EASTER 5 - YEAR A - MAY 17, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-10
Homilist: Halcyon Wilson

Many times around the world, the Gospel has taken root in places prepared by the blood of martyrs. Today we read the story of Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen. Before he was killed, he had vividly LIVED the gospel, beginning in a very humble way by becoming one of the seven leaders chosen to supervise the distribution of food to widows in the early church.  This was needed especially because they were being neglected in the distribution.

The problem developed in those early days because the Hebrews who were the native Jewish Christians, spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language.  The Hellenists, Greek speaking Christians, were probably Jews from other lands who were converted at Pentecost. Those speaking Greek complained that their widows were being unfairly treated, probably because of the language barrier. (Makes me wonder why there were Greek widows. Did they travel with the Greek men for Pentecost? Then stayed in Jerusalem because they were converted? Interesting . . .)  So that the apostles could concentrate on preaching and teaching, seven respected Greek speaking men were put in charge. Stephen being one of them. Rather humiliating first job – the widows!

Luke describes Stephen as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and “full of grace and power” (6:8) This is the portrait of a remarkable and godly man.  He is also the first besides the apostles whom Luke specifically tells us “did great wonders and signs.” Because the Jewish leaders could only find charges against Stephen by being dishonest they resorted to false witnesses. The trumped up charges of these men ensured that Stephen was taken before the high priest and the Sanhedrin.  

Just before the events told today, Stephen had given a powerful address to the Sanhedrin. Verse 15 of chapter 6, tells us that “all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”   That to me that is significant since at his stoning we read that “he was filled with the Holy Spirit and gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.”  Like the face of an angel that saw the glory of God.” The author of Acts, Luke, was impressed with that. A small detail that says volumes, I believe, of the character of Stephen and his witness in the community. And it enraged those that heard him to the point of gnashing their teeth. Imagine, Stephen saw the glory of God and the Sanhedrin gnashed their teeth! (I don’t even know how to gnash my teeth! Sounds bad!) What made them so furious? Stephen had only reminded them of their own history. But in doing so he pointed out to them that the giving of the law through Moses to the Jews was the sign to them of the covenant. By obedience, then, would they continue to be God’s covenant people. Because they disobeyed they broke the covenant and forfeited their right to be the chosen people. It’s interesting to me that when he points out their disobedience he goes clear back, (7:39) to the time when Aaron made the golden calf. No wonder they were angry! He couldn’t have been more provocative. He called them “stiff necked people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did.” In addition, when Stephen saw the glory of God, they believed (or wanted to believe) that it was blasphemy and supported Jesus’ claim. They had condemned and killed Jesus because of blasphemy. 

Stephen’s speech seems so provocative to me. He just about asked for their anger. I thought I’d word it differently by being tactful, and ask questions instead of insulting them. I obviously would not do very well in the situation and the gospel would have been “stuck” in Jerusalem!

They couldn’t handle the truth and we are told they drove him out of the city and began stoning him. As was the trial of Jesus, this was totally illegal! In order to do that comfortably they took off their robes and put them at the feet of a young man – Saul. Verses 59, 60 “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 fell asleep.”

I’ve tried to picture in my mind just what a stoning would be like. I saw a picture on TV of a woman being stoned. People were jeering and yelling. It was horrible and I suppose Stephen’s was no different.

He was Christianity’s first martyr. That day brought about a severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and all of them, except the apostles, were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Because of Stephen’s death Philip did an evangelistic tour (8:4-40), Peter a missionary tour (9:1-30), and the churches in Antioch in Syria were founded (11:19). And Stephen’s martyrdom eventually brought about Saul’s conversion (9:32-11:18).

History is filled with stories of martyrs who have suffered for being true to God. We know there are some today. Probably more than we’d like to admit. It is recorded that many have said it is an honor to suffer for God. When I read, or hear about them, I pray that is not what God calls me to be – a martyr.  I admit I want to honor God in my comfort zone.

The word “martyr” is used loosely today. We hear of a martyr complex, or a martyr attititude. You and I think only Christians can be martyrs, but the men and women who become suicide bombers or pilots certainly believe they are martyrs and will be in heaven for living or dying for their faith and beliefs. 

Just what is a martyr? The word itself is “martus” – one who bears witness for Christ by their death. If we are called to bear witness, we understand that. I also understand that if I am called to death because of my witness I will be given faith and strength to endure.

I know a man “a long time ago in a far away country” whose mother read him “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” as bed time stories. He remembers falling asleep and dreaming that he was being tortured  and was hanging upside down from some tower.  It didn’t inspire him to “be good” as his mother hoped, only to be afraid  of Catholics.  It’s taken him a lifetime of learning differently. 

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”  has sold millions of copies and become a classic of magnificent courage and faith. This unparalleled volume chronicles the tragic yet triumphant stories of men and women who faced torture and martyrdom rather than deny their vision of truth and of God. Beginning with Jesus Christ, this exceptional historic record traces the roots of religious persecution through the sixteenth century. It examines the heroic lives of great men and women such as John Hus, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale. Anne Askew, Lady Jane Gray, and Martin Luther.  John Foxe himself knew persecution during Queen Mary’s severe persecution of those holding reformed views. I read that “his writings possess a sense of immediacy and insight into suffering that few objective church historians can match.” (Taken from Google’s description.)

Because I was visiting with a friend who is interested in what is happening today for Christians in various countries, she told me to check  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . I am amazed and awed by the number of Christian martyrs today. The Voice was founded in 1967 by a pastor who was imprisoned in Romania. He founded the organization to support the face book page and other social media as a part of ministry of being the voice for those facing persecution around the world because of their faith in Christ. The page is intended to encourage us to pray for persecuted Christians, and to be inspired with their courage. (By the way, there is monthly magazine and map which will keep you informed of the status of Christians around the world.)

Many stories are told and some are quite tragic. But I was struck by the number of people who try to take Bibles into places and the persecution they endure. I actually can see myself trying to take a Bible into a country. The VOM is distributing 191,267 Bibles into Nepal! And the latest prayer request is for the 165 Christian girls taken from a Christian school in Nigeria. We can pray for them! Aren’t they martyrs?

While I sit in my restful comfortable home . . . and worship in beauty and freedom here with you, there are people suffering beyond our comprehension for their belief in the same God you and I worship.

As I struggled to tie my thoughts into something tangible for us to take home with us today, I reread many passages of comfort, hope, promises and reminders that the Presence of God is here, dwelling within us. I must remember that being a martyr is not a novelty in God’s universe. Maybe they are the normal.  I am with you always, even to the end.”(Matt 28:16) “The God of love and peace shall be with you” (1 Cor 13:11) “Let not your hearts be troubled, and be not afraid.” (John 14:27) We do not need to be afraid and worry that we might not be able to remain faithful during the many forms persecution can take. We will believe in the power and life of Jesus Christ.

I have no intention of putting a guilt trip on us here. With you I can commit to praying for today’s people around the world. I will continue to meditate on the life of Stephen and how the early Christian church grew. What does it say to us today? Courage for today’s living. Above all, I hope that in our witnessing, others will see God’s love shining through us and maybe see “ the face of an angel that sees the glory of God” as was seen on Stephen face.