You Only Have to Die

Acts 7:55-60

“Court,” the bailiff announces, “is in session.” In the Chamber of Hewn Stone, a dedicated hall inside Herod’s Temple, the Sanhedrin, a 71-member supreme court, await opening statements. The aristocracy from Jerusalem, seated on the left, consider their gold futures; the biblical scholars, seated on the right, review the Law of Moses; the High Priest, elevated above everyone in a gilded cedar bench, reads the list of charges- false witness, slander, treason, blasphemy against God and Country.  

Stephen, a quiet waiter responsible for handing out barley loaves and fig baskets to hungry widows, is escorted into the courtroom. Representing himself, without a briefcase or a defense attorney, he finds his voice by converting the witness stand into a bully pulpit. Rather than grovel for mercy, Stephen stands tall in the longest speech in Acts, citing Torah thirty times over a 51-verse sermon. Flush with the Spirit, he gives a scathing oral history of Israel’s disobedience and accuses the High Court of rejecting yet another prophet. 

Gnashing their teeth, the Sanhedrin, enraged by a fellow Jew pronouncing their guilt, join the gathered jurors to incite a mob. Robes tearing and chairs breaking, the crowd stampedes ahead while covering their ears since a man can only be murdered if you first silence his humanity. Beautifully distracted skyward as the heavens unveil, Stephen is dragged through the eastern gate of the city and lynched by stoning.   

While his ministry was brief, appearing only twice in the New Testament, Stephen left far more than just blood on the rocks. When the charter members started organizing themselves, creating committees and offices, they nominated him. Of all the faithful servants, why did the early church choose Stephen, before his death, as the first deacon?  

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.

Congregational Responses: 

He forgave like Jesus did. 

He fought the power of an unjust court system. 

He allowed the Spirit to guide him.  

The government of El Salvador was paranoid. Clinging to power in the 1970s as the country devolved into civil war, pitting right-wing agents of the administration against left-wing Marxist guerillas, officials feared a coup. To suppress the rebellion, torture and death squads were deployed. Wanting to maintain a neutral position, the Roman Catholic church appointed priest Oscar Romero, an introverted and passive academic, bishop of San Salvador. He was a compliant company man, until being dispatched to the front lines. He saw women with bludgeoned faces, children hiding in closets, executions by the dozen, and bodies strewn in the ditch. Horrified, he fell to his knees in agony pleading, “Show me the way.” Following in the footsteps of peace, he walked into a village of squalor. Among the hovels, soldiers confronted Romero. They derided and stripped him nearly naked as peasants gathered by his side saying, “You speak for us.” Emboldened, he went public with his protest, preaching a sermon broadcast to the entire nation begging for an end to the violence. In worship the next day, he said, “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorians, even those who are going to kill me.” As he consecrated the Eucharist, holding the chalice high at Mass, two gunmen took aim and assassinated him at the altar.1  

One thousand six hundred years prior, Constantine the Great designated Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He ended persecution, legalized worship, and transformed a fringe movement of zealots into a sensible majority mitigating risk by pacifying the gospel. For many historians, this is the moment when the church renounced herself in the name of safety.    

To the early followers, this would have been unthinkable. Second-hand accounts of Jesus were still circulating around Judean campfires. Remember when the Lord said, “Frequent the infectious disease ward and ensure no patient goes untouched.” On dealing with enemies, he said, “After getting cussed out, gladly hand over your jacket, then the shirt off your back.” And something else about, “[S]he who loves [her] life will lose it.”2

Stephen had heard all these stories too. In response, he didn’t try to allegorize them away or search the fine print for an exit strategy. Instead, he mobilized Jesus’ words into recklessly loving actions. By doing so, the early church commissioned Stephen as the first deacon because he didn’t flinch after reading the job description. Carrying the cross may include consequences for your family, your wallet, your pride, your reputation, and even the number of breaths you draw. 

For most of us, the terrible choice of disavowing our Savior or surrendering to the hurling rocks will never take place. What will happen, however, is the invitation to practice a different type of martyrdom. When an affluent tourist dismisses homelessness as a lack of work ethic, will you martyr your avoidance of conflict? When a racist slur gets uttered, will you martyr your compliance with white supremacy? When another mass shooting happens, will you martyr your patriotism that unbiblically endorses God and guns? 

If you answered no, consider this: in the United Methodist Church, when we gather around the font, the minister often says, “He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death….”3 Through water and the Spirit, Jesus bids everyone, from cradle to grave, to come and perish with him. Yes, death is terrifying. But even more terrifying is not having a cause to lay down your life for.   

For our sake, the committee is still taking nominations. Won’t you come forward as the next deacon? “You only have to die.”4 


1 N. Graham Standish, Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace (Herndon: Alban,2007) 59-62.

2 John 12:25

3 The United Methodist Book of Worship: Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992. 

4 Webber, Andrew Lloyd. “Poor Jerusalem.” Jesus Christ Superstar, MCA Records, 1973.