Are You Ready to Die? (A Sermon for Easter 5A)

Are You Ready to Die? (A Sermon for Easter 5A)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Cypress, Texas)
Acts 7:55-60
May 14, 2017

In our First Lesson for today we heard the story of Stephen’s martyrdom at the hands of an angry religious crowd. And to offer a bit of Stephen’s back story,, just a chapter earlier, he was selected as one of the seven first deacons of the church, selected by the apostles to extend their ministry.

In the chapters before our reading for today we learn that Stephen was full of grace and power. He did great wonders and signs among the Jewish people… but his ministry and teaching were upsetting a certain group: religious folks at a synagogue. They argued with Stephen and eventually had him brought up before the Council on false charges.

When he appears before the Council, Stephen embarks on the longest sermon in the book of Acts. He lays out the history of God’s people and the ways in which they have consistently rejected God’s chosen messengers.

It’s not a terribly gripping sermon, perhaps a little dry, but things really take a turn at the end of his sermon. I’d like to read for you the conclusion to his sermon. He says, beginning in verse 51:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

Gee, I wonder why the audience didn’t like what they were hearing.

Perhaps that’s why he is such a good example for the first martyr. Because he seems a bit hot-headed and angry, frustrated, yet he is still filled with the Spirit of God.

It was being filled with the Holy Spirit that enabled Stephen to see into heaven and see the glory of God and Jesus standing in the right-hand of God. It was his being filled with the Holy Spirit that enabled him to say something very different in tone from his sermon only moments ago. It was being filled with the Holy Spirit that enabled him to pray to God for those who were killing him, saying, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”

This is the way of things with those who follow Christ.

It is the Spirit at work in us that enables us to follow Christ. It is the Spirit at work in us that is able to transform our short-sightedness, our closed-mindedness, our anger and frustration like Stephen expressed in his sermon. The Spirit at work in us can transform that in the same way that it transformed Stephen into one that prayed for those with whom he disagreed, even when they were about to kill him.

Each one of us is called just like Stephen the Proto-Martyr. Each one of us is called to go out into the world and to bear witness to the work of God in Christ. Each one of us is called every day, in our daily life and work, to bear witness to a God of mercy and love and forgiveness that has been made known to us through Christ. Everyone of us is called to bear witness to the Good News that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and is transforming our very lives.

That is what martyr means in the Greek, after all. It simply means “witness.” And sometimes bearing witness means opening your eyes and ears.

We are told in today’s story that, as Stephen testified, the members of the Council covered their ears and shouted over him. They stopped listening to him. And they drowned out his voice with their shouts. Their violence against Stephen begins when those around him stop listening to him.

There are people around the world willing to kill for their beliefs – or at least shut down their opponents and stop listening to them. There are those who think that is what it means to witness.

But Stephen shows us another way. We don’t need to kill to make our witness. But we must die.

This Tuesday the Episcopal Church commemorates the Martyrs of Sudan, a group of Christians in Sudan that stood up and said they wouldn’t silence their beliefs, that they wouldn’t hide who they were, and were killed for it. More than 2.5 million people, a large number of them Christian, have been killed in the wars in the Sudan over the past three decades. Dying for your beliefs isn’t something that just happened back then. It happens now.

It seems weekly we hear reports of bombings in mosques and churches around the world. People are killed, today, for their beliefs. People around the world are willing to die for their beliefs.

But the question for us, particularly in the relative safety of America, isn’t “Are we willing to die for Christ?” We’ll probably never have to answer that. But rather, “are we willing to die TO Christ.” Are we willing to die WITH Christ?

Paul was there when Stephen was before the Council. Our reading doesn’t say he picked up a rock, but it does say that Paul, when he was known as Saul, approved of this murder. And I wonder if he didn’t have this in mind as he wrote to the church in Galatia:

“…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2.20)

Or when he wrote to the Romans:

“Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6.4)

Are we willing to die TO Christ? Are we willing to die WITH Christ?

Are we willing to let our old ways of living die off? Are we willing to let die all those things that keep us from loving God, those things that keep us from loving each other? Are will willing to let those things die? Are we willing to let our desire to be right, and our desire to shut out and shout down those with whom we disagree, are we willing to let those die with Christ?

I am the way, the truth, and the life, says Jesus in today’s Gospel.

Are we willing to let the way of Jesus, to let the truth of Jesus, to let the life of Jesus live through us? Amen.

Are You Ready to Die? (A Sermon for Easter 5A)