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. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 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. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 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.
I have just heard the story of a Christian leader who described how he spent years trying to convert his best friend, only to see him become a Christian months after they lost contact. The leader joked that he somehow missed on the reward and pride of being the one who finally led him to Christ. The good news may be that the leader kept proclaiming the gospel in spite of years of failure.
Stephen speaks and acts like a living sacrifice, who boldly gives a historical, personal and prophetic account of the hope within him. This perhaps begs some questions to be asked: what is the point of being full of wisdom and Spirit if this leads to an apparently useless and barbaric death? It is clear that the early Church needed people like Stephen: full of grace, power and with the gift to perform signs and wonders. Had his life been needlessly wasted? What is the point to challenge stiff-necked people if it only drives them to anger and even murder? Have we ever felt that the output of our endeavours is not worth the effort we make or the price we pay?
If yes then such feelings may betray the reality that our judgement has perhaps been blurred by conflict, opposition, denial, rejection, disappointment, apparent failure and even our delusional, internal scripts. What life and people throw at us may taint our perspective on what God is accomplishing through us and behind the scenes of our awareness.
Among that crowd , stood a young man named Saul who was destined to be the one of the greatest evangelist ever: one whose journeys and writings would contribute to the salvation of billions of souls over the centuries. Saul, more than anyone else might have been the real audience in this narrative. Going back to the initial question: was Saul worth Stephen’s apparent failure and death? I am selfishly tempted to answer ‘ yes’. It has been argued that seeds were sown in Saul’s heart that day, perhaps because of Stephen’s attitude. Indeed Stephen was bold proclaiming the truth regardless of the opposition and the cost; he humbly prayed when he could have posed all kinds of theodicy questions; and he passionately begged God not to hold anything against his executioners and their accomplices. Could such witness have prepared the merciless and stiff-necked Saul for the Damascus’s encounter?
I am encouraged to know afresh that all one does in witness and service for people is always worth the cost, even the cost of apparent failure and death. How refreshing is it to be reminded that people around us, however they appear, have God’s potential to accomplish much more than us in the future! Stephen’ s self-sacrificial attitude looks like the living Good News, which puzzles Saul and sets him on a journey of discipleship.
God of faithfulness , thank you for those who loved us sacrificially long before we deserve it, those who failed that we may succeed, and those who humbly and faithfully laid their lives down so that ours could flourish. Omniscient God, help us to always have Your bigger picture in mind and at heart; grant us courage to remain faithful in adversity, boldness to proclaim the gospel whatever the cost and response, grace to know that all have an invaluable potential and inheritance in you, and wisdom to discern your glory, even when hidden in powerlessness. Amen
The Rev’d Bachelard Kaze is Minister of Marlpool, Eastwood and Langley URCs in Derbyshire.