Stephen was not one of the original twelve. When Judas needed to be replaced, he wasn’t on the short list. Instead, he was a secondary apostle relegated to the food pantry, to hand out cans of soup and throw away piles of moldy bread. He was the guy charged with handling all the quiet delegated tasks so that the real disciples could be out doing the real ministry of preaching.
But despite his dirty apron ministry far removed from the notoriety of the pulpit, Stephen has still become one of the distinguished men of Christian history, a man whose namesake lives on in churches and newborn sons, whose relics, his very bones which are spread across the world, continue to offer miraculous cures to ailing believers.
After being tried in court, dragged outside of the city by an angry mob and pelted with rocks, we read the last paragraph of Stephen’s life here in chapter 7 of Acts. In these last sentences, what is Stephen’s most faithful act?
Acts 7:55-60 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.
Forgive your executioner
Use your last breath on a prayer
Filled with the Holy Spirit
A Bishop was lamenting the decline of American Christianity at a State of the Church address. He said, paraphrasing, “membership is down, worship is sparsely attended, tithing is less than 1% and if our denomination is going to remain, some churches need to close and some properties need to be sold.” But, he continued, “I just returned from Communist Vietnam, where against all odds, Christianity is growing as fast as any other place in the world. And to join the underground Church, I learned that you have to take part in a weekly covenant group, study scripture and pray daily, give at least 10%, show up for worship and participate in missions.” One of the ministers in the audience raised her hand and asked, “Why do you think the Church is growing there and dying here?” The Bishop responded, “Because in America, religion became entirely irrelevant the exact moment it stopped requiring anything of us. In Vietnam, being a Christian will cost you.”
Following the Christ will cost you your associations, because we can only hold membership in one kingdom. It will cost you your isolation, because we are created to thrive in community. It will cost you your narcissism, because we have to ask for that which we cannot give ourselves. It will cost you your money, because God’s blessings are to be shared. And it will cost you your life.
Stephen’s most faithful act was his willingness to become a martyr: to suffer as part of his testimony for Jesus, to believe that there are many things more sacred than personal safety, to welcome death, both spiritual and physical, when it comes.
While the world chases immortality, Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and other secondary apostles know that beginning with our baptism, faith is ultimately one act of martyrdom after another.
So when your enemy starts throwing rocks, be reminded that Jesus asks nothing less of us than to come and die with him.