Yesterday, of course was a very special day, the Coronation of our King. Of course, we also remember the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. And today’s reading is a reminder of the loyalty and bravery that subjects can show. If we think of the Queen, she was very clear. We may have followed her, but she followed God, subject to him. In today’s world we are not so good at being followers perhaps.
I want to go through this reading to show how I approach reading the Bible. I start from the assumption that this is true, has the ring of truth and has great psychological truth. It reads like a story about real people.
We begin with Stephen. The first Christian martyr. And that martyrdom happens very early on, after the death of Jesus. Stephen is put to death because of what he has to say. His mouth leads him into this and he will not can not remain silent.
He berates the bigwigs, he tells them straight that they have killed God among us. They are guilty. They are to blame. Of course, it just begins with this – because in the end we understand God’s mercy.
The lawyers and high priests are gnashing their teeth in rage at Stephen. How dare he? Stephen knows this is only going to end one way.
And in that moment, any fear leaves him. He has a moment of epiphany. A moment of sudden calm – knowing that God is there. I have had moments like this. When all seems lost. When logic tells us that something is over. The we get an odd, beautiful sense of assurance, love even. Personally, our family has had the very toughest times and at the worst God is there. Not forcing the pace. Not like a slot machine answering every whim of ours. But beside us. And that is enough. It is always enough.
Stephen in the midst of this anger against him – these are men with real weapons to hurt him and a will to do so – says, look I can see heaven and Jesus is right there waiting for us, waiting for me.
I think he got to that place – all shall be well. This is one of the hallmarks of the faith.
The lawyers cannot stand this and put their hands over their ears. I ask you, picture it for a second. It is a vivid scene. It is not a manifesto, it is not the 10 Commandments. Stark statements or rules to follow.
They drag him and the violence becomes filthy. They stone him. It is a brutal, barbaric and primitive violence. I think it is like tarring and feathering. It is designed to humiliate and to prolong the death. Are you still picturing it. Stephen is being dragged.
Now another actor enters the scene. Saul. He is someone who we will hear a lot about later in the Bible. He is the rising star of the orthodox authorities. A brilliant young man and an icy hunter after those who break the rules. He is an enforcer, and he loves his work.
He is the primary persecutor of this new Jewish sect – the Christians, although they did not call themselves that. He has asked special permission to hunt them down.
And so it is that the henchmen take of their cloaks – they don’t want to get blood on them. They lay them at their leader’s feet and go about the business of murder.
One day, Saul will become Paul. One day he will be struck blind by the Lord, the king of kings and he will turn from persecutor to persecuted.
But and this is the thing, he has blood on his hands and in his conversion he never forgets it. He never forgets that one he instigated a man being stoned to death.
It is this guilt, this action that is the bedrock of his faith. Because although Paul often feels depressed and anxious, he knows that God will not hold it against him, that he has repented and that he has had a fresh start.
We cannot understand Paul, who in many ways explained the Christian faith, without picturing him standing with the cloaks. Paul is the man who understood God’s grace more than other.
And so, we come to the endnote. Stephen, who has condemned his accusers, who has convicted them, he too understands that we never call anything over until God calls it over.
Listen to his words, Lord do not hold this sin against them…He knows about forgiveness and grace.
And so who are we to hold onto all that has been wrong? We are called to go to Him who knows us and be real.
Stephen is a martyr and we don’t do justice to the faith if we don’t acknowledge those who have and are paying for their faith in the King of Kings. We are blessed to be able to worship in peace. I become discouraged when Christians who face minor slights here, make such a fuss about it. We are not a persecuted minority.
I studied for 3 years at Oxford University. I was quite old when I went there. I didn’t go when I was 18 first time around – I wanted to study at a radical new university.
But finally I went. I loved Oxford.
But if you visit, please take time to go the Martyr’s Monument. I find the story of the Oxford Martyr’s stirring. Especially Cranmer.
After Edward VI’s death, Cranmer supported Lady Jane Grey as successor. Her nine-day reign was followed by the Roman Catholic Mary I, who tried him for treason. After a long trial and imprisonment, he was forced to proclaim to the public his error in the support of Protestantism, an act designed to discourage followers of the religion. Despite this, Cranmer was sentenced to be burnt to death in Oxford on 21 March 1556.
Cranmer was told that he would be able to make a final recantation, but that this time it was to be in public during a service at the University Church. He wrote and submitted the speech in advance and it was published after his death. At the pulpit on the day of his execution, 21 March 1556, he opened with a prayer and an exhortation to obey the king and queen, but he ended his sermon totally unexpectedly, deviating from the prepared script. He renounced the recantations that he had written or signed with his own hand since his degradation and he stated that, in consequence, his hand would be punished by being burnt first. He then said, “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.” He was pulled from the pulpit and taken to where Latimer and Ridley had been burnt six months previously. As the flames drew around him, he fulfilled his promise by placing his right hand into the heart of the fire, calling it “that unworthy hand”. His dying words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”