Stephen, deacon, first martyr
2 Chronicles 24.20-22;
I ONCE met Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was speaking to a gathering of lawyers, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be introduced to him.
He spoke about truth and justice, about the courage and hope he sees in young people, and about what it takes to dare to be different, and to speak out. I suspect that the transcript of what Archbishop Tutu said would not have captured the headlines. What made his words so significant for us was the character, the history, and the achievements of the man that spoke them.
In a similar way, I shall never forget meeting the actress Patricia Hayes. Although best remembered for her comedy parts, it was for her presentation of the title role in Edna, the Inebriate Woman that she won a BAFTA award, in 1971. This television drama was a heart-rending story of life bravely lived out in homelessness and alcoholism.
In the clip from the film shown at the award ceremony, we see Edna out of control, roaming round an institution run by nuns, shouting at them: “I’m not the inadequate, I am NOT!” As Ms Hayes received her award, she admitted, with huge empathy and understanding: “I am the inadequate!”
The same depth of feeling was evident when I met her while she was filming in Norfolk. She came to the Shrine at Walsingham, and was very sensitive to the spirituality of the place and its capacity for healing. She lit her candle and said her prayers. “We all need places like this,” she told me, stressing the word “need”. It was said with an actor’s skill, but she meant it.
Archbishop Tutu, with an international reputation for promoting truth and reconciliation, and Patricia Hayes, known at home for depicting heartbreak and the comedy of life: they both had one thing in common. They conveyed the sense that they could see Jesus. Not that they were looking at him whenever they wanted to, but that it was within their capacity.
What has always intrigued me about the account of the martyrdom of St Stephen is the reference to Saul — the still-unregenerate apostle of the Gentiles. It is, of course, a brilliant piece of editorial work by St Luke, though that is no reason to doubt that Saul did witness the brutal execution of the young Christian deacon.
The intriguing thing is just how important the whole sense of seeing is in these encounters. I have tried to describe the inspirational experience of seeing face-to-face two people who communicated a sense of their own visionary capacity. What did Saul make of seeing Stephen?
Luke turns up the intensity of the scene as the martyrdom is played out. When death approaches, Stephen speaks to Jesus, whom he has seen in glory at the Father’s right hand. Herein lies the origin of Saul’s conversion. He can hold out only for so long against the transformative example of seeing in the flesh someone who is as alive as Stephen.
It would, I think, be a cop-out to continue at this point by saying that we who have sung our carols and worshipped at the crib this Christmas have seen Jesus, so let the world sit up and take notice. The “seeing Jesus” that I witnessed in Desmond Tutu and Patricia Hayes, and that a tough nut such as Saul saw in Stephen — this was not easily achieved, nor was it superficial.
The kind of seeing we are talking about is like the experience of labouring to learn a foreign language. We struggle to begin with, and are not very good at mastering the accent. But at some point there is a breakthrough, and we say: “Oh, I see how this works.” We may not be fluent, but we have developed some familiarity with the language, and perhaps we can begin to make ourselves understood.
Recently I was at a meeting with young clerics in the diocese of York, and heard from one of them an example of the struggle that goes into seeking the charisma of seeing Jesus. The example was a mission initiative by young people, which involved a significant commitment of time and financial sacrifice, in order to live and witness to their faith in some of the most deprived areas of Manchester.
This project sounded like a contemporary version of the early monastic communities, pushing the personal boundaries of how to experience seeing Jesus. The challenges of silence and self-renunciation offered significant attraction as a protest against conforming to the limited aspirations of this noisy and distracted world.
Linking Christian faith so emphatically to renunciation can open dangers of spiritual pride and an imbalance that devalues the material world and our appreciation of its beauty. But the point about renunciation should not be overlooked. Being a Christian involves us in personal cost, as we struggle to learn the language, behaviour, and culture of the civilisation of love.
So don’t settle just for tinsel and turkey this Christmas. Live life with a bigger vision: of hope, of heaven, of a better world.
2 Chronicles 24.20-22
20 Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, This is what God says: 'Why do you disobey the LORD's commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you.' 21 But they plotted against him, and by order of the king they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the LORD's temple. 22 King Joash did not remember the kindness Zechariah's father Jehoiada had shown him but killed his son, who said as he lay dying, May the LORD see this and call you to account.
Acts 7: 51 - end
51You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it. 54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 Look, he said, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, Lord, do not hold this sin against them. When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Matthew 10: 17-22
17 Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.