HOMILY—5th Sunday after Easter—Meeting Stephen
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever. Amen.
Many things can happen when you wear a clerical collar in public. I’ve heard stories of clergy being verbally assaulted, even spat upon. Compared to that, my experience has been quite tame. I’ve been asked for blessings and for the occasional prayer. There was one bizarre incident where a young man, obviously intoxicated, started talking very loudly about Satan in the metro while standing not far from me. But mostly, I get smiles and the occasional puzzled look, though sometimes I glimpse eyes that stare at me with condescension or contempt. On the whole, however, I haven’t experienced anything violent or particularly troubling. At least, nothing that compares with what happens to the deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
The collar, of course, can be a powerful reminder of many different things for people: a profession of one’s faith or, for those doing the looking, the lack of it; a reminder of painful religious or church experiences from one’s past; even a token of trust that can lead to a kind of reaching out, however temporary, for comfort or healing. The point is that this very visible public religious symbol can elicit a wide range of responses. All symbols are, by their nature, multi-faceted, and they don’t necessarily always behave as predictably as we might expect them to. And so, when I was working on this homily, I could not help asking myself what Stephen had done or said—what visible sign he had made manifest—that would warrant such a violent end to his life. Now, if you read the whole of chapter 7 from which this concluding passage is taken, you soon discover what Stephen did: he simply and very dramatically spoke truth to power, and at great length. Stephen’s public sign was the veracity and authority of his own deep-seated faith in Jesus Christ, collar or no-collar. He claimed his faith, and he did so passionately and unreservedly.
I also read a commentary about this text by someone writing in a recent issue of the magazine The Christian Century, and I liked what was said: “First of all, why are we reading this story this week? We are finally out of the wilderness of Lent and basking in the victory of the resurrection. The Easter season is a small reprieve from the injustices of the world, a time to delight in a resurrected Christ who plays in 10,000 places. Is this really the best time to bring in Stephen’s martyrdom?” I like the question asked here because it is not afraid to interrogate the text on its own merits, to raise a query about its ultimate relevance to us in this liturgical season: a season of hope, joy and confidence in the life-affirming victory of the risen Lord. Who wants to hear about further violence and death? It’s the same question that the magazine author asks: “If this is the kind of thing our faith leads to, who wants it?” Perhaps we can re-phrase the question: When does our faith not lead to this kind of thing? Why do we think we might be exempt?
It is highly unlikely that any of us will ever be called to witness to our faith in the same violent way that Stephen was. But there have always been times, and there are places in the world today, where being a Christian is still risky business, perhaps no more so than in the Middle East, the very cradle of our faith. Stephen’s end is, of course, very dramatic, as all such hagiographic texts tend to be. Notice the words Stephen uses, and how similar they are to those uttered by Jesus on the cross. The writer of Acts is purposely ennobling Stephen’s death by doing this. It is also a way of reminding us all of the proper Christian attitude to have should any of us ever have to face such drastic circumstances. Tough, yet deeply necessary words of forgiveness for tough times.
But you don’t have to be a ‘drama Christian’ to acknowledge that following Jesus always carries a cost. It may not be at the price of our lives, but it could be at the cost of our reputation, our relationships, perhaps even our livelihood. It’s quite difficult, perhaps even impossible, for us to imagine such a scenario, given the relatively secure political and social environment in which we live. Let us think, however, of all those moments—ordinary, almost banal moments—where we may have chosen not to say something against an unjust act we witnessed, or not given help for fear of being laughed at, or spoken ill of someone out of spite or jealousy. Those are all moments of Christian choice and Christian cost, but we so often step back out of fear or simple human lethargy. We choose not to witness to our faith.
If this is the kind of thing our faith leads to—whether it be the dramatic or the mundane—then who wants it? Why can’t we just bask in the glory and good feelings of the Resurrection without having to worry about all that other tedious stuff we know is out there anyway? Why does the death of Stephen have to mar our post-Resurrection bliss? Didn’t we already get that morbid message loud and clear during Holy Week? Yes, we did. But the empty tomb does not mean we have to be in denial mode. The empty tomb does not give us the licence to think that being a follower of Jesus is only about feeling good. The empty tomb is not a happy face. That’s why we are reading about Stephen’s martyrdom on this fifth Sunday of Easter. It’s a way to bring us back—if only momentarily—to that all too necessary sequence we sometimes forget: death—resurrection—death.
The thing is, I’m truly not a pessimist or a death-obsessed Christian. Quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, I tend to operate very much in a positive, more optimistic register—though I must admit, on a more personal note, that these past few months have severely tested me in that regard. Still, I tell myself that this is not necessarily a bad existential place for a Christian to find themselves in. We all face seemingly insurmountable challenges in our lives—whether by virtue of our faith, our circumstances or our shared humanity—and we all know that those challenges will at times require that we pay a cost. The wonderful thing about the Resurrection is that it assures or re-assures us that this cost is never paid in vain. I suspect that this is what motivated Stephen, and I am certainly quite confident that it still inspires and motivates all those Christians today who are called to follow in those same glorious footsteps.
Maybe getting in trouble is, or it should be, the hallmark of a Christian life. It definitely was for Stephen, as it was for Jesus himself. As it has been for many women and men down the centuries—anonymous most of them—whom we call saints. Perhaps we think being a Christian means being pious, well-behaved and never rocking the boat, all those things so many of us were taught in our childhood. Yet getting in trouble can so often be a good and necessary thing. It can bring us to places, and open up creative possibilities, which we never suspected. The empty tomb was itself a source of trouble for the early followers of Jesus. It still is for us.
And so, we are reading this story from Acts this week because we have to; because we need to be reminded about certain truths; because the resurrection is not the end of human contingency; because we are all called, each in some manner, to make a choice for or against our faith, in ways both large and small. And such choices can often carry a price tag, also large or small. Stephen paid the ultimate price. So did Jesus. We may not know if we will ever be called upon to pay such a heavy price, nor can we be absolutely certain of how we might respond. We just know that we have to make ‘Christian trouble’ insofar as we are able to, given our circumstances. That’s probably the best reason for having met Stephen this week. Amen.