St Stephen - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

St Stephen

Acts 7: 55-end

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55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,

58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.

59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

St Stephen

St. Stephen from The Demidoff Altarpiece

I have always felt incredibly sorry for St Stephen - the story of whose martyrdom we heard in our first reading from the Book of Acts this morning. Because leaving aside his very unfortunate end, can you imagine being saddled with 26th December - Boxing Day - as your feast day?  The feast of Stephen is so completely overshadowed by Christmas that it tends to pass by completely unnoticed each year - and on those rare occasions when his saint's day happens to fall on a Sunday, hardly anyone comes to church anyway because it is Boxing Day!  So over the centuries poor old Stephen really has had a bit of a raw deal.

Which is a great pity because Stephen is actually a figure of immense significance, being traditionally honoured as the first Christian martyr. And the way in which the story of his death is told in the Book of Acts is also very interesting. Just to give you a quick bit of background: in case you are not aware of it, the Book of Acts was written by the same hand as the Gospel of Luke. If you read the two together you immediately recognise that they are Parts One and Two of the same work - Acts picks up the story exactly where the Gospel of Luke leaves off. And once you are aware of that, you start noticing all kinds of connections between them - and you realise that the death of Stephen is described in a way that deliberately echoes the crucifixion of Jesus as described in Luke's Gospel.

It is in Luke's Gospel that the dying Jesus says of those who are crucifying him: 'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.'  And it is Luke, alone amongst the gospel writers, who gives as the final words of Jesus: 'Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.'

Compare that with our passage from Acts this morning where we heard the following:

While they were stoning Stephen he prayed 'Lord, receive my spirit.'  Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'  When he had said this, he died.

The reason why the author is trying to connect these two events, is to highlight certain essential features of the Christian life: the need for absolute trust in God - a trust that is shown by both Jesus and Stephen, even at the moment where God must have seemed most absent to them: the point at which they were facing violent death at the hands of their enemies. And alongside that, our need to be able to forgive those who seek to cause us deliberate harm.

Some years ago I was running a course with a group of parishioners in which we got into a discussion about the strange fact that sometimes the smallest and most insignificant of gestures can prove life-changing. I have certainly witnessed occasions when something as simple as a hand held out in friendship, and hesitantly received - has, in a split second, overturned decades of entrenched hostility between two previously alienated people.

But a member of that group then asked a really good question: 'That's all very well', she said - but what about those times when, far from being received, your gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation meets with aggression and hostility?  When you extend a hand in friendship but receive back the equivalent of a punch in the mouth - what then?

Or to put it another way - how is it possible to forgive someone who has no intention or desire of being forgiven by you - because of course in order to receive forgiveness, one must, at some level, recognise that one has in some way been at fault.

And this is where the story of Stephen, echoing the crucifixion of Christ, is so very interesting. Because it is in the context of his martyrdom that Stephen prays for his opponents' forgiveness, just as Jesus asks forgiveness for those who were torturing him to death.  But what was the point of that?  What possible good would it achieve? - it certainly made no difference whatsoever to the eventual outcome.

Forgiveness is one of those things that is always much easier to talk about than to practice. But difficult and demanding as it can be, it is nevertheless something that Christians have to take profoundly seriously. Because it confronts us every time we say the Lord's Prayer together: 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.'  If we wish to be forgiven, then we too need to learn how to forgive - even those who rejoice in doing us harm. But again, what is the point of trying to forgive someone who has absolutely no desire whatsoever to be forgiven, or to be reconciled?  

It seems to me that the key to this is perhaps to be found in the other half of the phrase uttered by the dying Jesus in Luke's Gospel: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'  For they know not what they do.

Compassion - the capacity to empathise with our fellow human beings; to understand their struggles, and to feel their pain, is a mark of our humanity. It is one of the distinctive features of being fully human. But of course as individual human beings we possess that quality in varying degrees - and we are all fully capable of being so blinded by our own prejudices, or insecurities, or fear, or resentment, or pain, that in certain contexts we can lose it altogether - and become blind to the truth about our actions and the motives that underlie them, as we deny others their dignity, or seek to undermine them, or even to harm them in some way. And it is that blindness that enables human beings to become capable of inhuman acts.

'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.'  This does not, of course, absolve those capable of evil acts of responsibility for their actions. What it does is to recognise the blindness that can overcome any or all of us when we find ourselves seduced into seeking to harm others. And it also highlights the fact that ours is a God whose compassion is such that he understands even our blindness and hardness of heart, and can see it for what it is.

One of the most powerful testimonies to what that quality of forgiveness actually looks like in practice, was found in one of the bleakest and darkest of contexts imaginable. Its author is unknown, and it was found written on a scrap of paper in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. And it is this prayer:

O Lord,
remember not only the men and women of good will
but also those of evil will.
But do not remember all the suffering
they have inflicted upon us;
remember the fruits we have borne
thanks to this suffering -
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility,
our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart
which has grown out of all this;
and when they come to the judgement,
let all the fruits that we have borne
be their forgiveness.




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