5th Sunday after Easter
19th May 2020
Revd Tom Munford
May I speak in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saint Stephen is known as the first martyr of the Church, the word martyr here being simply the Greek word for ‘witness’. He is a person that both amazes and unsettles me in equal measure. He amazes me, because he is one of the earliest Christians, converting after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He amazes me, because when it was incredibly unpopular, in fact really rather dangerous, he becomes a follower of ‘the Way’ – this the name by which Christianity was first known. Apostles, that together they laid hands on him and ordained him a Deacon. He amazes me, because when stared in the face by death, he gazes instead to heavens. When turned on by his murderers, he turns instead to God…for their forgiveness. It is also almost all of these things, though, that unsettle me. They unsettle me because they make me question. Would I have become a Christian if it was a new and relatively unknown faith? Would I have become a Christian if it was going to cause me trouble, if I lived in a country where to declare belief Christ would cost me my life? Would my commitment to God, my commitment to loving and serving others today, warrant affirmation from the Apostles themselves? In the face of death, would I gaze to the heavens? Would I even pray? Would I have it in me to forgive those who came to kill me? Though Stephen’s witness led him to give his life for what he believed to be the truth of Jesus Christ, it is unlikely any of us will be forced that far. I, for example, am unlikely to find out the answers to my questions. But we, like Stephen, are called to be martyrs, are called to witness. We are called to be people who, in other words, are willing to pay the price of telling the truth.
If this truth, this witness (we pray), won’t cost us our lives, what then will it look like? How might it present itself? Well, perhaps in a number of ways. It could mean writing to a business to warn them they’ll lose your custom if they continue to behave unethically. It could be telling someone to stop gossiping or being horrible about another person behind their back. It could be telling someone to stay at home and stop risking their lives and the lives of others by going out. It could be by explaining to people why you go to church, what your faith is all about.
Whatever that truth may be, whenever or wherever that time or place may be to witness, it won’t always be easy. Witnessing, truth-telling, can sometimes be hard. Even scary. Calling out injustice, standing up to a bully, for example, takes guts. Stephen knew that. We may well just prefer a quieter life… but as Stephen showed, that’s not really an option if you’re a Christian. Not if you’re a follower of the Way. Simply standing in a Church or turning up to a service doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than standing in a garage or appearing at a showroom makes you a car. No, it’s your life, the way you take, the truth you speak that makes you a Christian. It’s by these things that you’ll be known. And why is this such a fundamental part of the Christian life’? Why does it involve such public witness? Why can’t it just be about an inner ‘spirituality’ or a life of being ‘spiritual’? Well, look at the gospels. As we hear in John today, Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’. He is the way of truth we must follow. The way of life-giving freedom and love. The example, the pattern to which we must set our lives. It is through this way, this way of truth to which we must witness, that we are set free. Free to live to live a life overflowing with love, a life in all its beautiful abundance and fullness. A life where are made more fully who we really are.
And if that’s not reason enough of itself, if life in all its fullness is not enough for you, we also hear that this is the very nature of God. Jesus says to us that, in him, we see the Father. In him, we know the Father. Through him, we meet the Father. In other words, just as the Father is God, so is Jesus.In him we see the human face of God, the incarnate creator and sustainer of everything that is. …If this is the way of God, who are we to choose another path? Stephen knew all this. This is why he lived the life he did. Why he loved like he did, served like he did. He stood up for the poor, the powerless, the persecuted. He spoke truth to power and defended those who were weak or unable to defend themselves. He knew that the ‘Way’, was the way to be human. He stood up, he witnessed. …and yes for him, when it came to it, living this life of truth and love cost him. But tell me, those who turned on him, those who opposed his life of self-giving love, were they truly alive?
who gave to the first martyr Stephen grace
to pray for those who took up stones against him,
and wisdom, to follow your Son, the way, the truth and the life:
grant that in our witness to your truth,
we may learn to love even our enemies
and forgive those who desire our hurt,
strengthen us, we pray, to continue on the way to which you call us,
as we look up to heaven, to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our Lord.