“One of Many Martyrs”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 8, 2015
University Baptist Church
The Story of Stephen
My name is Stephen. I was part of the first generation of the Christian church. I was not one of the original 12. But the 12 appointed me along with six other non-Jews to take care of the distribution of goods for the needy. You see, there was a dispute about whether the Jews and the Hellenists (the Greeks) were getting equal portions. I was the first church administrator. A dubious title, maybe.
Miracles were attributed to me (Acts 6:8). But like any administrator, people not happy with my decisions challenged my authority. People from within the synagogue started making up things about me, sowing dissention. They said I was disparaging Moses. They said I told them that Jesus of Nazareth was going to destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses. They brought me before Caiaphas the High Priest. I made my defense. A well-argued one if I do say so myself. In fact my sermon in defense of my faith is the longest sermons in the New Testament, except for Jesus’ three chapter sermons in the Gospels of Matthew and John. When I spoke of Moses, my face shone, kinda like Moses’ face shone when he encountered God. Ironic, huh?
In the end, my trial was just for show. They needed an excuse to scare the people. So they set up false witnesses and convicted me of blasphemy. I didn’t help my case, I guess, when I told them that the Temple was not where people found God. I even proof-texted in with a passage from Amos: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hands make all these things?” (Acts 7:49-50, Amos 5:25-27). I was sentenced to death by stoning, like a common blasphemer. But it was not the Romans who did the deed this time. It was my own people. The Hebrews. Look what we have become. The stately Sanhedrin became a lynch mob. Saul was there watching. The only named one.
Second Century theologian Tertullian famously said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. While that is true, you do not need to be a martyr to be faithful. You do need courage and grace. The blood of the martyrs is one of your many roots. And the grace of God sustains you.
In the first century of the Christian Church, there were many martyrs. Then as now, nonconformists were always seen as a threat to the powers that be.
A martyr is someone who is killed for a righteous cause. In the Christian context, a martyr is a faithful witness. The book of Revelation, when it talks of the faithful witnesses, it is referring to the martyrs who have paid the ultimate price. Christians were dragged in to the coliseum for the entertainment of the people. They were given a choice to say Caesar is Lord. If they did so, their lives would be spared. If instead they said that Jesus is Lord, they would be drawn and quartered or worse. Those who refused to say that Caesar is Lord were the faithful witnesses, the martyrs.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. There were many that would follow him, including almost all of the original disciples, Perpetua, the Apostle Paul and many people who had a zeal for this new movement that was seen as such a threat. We are the children of these martyrs.
Stephen made his lengthy defense of his faith when he was brought up on trumped up charges.
Stephen took it a bit far when he made his defense. He called his accusers a “Stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears (this is another way of saying profane), you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51) Couldn’t he have just left it alone? No, he even upped the ante: “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? (Do you notice he says your ancestors and not our ancestors?) They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become betrayers and murderers. You are ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:52-53)
What did he expect would happen to him?
The people were enraged and picked up stones to silence this madman. But they had not silenced him. They made him a martyr. A martyr is someone who people admire. Someone whom people want to emulate. Someone whose memory inspires people to continue taking up their crosses. Someone who helps people say that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
The not-yet-apostle Paul was present at the execution and his lack of interference with such brutality would haunt him and tarnish his reputation as a convert.
And Saul was not just a passive bystander. He used his zeal to going house to house to drag off church members, men and women to prison (Acts 8:3)
Karen will speak next week about Saul who would meet the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, change his name to Paul and become the greatest evangelist of the early church. Oh, and he would eventually become a martyr, too.
The early church is scattered with the blood of the martyrs. And with each one, the opposition tries to silence the movement. And it always does the exact opposite. Is it no wonder that when people martyr themselves in the name of religion, it inspires people? Even people that may scare us? Is the twisted desire for martyrdom a problem in this world? I think so.
But a true martyr does not seek his or her own death. They die exposing the brutality of their adversaries. I think of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Victor Jara, Karen Silkwood, Mahatma Gandhi, James Elliot, and so many more.
This week, Pope Francis announced that Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down in 1980 while saying Mass will be recognized as a martyr. This is the first step in making him a saint. Pope John Paul II hated Romero’s embrace of liberation theology and his defiance of the Salvadoran government. Romero transformed himself from a conservative conflict-avoidant Bishop into a fiery preacher against the bloodshed in his country. He called out the government, the US funding of repression, even fellow religious leaders who stood on the sidelines as death squads took faithful justice-loving people for daring to believe that the poor ought to have a voice in the country. He stopped the rebuilding of the San Salvador cathedral and directed the money toward helping the poor. Pope John Paul II had planned to remove Romero from office on the eve of his assassination.
But now there is a new Pope in town. One from Latin America. One who recognizes the struggles of the poor at the hands of brutal dictatorships. And this Pope recognizes martyrs and lifts up those who struggle for justice.
"I have often been threatened with death," Archbishop Oscar Romero told a Guatemalan reporter two weeks before his assassination, 35 years ago on March 24, 1980. "If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality."
During his March 23, 1980, Sunday sermon, Romero let loose and issued one of the greatest appeals for peace and disarmament in church history:
"I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"
The next day, March 24, 1980, Romero presided over a small evening Mass in the chapel of the hospital compound where he lived, in honor of a beloved woman who had died a year before. He read from John's Gospel: "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit "(12:23-26). Then he preached about the need to give our lives for others as Christ did. Just as he concluded, he was shot in the heart by a man standing in the back of the church. He fell behind the altar and collapsed at the foot of a huge crucifix depicting a bloody and bruised Christ. Romero's vestments, and the floor around him, were covered in blood. He gasped for breath and died in minutes.
The killings continued in El Salvador, bringing many more martyrs including: the four Mayrknoll workers Jean Donavan, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clark raped and murdered in December of 1980.
In 1989 six Salvadoran Jesuit Priests were killed in San Salvador for their embrace of liberation theology. We remember their names: Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Joaquín López y López, S.J., Amando López, S.J., Elba Ramos, Celina Ramos (the 16 year old, daughter of Elba Ramos).
The U.S. spent $6 billion between 1980 and 1992 and it resulted in the killing of 75,000 poor Salvadorans. Our tax dollars at work. Peace haltingly arrived in the mid-90’s. And now, Romero is remembered as a martyr, vindicating the feelings of so many Latin Americans who struggled for justice and peace.
Jesuit priest John Dear put it this way: “Oscar Romero gave his life in the hope that peace and justice would one day become a reality. He lives on now in all those who carry on the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace.” Romero named war and poverty as sinful, idolatrous, and demonic; we need to do the same with the same faith, force and determination.
Martyrs. History is filled with them. We respect them for their courage and their ability to tell the truth. They give themselves as faithful witnesses to what we can become. And they live and die so that others won’t have to die, so that we might have life and peace. May we live in such a way that there need be no more martyrs and we might all live in peace.
For that to happen, we all need conviction and perhaps even a conversion.
But you don’t need to be a martyr to make it happen. You just need to be part of the solution. You need to keep on singing because you can’t keep from singing.
Let me close with these words from Martyr Oscar Romero of El Salvador, one of many martyrs:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.