St Stephen Lewisham
26th December 2011, Patronal Festival
Best of Times, Worst of Times
Let me begin with three quotations:
· ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’: these are the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and they refer to the year 1789 – when the French Revolution began.
· ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church’: from Tertullian, a 2nd century Christian Lawyer
· Preserve the living Faith for which your fathers fought!/For Faith was won by centuries of sacrifice/And many martyrs died/That you might worship God: these words are sung by St Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop of Myra, in Benjamin Britten’s cantata.
All three speak to us today, as we celebrate the martyrdom of, St Stephen. So let’s look closer at them.
1. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’. Goodness and badness, wisdom and folly, always seem to go hand-in-hand. To his fellow-Christians, Stephen’s sudden and violent murder looked like a terrible disaster. He had been singled out by the Twelve Apostles as ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost’, to be what, in today’s language would be called a ‘trouble-shooter’. Yes, the Young Church in Jerusalem had just the same kind of troubles as we do in the Church today. For example, they were always running short of money. So their Free-Food Distribution Project looked as though it couldn’t continue. Worse still, people complained that it wasn’t fair, because some got more than others. Well, Stephen solved that problem. His God-given faith, and his particular spiritual gifts gave him the rare ability to make discontented people feel less unfairly treated.
But almost as soon as Stephen had fixed that problem, he was arrested and put on trial by the Jewish Councillors. They set up false witnesses to accuse him of blasphemy – a capital offence in the Jewish Law meriting ‘death by stoning’. But the false witnesses bungled their job. Stephen, in court ‘rang rings round them’. So the Councillors ‘turned a deaf ear’ and passed a verdict of Guilty. As the Law prescribed, he was thrown off a twelve-foot wall, and pelted to death with stones by the witnesses. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. In the Church there was ‘great lamentation made over him’. ‘What a terrible loss’, they said. But Stephen’s death wasn’t the total disaster that they thought. Listen to our next quotation.
2. ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church’ At every execution there had to be an official Witness to ensure the Law was properly obeyed. At Stephen’s execution was a young man called Saul, a Pharisee with a brilliant mind, trained in the law by Gamaliel, the top Jewish theologian. Saul entirely approved of the stoning of Stephen: so who better to be the ‘Witness’ than he?
Saul set about persecuting the Church, not just in Jerusalem but in places like Damascus. On his way he had a life-changing experience. As the Official Witness, he had heard Stephen pray, like Jesus, for his persecutors’ forgiveness. He had seen Stephen’s face transformed by the radiant glory as he gazed upon the face of the risen Jesus. Now Saul beheld the same blinding light and heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him. As a result, he was converted and baptized. He became Saint Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles. Years later he would himself be martyred for his beliefs.
So Tertullian was right! The blood of the martyr Stephen proved to be the seed from which both the Church and St Paul himself would grow in the faith, and be transformed by the Holy Spirit from being a small, insignificant all-Jewish sect, and recognize itself as the Body of Christ on earth, which Jesus intended to be truly Catholic, by including Gentiles as well as Jews, men, women and children, slaves and freemen, rich and poor, the learned and the uneducated alike.
3. Now for the third quotation: Preserve the living Faith for which your fathers fought!/For Faith was won by centuries of sacrifice/And many martyrs died/That you might worship God. This goes right to the heart of where we stand today.
Times are bad today, both for our Nation and for the Church. But they are no worse than they have been on many times before. Many churches are poorly attended. Today’s Secular Society has ushered in an Age of Fools who say in their heart ‘There is no God’. But that’s nothing new. On Easter Day 1803, there were only five communicants in St Paul’s Cathedral. Today’s Secular Society hasn’t achieved that! Things could be, and have been in the past, much, much worse.
Yes, the Church of England has largely ‘lost its vision’ of what the Christian faith is all about; yes, the Secular Society is trying to stop people wearing crucifixes to show they are Christians, for fear of hurting other people’s feelings; yes, they want to remove all traces of Christian morality from the Law of the Land, wherever it conflicts with the wishes of some minority group; yes, some of our Bishops, the successors to the Apostles, are trying to reinvent the Apostolic Faith and Ministry of Jesus Christ to bring it more into line with secular beliefs. All those things are true. But alongside this bad news, there’s at least one bit of Good News.
The Good News is that it’s those very churches who ‘stick to their guns’, and stand firm in the ‘Faith once delivered to the Saints’ believed by Saint Stephen, St Paul and St Nicholas, which are growing, or undergo less decline, rather than the ones who think it’s their job to reconstruct the Faith, which is what they imagine will fill those empty churches.
But let’s end with by St Nicholas’s warning. Today God is relying on you and me, just as He once relied on Stephen, Paul and Nicholas to ‘preserve the living faith for which your fathers fought’. Listen again to what St Nicholas St Paul and St Stephen are all saying to us, each in his own particular way:
Yet still [the] shining seed of faith survives – In you!
With you it stands like forest oak
Or withers like the grasses underfoot.
Preserve the living Faith for which your fathers fought!
For Faith was won by centuries of sacrifice
And many martyrs died
That you might worship God.
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