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26th December 2021

St Stephen’s Day

Passage: from Acts 6

Do you know, in 37 years of ministry, I have never preached on Boxing Day. There is a good reason for this. Along with most Ministers, I am more or less in a coma on Boxing Day. But this year I am pre-recording, so I am still conscious.
26th December is St Stephen’s Day. Stephen, you may remember, was one of the first Christian martyrs. Living in Jerusalem he was surrounded by Jews and by Romans, both of whom were hostile to the early Christian church. Stephen, a devout, charismatic, popular young man was arrested on trumped up charges and brutally executed by stoning.
Stephen was undeniably a great man and deserves his saints’ day. I just wondered, do we really need a tale of brutality and hatred and fear and everything going wrong right now? Are we not in a dark enough place already?
But in 37 years of ministry, I have found-many times- that when I first look at a Bible passage suggested for a particular Sunday, and think that I shall find nothing useful to say about it, given a little time, I am given something worth passing on. So here we go:
Stephen’s death should not have happened. We can all agree on that. The prejudice and religious intolerance that caused it should not have happened. The years of enemy oppression that the Jews had suffered, making them suspicious and scared should not have happened. The power hunger of the Romans, wanting to be totally in control, even of people’s faith should not have happened. The brutality of execution by stoning should not have happened.
In the same way, looking at where we are right now, we can say that Covid should not have happened. The thousands of deaths should not have happened. The collapse of businesses, the people driven to self-destruction, the disruption of children’s education, the loss of confidence and independence among the elderly should not have happened. And, at the time of Stephen’s death, as now, devout Christians can any good possibly ever come from all these things which should not have happened? Good question.
Let me read you the start of Stephen’s story: Acts 6, verses 1-6.
In those days when the number of Christian disciples was increasing, the Greek Jews among them complained against the Hebrew Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, the Twelve apostles gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.
Stephen was never intended to be a preacher. He was appointed as a Christian care worker. Nowadays he would be a Street Pastor or a Food Bank helper or work in a hostel for the homeless. Many faithful Christians prefer to do the work of caring rather than lead worship or study theology. And Christians who care not only benefit the needy for whom they care but also send out a powerful message to the rest of the world that our faith is not just “pie in the sky” but about making this world a better and fairer place.
Stephen took up this work and loved it. He found that he was able to make a huge difference to people’s lives. The story goes on – verse 8- Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.
It seems that, the more Stephen worked among the poor, the more he found himself understanding what Christ’s ministry had been about. The more faithful he was at his work, the deeper he found his faith and his conviction growing. He did not set out to be a preacher or a great teacher in the church. He just got on with the job he had been given, allowed God’s Spirit to help him grow in it and grow he certainly did.
But there were people in positions of power in other religious groups who did not like this; people who felt threatened by someone so good and effective in their ministry. What if Stephen ended up with more followers than they had? The Jewish leaders arrested him and accused him of blasphemy, which carried the death penalty.
Stephen had no difficulty defending himself. For someone who was not meant to be a preacher, he preached from the dock one of the most powerful sermons recorded in the whole Bible, setting out all of Jewish history and pointing out how Jesus had been the fulfilment of their expectations, but they had rejected and crucified him. The court put their fingers in their ears so that they could not hear anymore. The dragged Stephen outside and stoned him to death. Stephen, as Jesus had before him, asked God to forgive his executioners and commended his soul to God’s keeping.
This should not have happened. Picture the Christian community standing horror-struck as Stephen died. If someone as good and faithful and devout as Stephen could be so brutally murdered, then what hope was there for the rest of them? Were they on the wrong track? Had they got faith wrong? Was God telling them they were wasting their time and causing more harm than good?
Just to make things worse, a powerful man called Saul began an active persecution against Christians. They had to run for their lives with little sense of where they were going. Just when you think things cannot get worse, they do. And don’t we know it.
But, as the story goes on, we hear of the apostle Phillip escaping to Samaria in the north. We hear the story of how he happened to meet with an Ethiopian court official and talked with him about Jesus. And the Ethiopian returned home to tell everyone else. We hear of how that man called Saul became converted to Christianity himself, being better known now as the great apostle, Paul, who took Christianity all around the Mediterranean countries. We read of Peter escaping from Jerusalem, ending up in Caesarea, where he entered the house of a Roman Officer called Cornelius and he and all his household became Christians.
The church grew and spread more than they had ever imagined. Not because of any plan of campaign but because of the persecution arising around Stephen’s death. That Christian community might have remained safely in Jerusalem, looking after their own, talking of evangelising but never getting around to doing any. But because of Stephen’s death they were forced into the open, compelled to scatter, and then learned to share the Gospel in the new places where they were. The rest, as they say, is history. Even we, in the UK might never have heard the Christian Gospel if Stephen had not been martyred and the church scattered.
I have never been able to say to anyone going through a time of tragedy and crisis that this is God’s will. That God must have a perfectly valid reason for inflicting this suffering upon them. I cannot say that, and I still hold to my statement that Stephen’s death should not have happened. And nor should any of the tragic, brutal deaths that come to pass in this world.
But what Stephen’s story does offer is the suggestion that despite all injustice, brutality and tragedy, amazing things still happen. And that despite all setbacks and discouragements, those who remain faithful find themselves achieving the purpose for which God called them, even if it does not look quite as they expected.
We should not be in the place where we are right now. Many of us are exhausted, despondent, scared and frustrated. In the church we are wondering how can we do the work of God when the odds are stacked so high against us?
But on St Stephen’s day we learn that being in a place we never wanted or hoped to be; a place we should not be, does not mean that our story ends in ignominy and failure. It does not mean that God is turning his back on us.
As Stephen faced a brutal death, he looked up and declared ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” When things were at the very worst he saw Jesus and realised with absolute certainty that Jesus had been right all along; that Jesus was the Saviour of the world; that Jesus was worth sticking with. No doubt, no fear, no disappointment, just recognition that even the wrong place could become the right place to see the face of God. And that the work of God would go on even in the face of all that should not have happened.
Having started off speaking of my 37 years of ministry, let me leave you with the words from Isaiah which were read at my ordination, the start of my ministry: Thus says the Lord: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth…so is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire.”
May God’s blessing and God’s purpose bear fruit in your life, no matter where you are or where we go from here. Amen.