In our ponderings so far we have seen that the Church was growing rapidly after Pentecost. The Apostles were preaching, working miracles and converting many people. This might seem to us to be something that was only in the past, in the early days when wonderful things were being done in the name of Jesus. Today we see numbers falling. What is wrong?
The first thing that is wrong is that we are looking too close to home. In Europe and America the church might seem to be in decline but it is growing rapidly in Africa, Asia and South America. There is a different feel to the Church there. Hold that thought. I’ll come back to it.
After Pentecost the church was growing so quickly that there was too much for the apostles to manage. They recognised that extra help was needed just to deal with the day to day running of things. They decided to select seven men to deal with the distribution of food to let them get on with the work of spreading the Gospel.
Seven good men were selected, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholaus of Antioch. This can be seen as the institution of the Diaconate. These men came forward as servants to the people of the Church. The Permanent Deacons today are following in their footsteps.
Stephen seems to have stood out from the others. It seems he was filled with grace and power. He began to work miracles and produced many signs that influenced people. Some of the Jewish authorities, concerned by the effect Stephen was having on people, came to debate with him. They were surprised to find that although he did not have their education or experience they could not get the better of him in these debates. What they did not understand was that Stephen was prompted in his replies by the Holy Spirit. They were not debating with a simple man but with God and the outcome of that was not in question.
Frustrated in their attempts to discredit his arguments they decided to undermine him. The persuaded some men to say that they had heard Stephen using blasphemous language against Moses and against God. In this way they turned people against him. This seems to be a familiar tactic when you can’t defeat the argument then attack the man. I’m sure you can recognise this approach to debate today.
Since Stephen was casing quite a stir with his preaching and working miracles. The Sanhedrin was concerned that he was undermining their authority and had him arrested. He was brought before the council and questioned. He was asked if it was true that he had blasphemed and was confronted by other false accusations that had been made about him.. Rather than give a simple answer Stephen gave a full account of the history of God’s involvement with the Jewish people.
He recounted the development of the relationship starting with Abraham and recounted the occasions throughout their history when the Jews had turned away from God. He pointed out the times when the prophets had been persecuted and how God had repeatedly forgiven them. He explained how God had promised a messiah to save the people. Jesus was that messiah he told them. Now he explained how they had refused to accept Jesus despite his miraculous works. The Sanhedrin was enraged and condemned Stephen to death.
This might see to be an extreme response to us. Seen in the context of the time it would not be unusual. Even today in the Middle East crimes which seem to us to be trivial can result in a public execution. In our own history we can see examples of harsh punishments. Australia started out as a penal colony for criminals whose crime might have been a simple theft of a dress or a pair of gloves. That does not compare well with the punishments given to financiers who steal millions today.
It is worth comparing the situation that the early Church found itself in with the circumstances we find ourselves in today. The rapid changes we have seen in laws in the western world, moving from rules based on Christian teaching towards a secular world have alarmed many Christians of all denominations. There has been an increased feeling of Christianity being under threat. The bakers in Northern Ireland who refused to produce a cake promoting single sex marriage and the midwives in Scotland who lost their case attempting to have a conscience clause over abortions illustrate the concerns.
It should be noted that we are not yet being threatened with execution. Not in the west, at any rate. In the Middle East the situation is different. The spread of ISIS and the brutal execution of Christians who refuse to give up their faith is causing real alarm. How many of us would be willing to face decapitation rather than give up their faith? In a church where people stop going to mass because they don’t like the new priest they have what chance is there of resisting threats of execution?
Stephen was taken out and stoned to death by the crowd. The organizer of the stoning, the man who held the jackets as it were was Saul. Saul was a radical Jew who saw it as his duty to stamp out this new group who threatened the authority of the Jewish religion. His very name struck fear into the members of the infant church. You could say he was the ISIS of his day.
Stephen was the first of the Christian martyrs. He challenges each of us by his life and by the manner of his death. He didn’t die, kicking and shouting at his oppressors. He had simply stated the truth, a truth that the authorities found unacceptable. He accepted his death as a price worth paying for spreading the gospel.
What are we willing to accept as a price worth paying for our faith? Have we kidded ourselves into thinking that we are real Christians? We send missionaries into the third world to hand on our faith and see ourselves as the Church spreading the faith. In reality the church in the third world displays a much stronger faith than we show here. People walk for hours to get to mass and mass are not a forty minutes or shorter version. In Africa the congregation is totally involved in the mass. You don’t find people sitting having a chat; nobody complains that it is “boring”. Perhaps it would be interesting to find out what would happen here if ISIS appeared on our shores and gave us the choice of convert or die.
The bible is not simply a history book that shows where our Church came from. It is a guide to how we should live today. What can we learn from Stephen? Why was his faith so strong even in persecution? What can we learn about how we should deal with our internal problems and the threat from ISIS? The Jews brought trouble on themselves when they abandoned their covenant with God. Are we in danger of doing the same by moving away from our basic teachings to be seduced by the world’s modern values?