I, like many of you, have been thinking about death a little more than usual. Thinking about the tens of thousands of people dying of COVID 19, about the tens of thousands of people working tirelessly to care for them and prevent death, and about those whose cluelessness/lack of concern for others/fill in the blank leads them to either ignore warnings and restrictions designed to protect them and others or, mind bogglingly to protest them. And so when I read the story of Stephen, a bit of whose story, the end of his story, we heard in our first reading this morning, I thought about those who have walked towards death willingly, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the Gospel-the good news of Jesus Christ.
Stephen was the first person recorded to have died for following Jesus. On the face of it, he is an odd choice to die first. He was not one of the original 12 nor was he chosen to replace Judas. He was a solid, good, faithful person who was all about serving others.”he knew how to run a soup kitchen like it was his job. He was the first person the church named as a deacon—“a term that means “through the dust.” So, one who serves others through the dust.
The problem for poor Stephen was that he was really good at his job. He was out and about, feeding people, healing a few, supporting the grieving—he was on fire for Christ. And people noticed. Especially the religious leaders. They watched. They listened. And they did not like what they saw and heard because what they saw and heard was a man who had no respect for the law of Moses. So they did what angry leaders did and still do, they lashed out. They dragged Stephen before the council and charged him with a long list of offenses which boiled down to being disrespectful of holy places, holy laws, and holy customs. After they were finished reading the charges there was a long silence. And, as the council looked at him, Stephen’s face began to look like that of an angel-which I presume means looked steady, calm, and seemed to glow. And then he spoke to them-preached a barn burner of a sermon-a sermon that we do not have in its entirety, but that ended with what we heard in the reading this morning, “You stiff necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.â€ And given that powerful people, leaders both then and now, do not like to hear the truth about themselves, their response was to drag Stephen out of the room, out of the city, and stone him to death-throwing rocks at him until he died of multiple traumatic wounds.
Stephen. Jesus. There is a theme here-which seems to be that Christians who are successful, who tell the truth clearly, make people so mad they want to kill them-and occasionally do so. Now I realize that “truth,” at least about some things, can be highly subjective. And I am well aware that there are people who bother you about faith so much that you finally have to tell them to go away and they go off complaining about how hard it is to be a Christian—thinking of themselves as martyrs.
But I think actual martyrdom is less about running around seeking death and more about being so caught up in the Spirit, so intent on following Christ, that you suddenly realize it is raining rocks. Stephen is a dramatic example. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died for leading a part of the church in Germany to oppose Hitler is another. As is Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young Episcopal seminarian who, after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, went to Selma to help register black Americans to vote. He was arrested and placed in jail. He and four others were unexpectedly released and took refuge from the heat inside a store. A few minutes after they arrived in the store a 16 year old black teenager named Ruby Sales tried to come in. A man with a gun started cursing her. Daniels pulled Ruby aside to protect her and was shot and killed in her place. He died not because he wanted to but because he wanted justice for all God’s children. There are countless others on the church calendar. Countless who never made it to the church calendar- including those right now who are so focused on caring for others that they don scrubs and masks every day while virus particles rain down on them like stones. They do not leave the house looking to be martyrs, they are just so focused on being compassion and healing in action, on being the hands and heart of Christ, that they carry on.
Of course, not all of us are called to be a martyr-some of us work pretty hard at not being martyred. And of course God loves all of us, and does not desire the death of any of God’s beloved children. But I think, especially now in Easter, now in a time of pandemic, it is good to remember that some have believed in being Easter people so much that they have risked everything, have put something and someone else ahead of their own safety. Most of them, like Jesus, didn’t run around looking to die. It is just what happened to them while they were living into and out of Christ, living the fullest lives they could know and trying to make that same life available to someone other than themselves. What their murderers found out, each and every one of them, was that killing one was not at all successful in wiping them out. That it worked about as well as trying to get rid of dandelions by blowing on the fluffy part. All it does is scatter the seeds even further.
Some of those seeds blew all the way to us, to this time, and this place. And as much as blood talk in church can put me off, it is fair to say that the blood of the martyrs sustained the church, sustained us. That they were seeds spreading around the world, revealing the immense power of love, nurturing and encouraging the faith of all who came after them—all who proclaim the Easter truth, the Easter miracle of death turning into life.