Church · Sermon & Talks

Stephen the Martyr

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Acts 7:55-60 Stephen the Martyr
A sermon for Sunday 22nd May 2011
55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

We very nearly didn’t have a sermon at all today – thanks to this man: 

I was wondering whether I needed to prepare one at all.

Harold Camping is an American preacher and Christian fundamentalist and as I am sure most of you know is the man that predicted that the End Times were coming – beginning with the rapture of God’s faithful at 6pm local time yesterday.

Oh dear. That means either Mr.Camping got it wrong or the rest of us are all in big trouble!

Putting aside some of the theology of the rapture as its called – because I don’t necessarily share his view of how the end times happen – One wonders what leads a man of genuine and sincere belief in God and in the Bible to get it so wrong.

My concern with Camping’s predictions is not just that when Jesus said ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ in Matthew 24 he meant it. But it is the keenness with which he seems to be willing to embrace the destruction of all those who don’t believe. It worries me that he is seemingly excited about the event. It is one thing I guess to be an excited believer who is keen to know God with the intimacy we hope for in heaven. But that he is doing so without, as far as I can tell, any remorse or concern for those who will not attain heaven, for thiose lost in the destruction of the world.

Stephen’s cry at his martyrdom is in direct contrast with this over-zealous proclamation of mankind’s doom.

Stephen has just concluded his speech to the Sanhedrin, the judges of Israel. And he has told them a few home truths about their attitudes – he tells them that the temple is under judgement. He uses the examples from Israels past, where they have ignored the messengers of God – to show how yet again they have missed God’s prophet.

He shows them how Jesus is “The Way the Truth and the Life” as John records in our gospel reading.

For the Priests it is too challenging , they don’t want their worldview challenged by Jesus.
Its too much for them and they accuse Stephen of blasphemy and sentence him to death.

They act to protect their way of life over and above the message that God was sending them through Christ.
In some ways of course we are no better. When our own world-view is challenged by Jesus, when the things we hold dear are threatened by some new movement of God in our lives we too will often batten down the hatches and make every attempt to preserve the outward signs of what is important to us.

We allow ourselves to get side-tracked with the unimportant things – the peripheries of Church and Christian faith – and we take our focus off Jesus. In the dear old Church of England we are particularly good at this. We get bogged down in the Prayer Book being the ‘only’ way to worship or the King James Bible being the ‘only’ acceptable translation. We form committees and whole organisations whose sole roles are to preserve the pews, the hymnals or kneelers of a particular colour!

We get bogged down in worrying about the things of little importance while ignoring the call of Christ.

When I was in my early 20’s I was a fair-trade fundamentalist, I still believe passionately that we have a Christian duty to fair trade, but back then it had become more important than Christ in my life. Sure my intentions were good and they were bourne out of a Christian belief and a God-given call to be concerned for the well-fair of the poorest people – but in my passion I had taken my eyes off Jesus and lost the focus of WHY and for whom this was important.

We can far too easily lose the plot given to us by the author of life.

In the light of eternity none of these things are of any importance.

St Stephen knew that the most important thing was to know God and to make him known. He knew that the Jews had missed something important, he knew that Christ’s commandment to take the Gospel to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth was a calling entrusted to all of followers of Jesus. And he was obedient. Even to the Sanhedrin

When he was arrested he could have justified making a defence of himself before the judges, he could have weighed up the ‘good works’ he might achieve if he could convince them to free him. But to do so would have meant Stephen taking his focus off God.

The Sanhedrin were as in need of hearing God’s message of forgiveness as much as anyone who has never had an opportunity to turn to Christ. No-one else was ever likely to get an opportunity to tell these great and important men that Jesus died for them. So Stephen is obedient and in doing so forfeits his life.

Because for these men the religion and all its trappings have become more important than
God and the purposes and work of God in the world. Despite the fact that this is the very thing the temple stood for.

And yet it is in death that Stephen’s greatest witness comes – – in a mirroring of Christ’s own prayer on the cross – Stephen prays for forgiveness for his persecutors as they stone him to death he intercedes for them. Stephen’s focus is entirely on Jesus Christ.

And watching this execution is a young Zealot by the name of Saul. Who through meeting with Jesus, became Paul – a disciple of Christ. And through whom in his ministry and his writings preserved in the scriptures, many millions of people have come to know Jesus.

If Stephen hadn’t died the death he did, if Stephen had taken his focus of Christ in those last moments of his life, I wonder whether Paul would have recognised Jesus when he encountered him on the way to Damascus.

Great things happen when we keep out eyes on our saviour.


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