And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Saul approved of the killing of Stephen, and that makes very uncomfortable reading, knowing that Saul not just approved of killing, but actively entered houses where he knew early Christian disciples and converts were meeting, and committed them to prison. This was an intense wave of persecution for the early Christian movement. Persecution does not happen by accident, it is planned and logically executed. Persecution can take many forms and for many reasons, but primarily in this passage, Saul saw the Christians as a threat to the foundation of Jewish tradition and belief, and needed to be eradicated.
The world is not so different today. Christians are persecuted for a variety of reasons. Many Christians are living under the tyranny of Islamic extremists, such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, and others live in countries that are similar to a political cauldron. The top country for persecuted Christians is North Korea, a place where Christian men, women and children, meet secretly to pray, share fellowship and read the Scriptures, and if caught they are imprisoned, tortured and even murdered for following Christ.
This passage from Acts, which illustrates Christian persecution 2000 yrs ago, is not so different in the 21 century.
Let us hope and pray that God touches hearts of persecutors, as he did with Saul, and echo words from Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death; Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
Lord, In the corners of our world, where persecution reigns, Give your strength to those who bodies are frail. In the dusty roads, well-trodden by victims of oppression, Give your courage to those who cling to your love. In the fragile voice that speaks of peace, amid the reign of hatred surrounding them, Give your hope to those whose heart is breaking. In the hardened hearts of perpetrators, May your Spirit of tenderness and compassion find her home. In Jesus name we pray Amen
The Rev’d Ruth Dillon is minister of Fleet and Hindhead URCs.