Genesis 8.1-19;] Acts 7.55-end; 1 Peter 2.1-10; John
Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus
Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting
life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our
minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to
good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.
I DO NOT want to find out how I would cope with watching someone
being stoned to death. What was it like for those disciples who
braved the crowd and their own distress to watch? Why did God allow
it? What sense did the good news of the resurrection make? It makes
me wonder about Saul, there in the front row, approving of it all.
It is a disturbing picture.
Luke casts Stephen's death in the mould of Jesus's death. He
wants us to understand that Stephen, the first Christian martyr,
followed his Lord to death not only in commitment, but also in
conduct. So both faced accusations by the populace at the
instigation of leaders; both had the assurance that they were going
to be with God; and both prayed for forgiveness for those causing
In contrast to this vivid and bloodthirsty story, which led to
persecution and the scattering of the Church, we have the measured
calm of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Hearing
the reassuring words "Do not let your hearts be troubled," we are
immediately in calmer waters, and in danger of seeing this as
little more than a leisurely theological and philosophical debate
about heaven and the vision of God, forgetting that John presents
this as Jesus's last proper conversation with his disciples before
If, under the pressure of ambient fear at what is about to
happen, you had an hour in which to say all you wanted to your
family and friends, what would you say? Jesus's demanding
instruction was a command to be active in stopping their hearts
from being afraid. Then he answered Thomas's and Philip's questions
about how they could be sure of the way to God's house, and how
they could see the Father.
The question of seeing God is a key one throughout John's
Gospel, from the prologue's "No one has ever seen God: it is God
the only Son who . . . has made him known," to the end when the
disciples see but do not always recognise the risen Jesus. In
healing the blind man, Jesus used physical sight as a metaphor for
In this Easter season of resurrection, it jars to hear of an
angry crowd, a nasty martyrdom, a young man who positively wants to
see another stoned to death, and fearful disciples commanded not to
let their hearts be afraid. Putting Stephen's martyrdom, or any
similar terrible contemporary event, in dialogue with Jesus's
promises is a challenge to which we must rise.
Easter gives a different frame of reference to stories that, on
their own, justify fear and despair. Reframed by the Easter story,
while the horror of what is wrong is not diminished - stoning can
never be made right or sanitised - the power of Jesus's
resurrection brings hope of new life in the midst of death.
Stephen's vision of God's glory is the outworking of Jesus's
promise to his disciples: "If I go and prepare a place for you, I
will come again and will take you to myself so that where I am,
there you may be also."
He could add: "You know the way to the place where I am going,"
because he himself is the way: all Stephen had to do at the moment
of death was to pray: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." By
describing Stephen's assurance, Luke puts flesh on the bones of
Jesus's promise to the disciples, and reassures us of the
reliability of our hope.
But we cannot abandon Saul, the young man seeking the blood of
Christians. The Bible does not prettify Saul's past just because he
becomes a hero in the future. Yet God turned him round. This
Easter, the challenge is to let the story of Stephen's horrific
death belong with the comfort that Jesus promised his disciples
before he died.
The only way I know to reconcile the two, letting each add
profound depth to the other, is to see both through the lens of the
death and resurrection of Jesus. How else can we hold together life
and death in our own stories, or the stories we hear in the