Martyr’s Vision

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In the earliest days of the Church, following Jesus was risky business. Simply professing allegiance to Jesus might get you killed. During the first three centuries of the Church, so many Christians experienced a violent death that the New Testament word used for “witness” is identical to the word “martyr.” Christians knew that public profession of faith could cost them their lives.

Today’s epistle reading recounts the final moments in the life of Stephen, the church’s first martyr.   The preceding passage tells us that Stephen, “full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.”[1]

Stephen’s ministry creates a problem for unbelievers, who see him as a rival for the love and support of the common people, and a threat to the established power structure. An angry crowd drags Stephen before the Jewish leaders. Characteristic mob-like behavior is exhibited: a threat to power leads to an incitement of emotions, which leads to exaggerated charges, which ultimately lead to an unjust and violent outcome.[2]

Stephen could have played it safe. When called upon to make a defense, he could have toned down his rhetoric. Instead, he tells them what he sees: “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen knows that the crowd he addresses will consider his words blasphemy. At some level, he must realize that the result of this statement probably will be death. But he says it, anyway.

There are several possible reactions to the story of Stephen’s death. We may feel that our faith and courage contrast poorly to his. We may wish that God would be revealed to us in a way that would grant strong faith and deep courage for life’s challenges. Or we may think that Stephen’s wisdom was unequal to his courage, that he might have served his Lord better by recognizing the right time to retreat, and by returning for battle at a more opportune moment. We may feel that Stephen was a flamboyant extremist who took unnecessary risks.

If we see Stephen as an unstable fanatic, his story is not likely to inspire us. Religious extremism, in any form, is something that most Presbyterians would like to avoid; we recognize the grave problems that it causes in our world. When we think back to September 11, 2001, and the powerfully sad memories that day made for all of us, we know that thousands of people died for lies embraced by extremists, who thought they would be rewarded in heaven for their despicable actions, who believed that hate-inspired violence was the will of God.

Luke, the narrator of Stephen’s story, knew something about religious extremism. He knew about the extremism of scribes and Pharisees, whose complex interpretations of God’s Law squeezed the life out of ordinary people. He knew about the extremism of zealots and insurrectionists, who advocated violent revolt against the rule of Rome. Luke’s sketch of Stephen presents a contrast. Stephen’s witness doesn’t depend upon repressing the beliefs and freedom of others, but rather expressing his beliefs and exercising his freedom despite the fierce opposition. Will Willimon says, “Stephen reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, mentally balanced religion that once there were Christians who quite joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself in order to remain faithful.”[3]

A few years ago, John Buchanan commented on a news article that appeared in The Christian Century magazine. The article was about four pastors – three Roman Catholic and one Lutheran – who served congregations in the city of Luebeck, Germany, during the early 1940s. As their friendship grew, they were mutually encouraged to challenge verbally and in writing the beliefs and practices of the Nazi regime. They were arrested, accused of treason, and executed on November 10, 1943. The article reported the decision of the Vatican to recognize the priests, and it celebrated the courage and friendship of the four pastors. This prompted a reflection by Buchanan about the fact that not all that long ago, people who look an awful lot like you and me, who loved God, and loved their nation, and loved their church, paid for their faith with their lives.[4] Thousands of others shared their fate under Hitler, and Stalin, and ever since in places terrorized by Communists and militant religious extremists. Even today, if you spend some time in a newspaper, you’ll read the latest report about the Nigerian terror group, which recently kidnapped schoolgirls, the majority of whom are Christians, and are forcing them to adopt Muslim practices.

The reasons martyrs die defy easy explanation. The chain of events leading to martyrdom usually is long, and it’s often possible to see how a slight change in circumstances might have altered the outcome. In many cases, it looks to me like martyrs are ordinary Christians called and compelled to say faithful things and take faithful action, regardless of outcome. They’ve found something – or been found by Someone – in a way that is so profound that they simply can’t imagine saying or living otherwise.

Christian witness in the face of opposition doesn’t always lead to death, of course, and from those who have survived the opposition we can learn some lessons, too.

Take, for example, Nelson Mandela, who lived through many circumstances that might have resulted in his death to the age of 95. I find his life and faith complicated, as you might expect of someone who in one period in his life was a political revolutionary, and in another period the president of his nation. On the one hand, he was a pragmatist, advocating whatever methods might advance his cause, even violence when non-violence didn’t work. On the other hand, he claimed to never have abandoned his Christian beliefs, which were formed in childhood.[5] He was baptized a Methodist, trained in a mission school, and regularly attended worship services. At about the middle of his 27-year imprisonment, he wrote a letter to his wife Winnie, in which he described how the rigors of life there shaped him. “At least, if for nothing else,” he wrote, “the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”[6]

Mandela’s role in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid, from my perspective, may be his greatest achievement. Victims of atrocities and perpetrators sat down together, and told the truth about particular acts of violence. In many cases, former enemies forgave one another, and publicly committed themselves to a path of reconciliation rather than a cycle of revenge.

Powerful Christian witness that leads to martyrdom, or at least puts one at risk for it, poses questions to all of us. What is so true, so right, so beautiful, and so important, that you would die for it? Who has claimed you in a way that is so beautiful that you cannot imagine saying otherwise? The most powerful Christian witnesses can answer that question. When you discover what you would die for, you know what to live for, too.

[1] Acts 6:8, NASB.

[2] Acts 6:11-14.

[3] William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988, p. 66.

[4] John M. Buchanan, “No Greater Love,” a sermon delivered to Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 29 May 2011,

[5] Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself, New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2010, pp. 52-53.

[6] Mandela, p. 212.


~ by JohnH1962 on May 18, 2014.

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