St Stephen Lewisham

26 December 2005

They Chose Stephen….

We are really fortunate in having St Stephen as our patron saint. St Luke tells us that he was ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. Two whole chapters of Acts are given over to Stephen’s ministry, trial and death. It’s our privilege at St Stephen’s to have a patron who not only got on well with people, but a man whose ministry resulted in becoming the First Martyr for the Faith of Jesus Christ.

So who was Stephen, and why did they ‘choose him’?

After Pentecost the twelve Apostles quickly came to see (as Fr Kirk reminded us recently) that the job of an Apostolic Church consisted of two principal things: the first was to safeguard the faith which had been entrusted to them by God the Father in and through His Son Jesus Christ; secondly, to obey his command to ‘go into all the world and preach the Gospel’.

However, the Church soon realised its mission didn’t just end with those two most important aspects of Apostolic ministry. After all, Jesus’s earthly ministry hadn’t been confined to preaching and teaching. He had fed the hungry; healed the sick; cleansed the Temple of its racketeers; he had meals with people of all kinds from noblemen to tax-collectors. So the Church of Jesus soon discovered that its ministry wasn’t just preaching sermons and baptizing converts, very important though that was.

Luke goes on to tell us that the Church, as a practical expression of their faith, organised a canteen or food-distribution scheme for hard-up widows in Jerusalem. And that’s where Stephen first appears.

If you think running a canteen sounds like a doddle, just come along to St Stephen’s Lewisham on an evening when food is served to those needing it. You will soon understand that it’s no doddle!

Jerusalem was no exception. The Greek widows were soon complaining that they were being unfairly treated: the Hebrew widows were getting more food than they were. The Apostles found themselves caught up in a major dispute which had little to do with believing in Jesus Christ. Very sensibly, they instructed their fellow Christians to choose seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, to serve at the canteen counter.

They chose Stephen, with six others, for this ministry. They were known as Deacons (or ‘Servants’) – and from that moment onwards Stephen and his colleagues looked after the canteen and the widow-management very successfully.

How do you think Stephen felt about being landed with that job at the very outset of his ministry? He was a first-rate preacher, as we shall see. I wonder if he felt a twinge of disappointment at finding himself doing nothing more exciting than serving meals, washing up, and keeping order in a soup-kitchen. Like that young student who had heard Archbishop Temple preach in Oxford in the 1930s. He told the Archbishop ‘as a result of your sermon, I’ve decided to give my life to Christ. What should I to do next?’ ‘Go back to your studies, and concentrate on getting a First Class Honours Degree’, Temple replied. ‘Then ask me that question again.’ That wasn’t what the undergraduate had been expecting. He thought Temple would tell him drop everything and go immediately to Africa or Asia and preach the gospel.!

That’s often the way God develops our adult Christian life, which begins at our Confirmation. Once the novelty of being a Christian has worn off, the newly-confirmed find themselves becoming ever so slightly disillusioned – they experience what Fr Ellis called ‘The Bump’. Instead of finding themselves making lots of converts at home, school or work as they had expected, the sort of jobs God’s Church asks them to do seem awfully commonplace and uninteresting – like cleaning the silver, tending the garden or sitting on the PCC. Yet those are all forms of service which we, like our colleague St Stephen the Servant, must be prepared to take on.

For if Jesus washed his Apostle’s feet and, as St Paul says, ‘took the form of a Servant’, and the prophet Isaiah many years previously had foretold that God’s Servant, when he appeared on Earth would be a suffering servant, it’s likely that God will require the same of us from time to time.

Whether St Stephen experienced ‘The Bump’ we don’t know. We do know that, like any good servant, Stephen did what he was asked, knowing that the Master who called him had a whole lifetime plan for him sketched out, of which becoming a good and faithful Servant was just the beginning. People like Stephen, who are ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’, find that the pain of The Bump quickly passes once they buckle down to making a good job of whatever they’ve been asked to do. Successfully running a food-distribution service takes every ounce of wit and skill we have, leaving little time for self-pity!

When we apply ourselves wholeheartedly to any task God gives us, then, like St Stephen, we shall find ourselves sooner or later being called by God to exercise all those other talents that He has entrusted to us. Once the soup-kitchen had been running for a few months, Stephen found himself performing miracles like the Apostles. He ‘did great signs and wonders among the people’. Then, without any warning he was arrested and put on trial by the Council of Chief Priests and had to give an account of himself and his beliefs.

Thus, in God’s good time and way, Stephen’s preaching talent came into its own, especially his gift for ‘apology’ – the ability to explain what you believe and why you believe it, to other people. The success of Stephen’s apology was proved when his opponents ‘stopped their ears, rushed together upon him cast him out of the city and stoned him’. Once that happens you know you’ve won the argument!

Stephen died praying for his persecutors. In that respect too he followed the Way of his Master, the Servant Jesus. ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ were his last words, echoing Jesus who said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Stephen became the first martyr. St Luke tells us that ‘great lamentation was made over him’ by the devout men who buried his body. ‘What a waste’, they said, ‘such a nice young man’, ‘so able, too – we all believed that one day he might become an Apostle’

What his mourners didn’t realise until afterwards, and what Stephen himself was to find out only after his death, was that God’s plan for him, from the beginning, had always been that his witness to Christ Jesus his Lord and ours should end in precisely such a dramatic and violent way. For, standing in the crowd, and approving everything that was happening to Stephen, there stood a young man whose name was Saul. Within a few weeks that same young man was to undergo a complete conversion experience and became Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles who succeeded, perhaps more than anyone else, in conveying the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole known world.. The death of Saint Stephen and his gracious behaviour towards his murderers played a decisive part in the conversion of St Paul.

So Stephen-the-Servant’s Christian ministry began with the humdrum job of running a soup kitchen for a group of awkward widows; but it soon developed into Stephen-the-Protomartyr. And from that moment the Church grew, prospered and spread abroad. As someone said many years later ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’

So thank God that they chose St Stephen: Blessed Stephen, pray for us!

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