Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan 7th May 2023
Bible Readings: Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14
The reading tells of the death of Stephen. But before we look at his death, it’s worth looking at what we know about his life.
We are still in the very early days of the church – not really a church at all, just a group of followers, gathered in Jerusalem, remembering Jesus and supporting one another. There has already been opposition from religious leaders, because Peter and John were preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Despite this, the group was growing. People were attracted to the directness of these ordinary, uneducated men, who were so full of life and energy and so willing to share what they knew.
Numbers were growing so rapidly, in fact, that the logistics of caring for everyone began to be a problem. People were contributing money, and out of that the community was supporting those who couldn’t work, particularly the widows, but it was increasingly hard to make sure that everyone was getting what they needed. The Greek-speaking followers felt that the Hebrew-speakers were privileging their own people, and the Greek-speaking widows were being left out. They complained to the Twelve apostles: This isn’t fair.
The twelve realised that they needed to delegate. They needed people to take care of the day-to-day practicalities, while they focused on prayer and preaching. So they asked the community to identify seven people who could take on the task – and one of the ones they chose was Stephen. All seven had Greek names, so it’s likely that they were from the Greek-speaking group who had felt they were missing out. And all seven were people ‘of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’. For all its practical aspects, this was still about leading God’s people; it was a spiritual role. Perhaps a bit like our elders. The seven are affirmed in their call by the apostles praying and laying hands on them, not unlike our elders’ ordination.
I don’t know how much practical help Stephen managed to give within the fellowship, because he was out preaching and doing great signs and wonders, to such an extent that he attracted angry opposition, He was arrested and brought before the Council. Instead of defending his actions, he gave an amazing sermon, tracing the whole history of God’s people from Abraham onwards, showing how they had rejected God’s messengers time and time again and how God had rescued them. And just when the high priest and the Council might be thinking, yes, yes, we know all this, Stephen turns on them- this rejection happened again with the death of John the Baptist, and now it’s happened with the death of Jesus and this is your fault – all you who have not recognised Jesus.
Well, they can’t let him get away with that. They drag him out to stone him to death. But Stephen is full of faith and of the Holy Spirit and he is fearless. He has been called as a witness to God and as he looks towards heaven he sees the God he loves standing in glory and Jesus standing beside him and nothing else matters. In an echo of the death of Jesus, he commends his spirit to God and prays for his killers.
It is a remarkable death. A word of caution: Don’t worry if at this point you are thinking, I don’t think I could be that brave. His death is recorded in detail because it was remarkable. Not everybody is like Stephen.
For now, let’s leave Stephen, and turn to Jesus. Jesus has one great advantage over Stephen, in that he knew his death was coming and so had time to prepare. Not just to be ready himself, but to prepare his disciples so that they were ready too. In the thinking of the time, if a leader died, that meant the mission had failed and the followers had better scatter before they were killed too. It was essential for the mission of Jesus that the disciples didn’t do that, that they held on and held together – they had to be there to witness to the resurrection; they had to be there to carry on the mission themselves. This reading, you probably recognise, is from John’s account of the last supper – the last time Jesus would spend with the disciples before he was arrested and crucified. John gives 4 whole chapters to Jesus teaching, praying, loving, caring, doing everything he can to strengthen them for the fact that he was about to die and would rise again. I’m not sure they fully got it, even then – but they got enough to hang on, and to work out the rest later.
I was at this point in my preparation when I started to think, this is all a bit serious; perhaps I should go back talking about street parties. But just at that moment, I received an email from Ealing Council, informing me that this coming week, 8th-12th May, is Ealing ‘Dying Matters’ week. Its aim is to encourage communities to talk about death, dying and grief. Most people don’t talk about these things because it’s hard and it’s awkward, and therefore when the time comes, we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say to people who are grieving. So rather than move on too quickly from these readings, I thought we would use them to talk about death, dying and grief within this community of church.
The Dying Matters leaflet contains some very practical information: services in Ealing for people with terminal illness; sources of help if you are caring for someone at home; and organisations like Cruse who can help with bereavement counselling.
It also has a section headed ‘Things to do before you die’. It’s not a bucket list of fancy holidays and achieving goals; it’s the things we all need to put in place to make life easier for those whom we will leave behind. The first and most obvious is to make a will, but it also includes Powers of Attorney; letting people know what you think about organ donation. Think about your funeral. And if you keep your documents in a safe place, make sure somebody knows where that safe place is.
It’s good to sort out the practical matters, well before we think they are needed. I’ll leave the leaflets in Reception. But what about our spiritual preparation? I’d like to draw out three things from today’s readings.
The first thing we learn, from both Stephen and Jesus, is to face death head-on. It is going to happen, though we hope not too soon. Death is part of the created order; as Jesus was at pains to explain to his disciples, it doesn’t mean that something has gone wrong. And as Jesus has shown in his resurrection, death does not have the last word.
The second thing is to remember whose we are. I have had the privilege of being with people who are dying, and sometimes even though their body is exhausted they find it hard to let go – because this life is good. This is where there are the people they love, the places they were happy, the experience they have enjoyed. And if we let go of that, then what?… If we let go of this life, then Jesus. Jesus knew God was waiting for him and that he was returning to his heavenly father; Jesus promised his disciples that he was going ahead of them, to prepare a place for them, and that when the time came he would come back and fetch them. When Stephen was dying he saw Jesus standing waiting for him. We are able to let go of all the things we love, so that we can become part of the greater love, the eternal love of God.
And the best preparation for this is to build up our relationship with God now, through prayer, so that God’s love becomes ever more real for us even in this life.
The third thing is that it is easier to die well if we have lived well. Stephen set about helping people in all sorts of ways. Jesus had a particular mission, to bring the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and to build up his followers so that that Kingdom work would continue through the generations. He worked flat out for three years to get all that in place. But within that intense activity, he found time to share meals with his friends, people like Mary and Martha; he found time to be close to God.
We are all called by God; some to a recognised calling like eldership or ministry, some to faith in everyday life. Whatever the shape of our calling, our primary call is to live life in all its fullness. To live a life full of purpose; to build relationships; to love, and laugh, and celebrate; to weep with those who weep; to share what we have with others; to honour the gifts of God’s creation; and in all this, to find the deep joy of being part of God’s work in the world. Maybe that’s the joy that made Stephen so ready to meet his maker.
So these readings are not really about dying, they are about living. In the words from a funeral service: Grant that we may so live, that we in our turn are not afraid to die.
And may God hold us throughout the whole of life and on through death.