The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60
I think it is perhaps safe to suggest that we put a bit too much emphasis on St. Stephen's death. I mean, we still make him carry around stones – which I will admit is helpful for icon identification, but also it is a little cruel, like rubbing it in. He was executed. It would be like putting an electric chair or a firing squad on someone's tombstone.
But that does seem to be a human tendency: to over-emphasize that final earthly moment; we make saints and sinners out of death. And so someone who dies a martyr's death wipes the slate clean of a lifetime of indiscretions. And someone who commits suicide is unfortunately defined forever in the eyes of many by that one solitary act, as if all of their good deeds are discounted, their virtues forgotten.
And so while Stephen will forever carry his stones, will forever be commemorated as the first martyr, he is so much more than his stoning. And if we miss Stephen's life for his death, we'll never truly understand the significance of his sacrifice. If we miss Stephen's life for his death, we will never understand why he still matters, why almost two-thousand years later this church bears his name.
Unlike some in Church history, Stephen did not set out to die for the cause of Christ. That was not his goal; that was not his chosen vocation. He was chosen to feed people. The twelve apostles were finding it difficult to keep up with pastoral needs of a rapidly growing Christian community. The administrative tasks were piling up. Juggling paperwork and emails and parish registers and membership roles was making it increasingly difficult to be faithful to prayer and Bible Study. I get that. Frankly I consider this section one of the most believable stories in the entire Bible. And so these frazzled disciples choose and commission seven men to help them out, to care for the poor and distribute the food.
Stephen was the first chosen. And the author of Acts tells us that he was chosen because he was full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom – the same traits the author, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, attributes to Jesus. And this resemblance is why Stephen was killed but it is even more so why he is remembered and commemorated.
Stephen is known in the Church tradition as the first martyr. And in a sense that is true. Martyrdom came to be understood as dying for one's faith. And to the extent that that has become the functional definition, that is what martyrdom is. But the word “martyr” doesn't necessarily have anything to do with death, at least etymologically speaking. “Martyr” comes from the Greek word simply meaning “witness.” I suspect the meaning began to shift because in the first few centuries of the Church the witness part often directly preceded the death part.
This fuller, original meaning of “martyr” can also be applied to Stephen; he was a martyr, a witness, before the stones were thrown. Had Stephen somehow survived the stoning he would be no less a saint. And it is important for us to remember that. See he is our patron saint; his life and example help define our identity as a Christian community. And in Colorado Springs, it is highly unlikely that any of us will be stoned to death for being Christian. And so if we revere St. Stephen only for his martyr's death, he will become remote, distant; we'll have no reason to live into his rich legacy. He will simply be a man who died many centuries ago – and that doesn't make him special. All of the men who lived 2000 years ago have since died.
The important truth is: Stephen became a martyr long before his death. He was a living witness for Jesus. And that he died is not why he is a hero of the faith; he is a hero, he is our patron, because he had the courage to follow Jesus even when it became clear that death would be the end result. Before he died a martyr's death, Stephen was a living martyr.
And that is what I find amazing about Stephen: his courage, his witness was unconditional. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ by his death; that is true. But also he proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was just an unknown in the community. And the Apostles noticed and they gave him a platform for his witness. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was loving the poor and serving the hungry. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was performing great wonders and signs among the people. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ as stood before the council with his angel-face and his divisive truth and his heart on fire. And he proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when the rocks started flying and the heavens opened. And as he died, Stephen proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ in the prayer he prayed – a prayer of forgiveness, Jesus' dying prayer offered back to Jesus. Before he died a martyr's death, Stephen was a living martyr.
I get the sense Stephen didn't worry about much in life. It seems to me he had one concern: Stephen worried about being like Jesus. He let the rest of the world decide how they would respond to that. And so the Church saw the Jesus in him and made him the first deacon. The council saw the Jesus in him and stoned him to death. But, you know, at least they saw Jesus in him. And that was what mattered to Stephen – maybe the only thing that mattered to Stephen.
We can easily get hung up on his death – it is a dramatic and powerful story – but Stephen's witness was not confined to a solitary moment; a hero's death was never the goal. Stephen was the embodied definition of “singleness of heart.” He had a goal, one goal, and that goal was Jesus. And not even stones could stop him.
We call ourselves Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. We have taken his name. He is our saint. We are the inheritors of his legacy. Not a legacy of death. What we are called to emulate is his witness. The gift St. Stephen continues to offer us is his courage, his courage to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ – no matter the cost, no matter the consequences.
We bear witness: that is what we are called to do. We might never do great wonders or signs. We might never prophesy before hostile crowds. We likely will never face a barrage of deadly stones. But like Stephen, we can proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. And we can do that with strength and courage, with gladness and singleness of heart. Like Stephen we are called to be martyrs, living martyrs, until the day we die.