While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. 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.
Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
Would you give up your life for your faith? Perhaps it is not the kind of thing you’d like to think about on Boxing Day, when you may still be basking in the glow of family, friends, presents and fun. Yet this is also the Feast of Stephen, of whom we read in Acts 7 and who is seen as the first Christian martyr. After the birth of Christ we are confronted with a story of martyrdom and persecution. It is as if to say: if you want to follow the Child of Bethlehem, the cost will be high.
Martyrdom and persecution are the reality of many people of faith around the world today. A government review earlier this year showed that one in three people suffer from religious persecution, and that Christians are the most persecuted religious group.
Around the world there are millions of people under pressure for their faith, yet they are holding on and continuing to witness in whatever way they can. I have had the privilege of meeting some of them: Christian community nurses in Bangladesh, Palestinian Christians in Nazareth and Bethlehem. Their stories witness to a deep encounter with the presence and love of God that is worth staking their life on. They witness to it in every way they can, sometimes at the expense of their own safety or well-being.
I am not sure I could do that and thank God that is not being asked of me. I am helped by the original meaning of the Greek word for martyr. It only later takes on the meaning of someone who dies for their faith. First and foremost, it means to point to a truth beyond oneself. And that is something to which we are all called (Acts 1, 8); that is something we can all do. We too can bear witness to how God is at work in our lives and in the world – we too can be people who bring grace, peace and joy to the world.
We thank you, eternal God, For the witnesses of all times and all places. May the stories of their lives inspire us to look deep within our souls. May they encourage us to take the risk of faith and to serve you in new ways. Amen.
Francis Brienen, Deputy General Secretary (Mission), Muswell Hill URC