a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter on Acts 6:1-15; 7:54b-60
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on May 22, 2011
There have been a lot of martyrs in the news lately, people dying for a cause bigger than themselves. Men, women, and children across the Middle East have died in the uprisings for democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. Some suggest that Usama Bin Laden died as a martyr for his cause, thought the muted reaction in the weeks since suggests that few support that assumption. Others closer to home are remembering those who died in the Civil War as we observe its 150th anniversary over the next few years. Still others this month are thinking back fifty years to the Freedom Rides, where blacks and whites attempted to integrate interstate buses and bus stations in the South and were met with persecution, arrest, assault, firebombing, and practically everything but death. Martyrs seem to be all around us, but what does it mean to be a martyr today?
The best place to start out such a conversation is likely the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. According to our reading from Acts this morning, incredible things were happening in the Christian community in those days. More and more people were becoming a part of the fellowships that gathered around the apostles, and as the work got to be too much for the twelve disciples to organize on their own, they chose seven others to join in the work of caring for the people.
One of these seven, Stephen, was especially articulate and faithful, and some in his synagogue were troubled by his wise interpretation of scripture and his passion for this new sect. Without warning, some of the religious leaders of the day seized him and brought him before the council of Jewish leaders on trumped-up charges, and false witnesses accused him of blasphemy in suggesting that Jesus would change the traditions and practices handed down by Moses.
Stephen kept a level head through all this, and “his face was like the face of an angel” even as these unsubstantiated charges were leveled against him. He answered them all with an eloquent retelling of the history of Israel and a passionate plea for openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, reminding them that while these leaders now tried to defend their tradition, they and their ancestors had spent generations dismissing the law and persecuting the prophets. The council did not receive Stephen’s criticism well, and he only made matters worse when he spoke of a his sudden vision of the heavens opening and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. With that, they had had enough, and they took him out of the city to stone him. He maintained his level head even as their stones began to kill him, and his last words conveyed his attitude toward everything that had happened: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And so Stephen became the first Christian martyr, the first to die for his faith and for his actions taken in response to Jesus’ own life.
Countless other martyrs have followed in the way of Stephen over the centuries, many under various rounds of Roman persecution, others at the hands of empires around the world, and some killed by fringe groups and deranged persons near and far. The great majority of martyrs died for their faith long ago, but there are Christians still facing persecution and death around the world – in Iraq and Egypt amidst a broader outbreak of violence and attacks on historic Christian communities, and in China where overflowing churches are shut down and leaders imprisoned because they worship without proper government permission. All these martyrs in Stephen’s time and our own are incredible witnesses to the work that God is doing in our world to break down injustice, to stand up to systemic oppression and hurt, to transform broken relationships into something new, and to come into our fearful world in Jesus Christ to make all things new.
While we may not have to put our life on the line to worship or defend what we believe, martyrdom can still happen here and now. Just as Stephen and countless others over the centuries put their lives on the line for their faith, so we too are called to step out and stand up to witness to God’s work in the world. This may not look like what we think it should or what it has always looked like before. We don’t have to demand moral purity or a return to the apparent values of old but rather should seek to help the church and world be more faithful to God’s intentions for all people. We’re not just out hoping to convince others that our beliefs are right but rather should long to make what we believe clear in our actions. We shouldn’t so much want to escape the pain and trouble of this world but rather should seek to join in God’s transformation of the world so that all things might be made new.
And so I believe that we are called to be martyrs too, martyrs for today – not to hold onto life so much that we forget how to live but rather to put something on the line so that God’s new way can be seen in and through us. We don’t go into this kind of life expecting to be killed for what we believe, but we also can’t expect to live faithfully as God intends without encountering some criticism for our actions. Some things we do in our attempts to be faithful will not win us friends along the way. Some things we do as we try our best to follow the way of Jesus might even turn people away from the church. And some things we do to live out the convictions of our faith may make the way before us harder than expected as some who have joined us on the journey choose to take another path.
Even so, we still have to wonder today if we are called to join the ranks of the martyrs in some way, to be like Stephen and so many others and give up some part of our lives to live more faithfully, to take an unpopular stand when it helps to embody the fullness of life that God intends for all people and not just for a few, to stand up for justice and peace and all that is right even when it might not be in our best interest, to remain unafraid of the powers of the world that seek to quash anything and everything that is new or that threatens the status quo, and all along to get out of the way of what God is doing in our world just a little more.
Like those women and men standing up for their rights in the Middle East, those brave people celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their rides into the South on newly-integrated buses, that faithful deacon Stephen, and so many others who have died for their faith, may we too stand up for what we believe with great confidence and hope, unfazed by the powers that threaten to undo us and empowered by the Holy Spirit to join in the new things that God is beginning in our world even now.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.