Rethinking martyrdom, a sermon on Acts 7:55-60

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

It may seem odd to talk about our reading from Acts, about Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on Mother’s Day, but bear with me here.

There is a connection, I promise you.

I have a problem with the Christian concept of martyrdom.

Martyrdom seems to glorify suffering, violence, and death.

And I’ve always thought the Christian faith is more about joy, compassion, and life.

The concept of martyrdom has also been used to justify terrible acts of brutality.

Just look at the Crusades, for example, when Christians killed people of other faiths and, when Crusaders died in the field, they were honored as martyrs.

We need look no further than the world news, to hear stories of a suicide bomber or terrorist killing scores of people and expecting to be glorified because of it.

Or, on the other side of the equation, the concept of martyrdom has been used to glorify victimhood….

the idea that suffering can be perpetuated, that human suffering is justified, because somehow it makes us more holy.

On this, Mother’s Day, I think of the generations of Christian women who have been devalued by the church, even oppressed….

because of the mistaken idea that one must be completely self-sacrificing and self-denying in order to be a good mother, daughter, disciple.

And the truth is, I don’t really want to be like Stephen, the kind of person who gets stoned to death.

No one wants to end their lives that way, let alone serve God in that way.

Nope, the concept of martyrdom is deeply troubling to me, and for many years I basically just tried to ignore it as a part of the Christian narrative.

And yet, the concept of martyrdom is a part of the Christian narrative, and an important one at that.

Part of the reason the miracle of Easter is so powerful for us as Christians, is because we know that Jesus suffered and died in order that he might rise again…

At Easter suffering and death is transformed into new life in Christ for all people.

And in today’s story from Acts, we see that the church’s ministry in the world is a direct continuation of Christ’s ministry…

That Christ is present among us as disciples both in what we do and in what we suffer.

Stephen literally lives and dies like Christ in the world.

That is what disciples of Jesus do—we live like Christ, we serve like Christ, and we try to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

Hopefully none of us, will ever be called upon to literally die because of what we believe as Christians.

There are some people for whom this kind of death is a literal reality.

But we might, as people of faith, be called to give up, to let die certain parts of ourselves, in order that we might live more fully as Christ in the world.

We might sometimes need to let our anger die, or our fears, or our belief that only we are master’s of our own fate.

However, if we truly believe that as disciples of Christ we live and die in Christ…

Then it means that we also believe that the wonderful moments of our lives, as well as the terrible moments, are filled with the presence of Christ.

The entire scope of our lives, the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the painful, the joyful, all of it becomes holy.

Today’s reading from Acts points to our call to live such holy, Christ-like lives, as disciples of Jesus.

It also points to the ways in which the church consistently falls short of what it means to be a faithful people.

For all that we can see ourselves in the love and compassion of Stephen, we can also see ourselves in the mob that stones him to death.

If you read the entire narrative from Acts today, you’ll find that the reason the crowds kill Stephen is because they cannot bear to hear….

…that the Temple is not the only place to worship God.

They cannot bear to hear that God might be present in other people and in other places

The crowds have turned their place of worship into an idol, at the cost of doing God’s work in the world.

And they kill Stephen because of it.

Whenever the life of faith becomes more about serving ourselves, than about serving God and the world, then we have fallen into the trap of idolatry.

Which is how I began to reflect and to reframe what today’s reading from Acts can teach us.

The theologian Hans Kung writes that there are three important things that Stephen’s death shows us about what it means to be a person of faith.

The first and foremost, is that Stephen dies an innocent death.

No one else is killed or harmed when Stephen dies.

As people of faith, we do not intentionally do violence to our fellow human beings.

Our lives, including our deaths, as people of faith, should never intentionally bring about the deaths of others.

So, when you hear or see other people being persecuted or harmed or killed in the name of faith, please know that such acts are absolutely not holy.

When the concept of martyrdom is used to kill or to harm others it is never, not in any sense, a Christian thing to do.

As evidenced by the second aspect of martyrdom that Stephen’s death shows us.

Stephen blesses his enemies.

That is another key part of what it means to be Christ-like, in the way that Stephen is.

To bless those who do us wrong.

This is not the same as forgetting what has been perpetrated, or pretending that it doesn’t matter.

But to bless our enemies means that we trust that God is working in the world for good.

And we acknowledge also the power of God to transform others, as God has transformed us.

The power to bless also empowers us to say that God is my strength and shield,

that we are not beholden or defined by our anger, or grudges, or our personal pain.

We, as people of faith, are about life, not death, and so we bless; we do not curse.

And the third thing about Stephen’s death is that Stephen has a beatific vision, a glimpse into what God looks like.

Someone once said that our reading from Acts today is the best picture of the triune God in the New Testament.

Stephen is filled with the Holy spirit, he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.

Now, at the time that the book of Acts was written, there was not yet a fully developed Christian doctrine of the trinity.

But God was already being talked about in ways that allowed humankind to experience God in different ways…

…as a creator and generator of life, but also in the person of Jesus, and, in our own spirit-filled capacity to live like Christ in the world.

In our lives of faith, we don’t often have beatific visions of God or our place in the cosmos.

When we do, we are profoundly blessed.

But we do have a sense, I believe, that God works in the world, and, as we hear in our gospel reading for today, we can also see what God looks like in the person of Jesus.

And, through the gift of the spirit, we can see God working in and through us, our own lives as people of faith.

And so I would say that whenever, or wherever, we see God in our midst, in our lives, in other people it is a form of beatific vision…

it is part of who we are as people faith, that we see God at work around, through, and in us.

When we think about Stephen’s death as an example of discipleship,

that we do not harm others, and instead we bless them, and see God at work in the world around us….

….then it is indeed, an important part of the Christian narrative, and one that we can learn from.

And finally, I do not believe that Stephen’s death is in any way meant to glorify victimhood as people of faith.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Because Stephen, in his life and in his death, exemplifies what it means to be an active participant in God’s work in the world.

Not a passive bystander, but a person, who in their life, ministry, and yes, even in death, makes God seen and known in the world.

And that is not the stance of a victim, that is instead an active, empowering stance with which to face the world.

And today of all days, Mother’s Day, when we honor those women who have empowered us to be the people we are called to be…

What better way to remember and honor them than to live into the life of Christ in the way that today’s reading from Acts teaches us.

That we will show God’s love to the world in our very lives.