Trinity Church, Boston – Martyrdom of Stephen, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved May 2, 2023]. Original source: Image donated by Jim Womack and Anne Richardson.

RCL Year A, Easter 5
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5 and 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, Saint John 14:1-14

Today’s First Lesson, the first Christian martyrdom, of Saint Stephen, reminds us that being a follower of Jesus can come at a cost. We are indeed fortunate not to live in the Roman Empire or in the Jerusalem of the first century. For, if we did, we might be brought to the supreme test of our conviction that Jesus has been raised, or, in the words of today’s Gospel, that Jesus is what he says he is, “the way, and the truth, and the life.”[1]

I take it that none of us wants to be brought to that test. And, ironically, desiring to avoid that test is one of the important requirements of genuine martyrdom. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus sums up the matter this way: “it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it.”[2]

Christians are in all things to take for our example Jesus himself. We are to live by being stand-up people who know and believe that God alone writes the endings of our story. I think that God releases to us the strength we need to be stand-up people when we let God be God, when we let God write the ending of our story. I mean by that we are to be comfortable in God’s hands. And those who believe are forever in God’s hands.

In the Gospel today, Saint Thomas and Saint Philip are on their way to being perfectly comfortable in God’s hands. But they are not there yet. It is the Last Supper, and Jesus is completing his teaching to his disciples before he is crucified. Later Thomas will have to see Jesus and place his hand in his side and his fingers in Jesus’ wounds in order to believe that he has risen. And in the Gospel today, Philip asks to see the Father, and Jesus teaches him that seeing the Son is seeing the Father. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey famously wrote, “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.”[3] Jesus schools Philip because, like Thomas, he is not yet comfortable with letting God be God. Both apostles are weighed down by the need for a kind of comfort, a degree of certainty, that betrays their limitations and how far they need to travel.

But Stephen, after the resurrection, is already perfectly comfortable in God’s hands. He doesn’t need to see and to be certain as Thomas and Philip do; Stephen already sees. He looks into heaven and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And, while he is being killed by the stones, he stands up to God for those stoning him. Like Jesus on the cross, he asks for forgiveness for those killing him.

But Thomas and Philip will attain “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[4] The witness of the church is that all the apostles suffered the last penalty for their convictions. They neither ran toward martyrdom nor shrank from it.

Thomas and Philip at the Last Supper are on a journey that will lead them to a maturity like that of Stephen at his martyrdom. And so are we. By rehearsing the teachings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus over and over again, we join them on the resurrection road—the way, the truth, and the life—that leads us to the glory of God where Jesus stands at God’s right hand.

About Thomas and Philip, about Stephen, and, indeed, about us, the words of the Epistle apply: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[5]

[1] Saint John 14:6.

[2] Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration xlii:5-6.

[3] Arthur Michael Ramsey, God, Christ and the World (1969; 2012), page 41.

[4] Ephesians 4:13.

[5] 1 Peter 2:9.