Phew, that was a busy Christmas, and now here we are all done and dusted (with snow) on the feast of Stephen – well Ok it was yesterday but there you go)
Done and dusted, or as we say in our family, for obscure reasons, fluffed and fluffted.
Because every family has its own ways of doing things – our own little Christmas traditions, our own turns of phrase and our own quirks, some of which others find hard to understand.
Stephen, whose feast we are celebrating today, certainly had his own way of doing things. In Acts 6 we read that he was chosen to serve along with six others, who are traditionally remembered as the first deacons. They were chosen and commissioned by the apostles, and prayer and the laying on of hands initiated their ministry,
Stephen was called and initially served in a specific way – caring for the Greek widows, and ensuring they were given their share of food.
The apostles’ justification for these appointments seems rather arrogant at first – “it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God to wait on tables”. Little did they know that one of the people chosen for an apparently secondary task would end up as an amazing witness. I say apparently secondary, but in fact the congregation – a close look at verses 5 and 3 shows it was not the 12 but the wider Christian community who chose the seven deacons - were instructed to find people who were filled with the Spirit of God.
Stephen and his fellow servants were therefore chosen on the face of it to ease the burden of the apostles so that they could get on with what they thought was the important business of being an apostle. “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word”, they said.
But in what follows it is clear that even if the apostles intended it that way, there is no distinction in the eyes of God between the apparently menial tasks (like giving out food to widows) and the allegedly more important task of the ministry of the word.
Stephen is an example to all the believers, and his boldness and faith demonstrated among the people – in the kind of actions that would probably get you sacked these days by the NHS or social services or the education department – got him noticed, and not just by those sympathetic to the Christian faith.
Now it is clear that as a man of faith Stephen brought the values and expectations of the Kingdom of God into the tasks of everyday life – so he didn’t just give the widows their share of the food, he prayed for them as well, and miracles occurred. Without the commission to service in a practical way, however, his spiritual ministry might never have been able to flourish.
It is interesting that the witnesses who testify against Stephen accuse him of pretty much the same things Jesus was accused of; if we had any doubts that these accusations of speaking out in faith were true, they will be allayed by the events of chapter 7, when Stephen speaks at length to the Sanhedrin, explaining the scriptures and the plan of God’s saving actions through history to those who sought to condemn him. His face was like the face of an angel as he stood to speak to them.
The fact that we commemorate Stephen as the first Christian martyr tells you what happens next, but martyrdom need not scare us off the example of Stephen; the New Testament Greek words of martyr and witness are the same. Our witness is going to be painful sometimes.
This week government ministers have been saying churches will need to prepare legal defence teams to counter accusations under new equal rights legislation, and another Christian has lost her job for offering to pray with people in need.
This week also in the Christmas silly season news, an old friend of mine has got into trouble for suggesting to his congregation that they should consider stealing if they are at the end of their financial resources. I’m not going to suggest anything quite so daft, but I will say that Stephen is an example to us all of the importance for standing up for our faith; I will not change the gospel to accommodate those who oppose it, just as Stephen didn’t. I hope that we can all stand united with Christians the world over who face persecution for their faith, but there is nothing like little persecution to galvanise the church. Christmas is perhaps when we are at the top of our game, but let us not be complacent and assume we will have this amount of freedom forever.
So don’t be shrinking violets, in your work or family or social contexts; if we are going to steal Christmas back form the secular society, we need to be prepared to stand up for Jesus.
But we won’t get killed for it, at least not yet. Everyone has their own way of doing things, is where I started this morning; you and I are called to specific ministries in different times and places and to different people; we are not all expected to do and say the same thing sin the same way; the important thing is that we look outwards this new year and seek new avenues in which to speak and act the gospel.
Let us pray