Scripture – Acts 7:55-60 – Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2017
I wonder if you find it interesting, too, that we are going to talk about martyrs on Mother’s Day. Those cliché martyr mother, guilt-inducing phrases come to mind about the lamented infrequency of their children’s calls or visits or general attention; or the heroic lengths they went to in changing diapers or working three jobs to send you to college or staying up all night for a myriad reasons solely to benefit you. We could lightly lift up those clichés knowing they do not really truly reflect our own mothers’ speech or behavior patterns, but our simple but stark scripture passage this morning will not allow us that kind of levity.
Stephen is the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith. Earlier in Chapter 6 of Acts he is listed first in the list of the first seven deacons with verse 5 describing him as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” As his story of evangelism and the resistance of his audience begins, we read that Stephen, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But then we learn immediately that “some of those who belonged to the synagogue…stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” So they instigated the spread of untrue rumors of blasphemy and stirred up the people against him and Stephen finds himself seized and hauled in front of the council. The high priest asks him, after mentally noting that his face was like the face of an angel, “Are those things so?” and Stephen spends Chapter 7 delivering the story of the people of God, beginning with Abraham all the way through Moses, pointing up all those times in their history when the people rejected God’s prophets and did not listen. He summarizes with some name-calling, albeit truthful, accusations and the assembly becomes enraged. It is at that moment that our passage begins. Verse 54 of Chapter 7 reads: “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God…”
The story of the first martyr, of course, opens our minds and memories to the martyrs who followed: not only the early Christians, but Christians today in some places of the world who are tortured, murdered, because they will not renounce Jesus Christ. And we know that martyrdom most certainly painfully exceeds the boundaries of Christianity into all manner of belief systems and identities. One simple definition of a martyr is “one who witnesses to beliefs by dying for them.” We recall courageous people within the many movements throughout history who died for the cause of dignity and equality for those severely discriminated against because of gender or race or sexual orientation; for those impacted by the horrors of war and human exploitation of every kind. People have and do and will die for what they believe in.
Our scripture this morning calls us to examine, maybe re-examine, our own individual values, our own conscience, even to stretch our imaginations, to think about, maybe commit, to what we are willing to die for. If faced with a challenge to our identity as Christians, would we stand stronger, back down, or maybe somewhere in there intellectually justify and engage in a little hair-splitting as to why our posture isn’t really denying Christ…or our allegiance to our gay friends or friends of color. Are we willing to stand in front of the approaching tank or the logger’s saw or the riot police line? Are we mothers who allude to modern-day martyrdom willing to protectively jump in front of our children?
My friends, the likelihood of our dying for our faith here in this country is pretty remote. Chicago minister Susan Johnson writes: “As modern Christians who live in a country where religious practice is not only tolerated and free, but in significant ways supported (e.g., tax-exempt housing allowance for clergy, exemption from real-estate taxes for houses of worship), we may find it troubling to incorporate sacrificial death and martyrdom into our own spirituality.”
And that is why, from our positions of comfort, not only in the majority religion, but in our whiteness, in our economic stratum, in our prevailing language, we are also called this morning to examine how, like the people in the synagogue examining Stephen, we may be covering our ears. “But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,” he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.
They covered their ears. Were Stephen’s words that offensive or did they cover their ears because he was speaking the truth and they might learn that they were wrong, that they made a mistake, that they would have to reverse course, or change their thinking or their opinion or change their ways. Or did they cover their ears to make this horrible deed easier by ignoring its significance, its impact, its violence, its sin, its terrible injustice.
My friends, we are called this morning not just to examine our own willingness for martyrdom, but our complicity in making martyrs. When, how, under what circumstances do we cover our ears? Certainly we have become aware of covered ears and blind eyes to the widespread sexual abuse of children in churches, in sports locker rooms, the sexual harassment and rape of women in the military, on college campuses. There are covered ears unwilling to hear about the disproportionate arrests and incarceration of young men of color in our cities. Do we hear the phrase “systemic racism” and sigh as our hands go up to our ears, saying oh, not that again. Do we hear ONA and say we already did that? Or maybe it’s the daily drip, drip of 2 dead in tornadoes, 3 drowned in heavy flooding, 5 gone in a landslide, dozens in an earthquake and we cover our ears to the real manifestation of climate change?
Thank God for good news! And there is lots of good news we can glean from this disturbing story of the stoning of Stephen and directly apply it to our lives today. First from the position of the community under attack: Rev. Johnson writes: “In a few compact verses, Luke records everything from the death of the first Christian martyr and a distinctly Christian way to die to the beginning of persecution against the Christian community and the signs that the community will flourish regardless.” The community will flourish regardless. After the death of Stephen, Christians scattered; and that scattering into regions beyond Jerusalem only served to spread the gospel. Humans can repress other humans only so long and they will continue to pop up and rise up and show up for their rightful place among the rest.
We must also notice, too, that, no, through his spoken vision and martyr’s death, Stephen did not convert the throng who rushed against him. But there was a seed planted that day in the young man watching over the coats. Saul, who approved of their killing Stephen, Saul who in the next chapter “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women [and committing] them to prison, Saul, who was struck down on the road to Damascus and heard the voice of Jesus, whose name was changed to Paul, whose tireless efforts brought the church of Jesus Christ all the way west to Rome.
The most significant piece of good news in this “compact” passage is the reminder that when we falter, when we fail, when we compromise and choose our own lives first, when we cover our ears, we are forgiven. In an obvious parallel to the last words of Jesus on the cross, Stephen commends his spirit to God and with his last breath cries out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, as we still bask in the glory of the Resurrection, we are reminded again, through a story of both humanity at its worst and a disciple of Jesus at his best, that the central message of our Christian faith is that we are loved unconditionally by God, we are forgiven our sins through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that God’s love and life and truth will prevail even when some of us cover our ears. Now that’s something to talk about on Mother’s Day! Amen.