills the cosmos. May we be granted this vision, and come to live lives worthy of it.