The Stoning of Stephen
As the mob closes in, Stephen is distracted, beautifully distracted, by a vision of Jesus. “Look,” he says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Usually when we hear about Jesus at the right hand of God, he’s seated, as on a throne. But it’s as if Jesus stands up to receive his servant Stephen, to welcome him into an unmediated experience of God’s love and presence, for all eternity.
His angry listeners thought they were hearing blasphemy, and so covered their ears. This Jesus who died was to them a heretic, rightly crucified under God’s curse for claiming to be something he was not. And Stephen says he sees this Jesus standing next to the one God! So bad was this blasphemy that they had to rush him out of the city of Jerusalem. The holy city should not be subject to such absurdities.
Verse 59 says that as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”
This should sound familiar to us. Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, also records Jesus saying on the cross, “Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
“Then [Stephen] knelt down,” Luke writes, “and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’”
More familiar words. Luke also records Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Stephen is remarkably like Jesus in his death. He is able to ask for forgiveness for those who are unjustly killing him.
Stephen makes death by stoning look easy. Luke says in the NIV that he “fell asleep”…. It was actual death, obviously. But so smooth, so easy, so forgiving and loving, so peaceful was the way in which Stephen faced his execution, that he simply “fell asleep.” And he entered into God’s presence.
“The Blood of the Martyrs…”
An early church theologian named Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Even on that day of Stephen’s death, there might have been a small seed planted in Paul’s heart, as he collected coats from the crowd.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before Stephen there was John the Baptist. After Stephen there were James, Peter, and a host of other apostles and church leaders. A number of means were used for martyring someone. Some of them quick and sudden, others slow and painful.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” because we marvel at the courage of our sisters and brothers in Christ who stand for Jesus, come what may. Books of the lives of martyrs have long been popular among Christians, for use in private devotion and in public worship, to inspire, encourage, and exhort the body of believers to persevere in their faith.
I’ve been reading about one such martyr lately.
Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero made it a hallmark of his ministry to stand with the poor, the marginalized, those who were on the other side of power. Romero, in what would be his final recorded sermon, gave a litany of the recent deaths of peasants and students in his El Salvador, even naming some by name, so that unjust violence and oppression would not go unnoticed. These victims have names, he insisted. Amazingly, his sermon concluded with an appeal to “the National Guard, the police, and the military” who were responsible for the killing. He said,
I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
As he was preparing the Mass in a service of worship the next day, he lifted the chalice high, and was shot in the chest, falling at the feet of the crucifix.
“May God have mercy on the assassins,” he said, echoing Jesus and Stephen. Like Stephen, he committed himself into the hands of his Lord Jesus.
Most of us will never stare a martyr’s death in the face, but today, throughout the world, Christians do. Some of their stories are known, many others are unknown.
Sadly, we don’t have to look very hard for martyrs in 2014. Just this last week in Sudan, a 27-year-old woman, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, received a death sentence for not recanting her Christian faith in favor of Islam. She has a 20-month-old son and is 8 months pregnant.
But the Islamist courts and government that have handed down her sentence cannot destroy her faith in Jesus, or even the Church of Jesus, to which she belongs, with us.
Like Stephen, she has committed himself into the hands of her Lord Jesus.
A Christian’s death because of his or her following Jesus continues to inspire the Church to grow.
A hip-hop artist in El Salvador, 30 years after Romero’s death, reflected on the former Archbishop’s ubiquitous cultural presence in that country. “What [Romero’s] killer did,” he said, “was to keep three generations thinking about him.”
How did they do it?
How did these men and women face death so calmly? So peacefully? How did Stephen and Romero both ask, with their last breaths, for God to forgive the ones who turned them into innocent victims?
I’m convinced that by the time a Christian martyr is confronted with death, she has already died a thousand deaths, by living for God.
In the moment that a disciple of Jesus looks the end of life in the face, he has already died to himself, many times over, by accepting Scripture’s call to follow Jesus.
When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” he says, do it daily. Take up your cross in life, in your everyday life. Not just in death, but in life.
Which is a funny thing to say, if you think about it. We’ve got a rather sanitized view of the cross. It’s a thing we might wear around our necks, or a centerpiece in some church sanctuaries. But it’s a symbol of death. For Jesus, it was a means of martyrdom.
A Call to Be Living Martyrs
The call to “take up our cross daily,” then, is a call to martyrdom, maybe in death, for some… but for sure it’s a call to be living martyrs. We who follow Jesus have a call to die to ourselves, each day.
Two years before his death, Archbishop Romero paraphrased Jesus a bit, though I think he captures his meaning well. He said,
“Let those who would follow me deny themselves”…repress in themselves the outbursts of pride, kill in their hearts the outbursts of greed, of avarice, of conceit, of arrogance. Let them kill it in their hearts. This is what must be killed, this is the violence that must be done, so that out of it a new person may arise, the only one who can build a new civilization: a civilization of love.
Stephen, when he came to the day of his stoning, was already dead to himself. He was already fully alive in Christ, living for God alone. His whole being was consumed with imitating Jesus.
At his dying he said the same things Jesus said in his death, “Father forgive them.” “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” And so, mind-boggling as his final prayers are, they are not anything you wouldn’t have already expected, if you knew him.
Those kinds of prayers were already part of his daily life. Prayers like,
Father, forgive those who do wrong to me. Jesus, have mercy on those who mistreat me, who misunderstand me, who fail to give me the benefit of the doubt, who take advantage of me. Please forgive them.
And, prayers like,
Jesus, into your hands I commit this day; I give you my work. I devote my time to you. I lift up my children and my family to you—they are truly yours and not mine, so I commit all of us into your care.
Stephen fixed his eyes on Jesus as the crowd started to pick up heavy stones. But this sort of “looking up,” this sort of steady gaze on the person of Jesus, was already an ongoing posture in Stephen’s life.
We must die to our carnal desires that make an empty yet compelling promise of life. We must live instead to the will of Jesus.
We must die to the values of this world, a society that tells us that newer is better, that less is worse, that power over others is something to be procured and preserved. We must live instead to the values of the kingdom of God, where the pure in heart see God, where we are satisfied not with buying or getting more stuff, but where we are satisfied in God when we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
We must die to arrogance and greed, and live instead to humility and generosity.
We must die—as we are able—to our impatience with others who insist on taking our time and attention, when we’d rather keep to ourselves.
We must die to our desire for revenge, and live instead to show mercy to even the merciless who don’t deserve it.
We must die to any impulse we may have toward violence, and live instead to make peace.
We must die to ourselves, and live to Jesus, losing our lives for his sake.
Like Stephen, we must commit ourselves every day into the hands of our Lord Jesus.
“Beautiful is the moment,” Romero said, “Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do….”
Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our spirits.
Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our lives.
Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our desires and dreams.
Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our whole selves.