What Is Martyrdom, Really?
The gospel that we read today will be most familiar to many of us as “the funeral text” because that is how we most often have heard it.
I would say that for close to 80% of the funerals I have done as a priest, the family has chosen this gospel for the service. There is clearly something deeply comforting in it.
It is often called for shorthand “the many mansions” text for the older language translation of Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”
What we notice this week is that someone does die in our assigned texts. We have the martyrdom of Stephen in our lesson from Acts.
What if we considered this gospel as the reading for Stephen’s funeral?
How would that affect our understanding of it?
And how would it affect our memories of the loved ones we have buried with these words echoing through the worship space?
Stephen is important because he is the first person who really follows Jesus all the way to the end of the story.
He followed Jesus in life, and he ends up following Jesus into death, persecuted and killed by people who cannot bear the searing and life-changing truth of the gospel message.
For most of Christianity we have settled for worshipping Jesus rather than following him.
That is quite possibly because following Jesus can and does have rather dire consequences, as Stephen finds out.
Our other tendency is to glorify literal martyrs such as Stephen, and there certainly is much to admire in people who are able to give up their physical bodies to die for Christ.
But it can become an outsourcing of the necessary death that we must undergo in our own lives, before we physically die, if we truly wish to follow Jesus into resurrection.
What does it really mean to be a martyr?
And is it a calling we all share, or the province only of the rarefied saints like Stephen? Continue reading