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Stephen, Witness & Martyr

Preached:  July 7, 2013
Scripture:  Excerpts from Acts 7

The back story:  In the 1st century after the crucifixion & resurrection of Jesus, there were man Greek speaking Jews called Hellenists, and Hebrews who spoke Aramaic, the main language spoken in Judea and Galilee. They were all Jews, but different languages keep people apart. There was some built-in animosity among them.  In the days of the early church, followers of Jesus consisted of both Hebrews and Hellenists.  There was a complaint by the Hellenists against the Hebrews that their widows were being neglected in the daily welfare distribution. The community started practicing an unjust economics excluding the more vulnerable, instead of the Spirit-inspired economics of radical sharing earlier in Acts.

Stephen was one of the seven Hellenist leaders in the Jerusalem church chosen to assist the apostles as stewards. He is called to bear witness to injustice, taking care of money to be used to care for widows, orphans and poor.  Stephen begins his stewardship ministry making sure that the neglected widows and others receive their “daily bread”.

As in most situations, conflict rises. Stephen is so full of Grace, doing great wonders among the people, his stewardship catches the eye of the Jewish religious authorities.   Stephen continues in his role as a “witness to injustice”, with determination to share God’s gifts with every member of God’s creation – especially the most vulnerable. The religious leaders go to great lengths to stop him and form a riot.  “The leaders of the Synagogue stirred up the people; they confronted & seized Stephen, and brought him before the Sanhedrin” (6: 11-14).  Stephen was now on trial before the highest Jewish court for the crime of heresy/blasphemy by declaring Jesus as the Christ.

Standing before the Sanhedrin might have been a good time to use his famous wisdom and grace, and bring the good news to the Jewish leaders.  Instead of practicing the art of diplomacy, Stephen challenges their religious authority, preaching a scathing sermon.  Giving a summary lecture on biblical history to the already educated assembly,  Stephen demonstrates how the religious leaders of Israel, in their desire to remain in control, have never been able to understand God’s redemptive action in history.

At 7:51, Stephen says: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  They killed those who foretold the coming of the Messiah, and you betrayed and murdered him.  His lecture ends with insults and rebukes. You are the ones who received the law, and yet you have not kept it” (7:51-53).  Stephen’s bluntness made everybody mad when he said, “You worship your religious traditions and interpretations more than God.”  Stephens speech is a cruel indictment of religion concerned about its rightness and self preservation.

It’s no surprise they were infuriated rather than converted.  By v. 54, they were furious! “When they heard these things, the Sanhedrin became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.”   Without bothering to reach a verdict, they took Stephen into the courtyard, threw him into a pit, and began to stone him to death.

Instead of choosing a more diplomatic route, instead of attempting to find common ground with the people, Stephen instead provokes his accusers. He chose to speak truth, in spite of consequences, and ultimately becomes the first martyr of the church.

The word martyr today carries a negative connotation.  At best, the word “martyr” tends to refer to people who seek attention by demonstrating their self- sacrifice; a passive-aggressive stance hurts themselves with self-pity and others through guilt.  At worst, when we hear the word “martyr” in the news, it’s in reference to suicide bombers who violently destroy their lives and the lives of others in the name of God or country.   But if we look at the history of the word, it had a different meaning. Coming from the Greek word martus: it means someone called to bear witness in matters of injustice.

Martyrdom may feel irrelevant to us today.  Though Christians still die for their faith all around the world, many of us will never encounter such a threat.  Instead we have become experts at practicing the art of diplomacy, of being polite and offending no one – ever.  But at what point does keeping the peace and being diplomatic make us complicit?

A few observations about martyrs.  First, Martyrs die because of their love and faithfulness to Christ.  A martyr doesn’t want to die, but are willing to offer themselves as a loving sacrifice for Christ in order that others might live in justice and freedom.

A Second characteristic about Christian martyrs from centuries past & today – they spoke the truth about social injustices.  Martyrs  refuse to keep their  faith private. Martyrs get killed, not for their convictions, but for expressing their convictions.  Nothing much happens if you remain silent.  But a witness/martyr is willing to speak out against the injustices of the world.

A Third characteristic – A martyr does not check the wind of public opinion before speaking.  They have the courage to go against public opinion.

What is it like to watch this story unfold? Are there people who feel like the crowd – that Stephen was so offensive that he deserved to die? Are there people like Saul who may not want to hurl the stones himself, but are fine with others doing so?  Are there people who feel like Stephen, ready to say the bold hard word, even if it could mean death?

Fortunately, not too many people today are literally killed for their prophetic words, at least in the U.S.   But maybe the problem is that there aren’t enough people speaking with a prophetic voice. We get so caught up in diplomacy or patriotism that we’re afraid to speak out. One of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was not afraid to point out the injustices and failures of our country, particularly with regard to slavery.

As Stephen was dying, he sees Jesus and prays for God’s forgiveness for those who stoned him.  He moaned the same words Jesus spoke from the cross:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Instead of hatred for his killers, Stephen was like Jesus and prayed for their forgiveness.

Stephen keeps his eyes on Jesus & speaks hard truth.  He commends himself to God. He dies with forgiveness in his heart and in his prayers.  Stephen provides us with the courage to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.  Martyrs encourage & inspire us so that we are more committed to Christ.

We may want to examine our own lives.  In many parts of the world, there are those who continue to risk their lives to speak the truth.  I wonder if they understand why so many remain silent in a free country.

At what point does our silence or sense of diplomacy clash with faithfulness to God?  What does Christianity have to say about our nationalistic self-interest that guides the foreign policies of many nations?  What does our faith have to say about environmental stewardship?  Though many of us may never be asked to die for our faith, our faith still calls us to measure our priorities, to take a stand, and to express our beliefs through action.  For those of us in this position, Stephen’s story is still a relevant model of faithfulness.

If being Christian stewards and witnesses has never put us in harm’s way (or at least sent us questioning looks or criticism), perhaps it’s time to ask whether we share the same determination of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us.

In the end – I would like to be accused of loving too much, of erring on the side of grace, of speaking the hard word, because of my convictions in my faith in Christ.   Empowered by God’s Spirit may we have the courage to speak out boldly for justice consistent with God’s expansive love.