When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 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 while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.
Throughout this week, we have been exploring the aspect of the Church’s life called ‘witness’. In our context, we take it to mean the actions we take in the wider world which carry a clear message of our calling and purpose as Christians.
In these bleak readings from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we find how Stephen, known to us as the first Christian martyr, enraged those who held power. His witness presented a different outlook in an audacious and unapologetic way.
Even as he suffered horribly, he continued to infuriate them with a vision that was an abomination to them. He is the first, but by no means the only, Christian martyr, and history is full of people who stood out, stood up and didn’t back away from their witness, taking action in love and with a clear message of God’s love.
Yet, the word ‘martyr’ comes to us from the Greek word used in our readings for a ‘witness’ – mártyrós. It may serve to remind us that each opportunity for witness that we have can come with a personal cost to us.
If we are to be true witnesses for Jesus, we will have to re-examine our practices and outlook on life. We considered yesterday how our lifestyles have impacted the planet, its people and all life upon it. Beyond that, our world and UK economy, which seems to be an unassailable and unchangeable feature of life, continues to unjustly disadvantage the global South and many living in richer countries, while much wealth and power are in the hands of only a few people.
The solutions are far from simple, but they are not unobtainable. They will be costly for some, and literally a life-saver for others. The Joint Public Issues Team is calling for a just economy that enables the flourishing of all life. What will being a faithful witness – mártyrós – to the love of God cost you?
Loving God, Salvation is free but not cheap, Transformation is hard but not impossible.
A Christian witness demands of us an upending of unfruitful ways, a dismantling of wrong attitudes, a reformation of our misconceptions.
But a witness I am called to be, to my Jerusalem, my Judea, my Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.
I can’t do this alone. So guide me and place me in a family of witnesses.
Roo Stewart is Programme Support Officer for Church and Society within the URC’s Mission Team and a member of the Joint Public Issues Team.