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?
As you probably know, the word martyr means “witness.”
This simple fact opens up our Acts text in important ways, because we have four types of witness in this story.
First we have Stephen, who clearly is witnessing something remarkable. “‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”
If we put this into terms of our own spiritual journey today, Stephen has followed Jesus, been taught by Jesus, been healed and changed by Jesus, to a point that he sees, in the midst of this life-threatening situation, that Jesus is at the end of his journey.
Whatever he undergoes in the next minutes and hours, and it is going to be a torturously violent death, trust in God has been so implanted in his heart that he sees where he is headed.
It gives him the strength to walk through his own experience of the Cross.
He is a witness of the Resurrection in every sense—he is proclaiming it or “witnessing” about it to the crowd, and he is witnessing his own destination set out before him, the eternal embrace of God that will not fail him even now.
The second type of witness we have is the crowd.
And Stephen’s words are like acid to them. They seem literally to be unable to bear them: “But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”
Their denial is so visceral that they try to physically block it out, and when that is not possible, they then actually kill the messenger.
Lest we get too smug, we must immediately recognize the crowd in ourselves.
This is the knee-jerk reaction we all experience when someone or something breaks through our own complacent denial of where God is calling us.
We would rather kill someone else than face the death of our own comfortable ideas and certainties, the death of our imperial ego.
We love the box we’ve forced God into, and we guard it like Fort Knox, with lethal force.
Watch yourself the next time someone criticizes you in a way you feel is unfair.
Betrayal, anger, self-justification—the stones start to fly.
We may no longer literally kill the bearers of unpalatable truth, but I know I engage in character assassination multiple times a day in my head.
And then, oh, what an interesting type of witness we have for our third example!
“Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
This is Saul who will become Paul, Paul the great builder of the church, the author of the earliest texts of Christianity that are foundational scriptures for us even today.
What is he doing there?
Well, he is a persecutor of Christians.
He is still a dutiful, even zealous, Pharisee, making sure heresy is appropriately punished.
What is happening in his head and in his heart at this moment?
We don’t know, but we can speculate.
I don’t care how on fire you are for what you believe is just punishment, watching someone be stoned to death is a horrible experience.
Saul didn’t stop the crowd, because at that time he believed they were right.
In fact, the crowd laying their cloaks before him is a gesture of respect and homage. They are crediting Saul for this event, for this execution, in his role of enforcer of the religious law.
But Saul did not take up any stones himself.
He watched, and in his head he approved, but I think this moment is the first crack in his armor that Jesus will destroy entirely on the road to Damascus.
When was the last time in scripture you remember someone laying cloaks in the road to honor someone?
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
We could read this laying of cloaks before Saul as a symbol of welcome, of preparation, of a momentous journey just beginning that will go through the Cross to Resurrection.
Saul doesn’t know it now, but as he witnesses the death of a Christian at his instigation for the last time, the cloaks laid before him are a potent precursor of his own journey through death to resurrection. This day is his own Palm Sunday.
His false self only has a short time to live, and Stephen’s journey, which is Jesus’ journey, which will become Paul’s journey, is beginning.
The “glory, laud, and honor” he’s receiving from the crowd will soon be turned against him, but he will come to know, like Stephen, that that is the moment he will witness Jesus most clearly.
Who is the last witness to this momentous scene in which so much turmoil is happening, internal and external?
God. God sees it all.
God sees the maelstrom of motivations seething through this scene, and God, in God’s wisdom, is letting it unfold toward an eventual triumph of grace.
It’s difficult to understand in the moment, especially for Stephen’s friends and family, how the death of an innocent man could be part of the unfolding of Love in the universe.
It’s hard to believe that the raging and murderous emotions of the crowd and the proudly pious reserve of Saul could really be worked into the tapestry of redemption being woven through time.
But that is the great pattern of redemptive suffering that God ingeniously works through time after time.
Jesus blazed the trail here, giving himself up for us and serving as the means of our healing in the gift of his willing death at our own hands.
So too will Stephen’s death prove redemptive for Saul and perhaps for others in the crowd.
And that is what is remarkable about our God.
God works through the good things in our lives, the joy and happy serendipity and hard-earned progress of prayer and fellowship that we build together.
But God finds a way to turn even our own worst failures and sins into the very means of our healing and redemption. That is the road through the Cross to the Resurrection.
And so when we return to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, thinking about how they would sound if they were used at Stephen’s funeral, one phrase jumps out at us.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
We see that Stephen follows Jesus completely, giving up his life in innocence with pure faith in God.
But what makes Stephen’s death a “greater work than these,” somehow more even than Jesus?
It’s his forgiveness.
His last words on earth were to forgive the very people who were killing him.
“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.”
What makes this a “greater work than these” is that Stephen did this as a completely human person.
He had no divine nature guiding him as Jesus did.
He was not the Son of God.
He was simply a fully human follower of Jesus.
And he had followed Jesus so totally, so fully, that he was able to follow Jesus even into forgiving those who murdered him.
Wow! That is martyrdom!
It is stunning, and it does stir deep emotions in us, but the most remarkable thing about it is not Stephen’s heroism, but his humanity.
There is little value in our spiritual lives in fantasizing about how brave we would be if our lives were endangered because of our faith. That only inflates our egos.
But being a faithful witness, in every sense of that word, is the fullness of our discipleship.
We are called as we observe Stephen, the crowd, and Saul, to witness all their qualities warring within ourselves.
We are called to witness the reality that God is witnessing our internal struggle with infinite compassion and faith in us.
And we are called to witness that the pinnacle of Stephen’s witness, the apex of his proclamation of faith as he gave up his life, was forgiveness.
So we see that the “greater works than these” that Jesus predicts are within our grasp.
But they are not noble and heroic stands for faith that we imagine, not the old connotation of martyrdom.
The “greater works than these” are the most humble works of all: the daily discipline of forgiveness, which is our daily witness to grace.
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