Ascension Lavender Hill

14th May 2006

Mission – and Submission

It’s been my good fortune to work for over forty years at a church dedicated to St Stephen. St Stephen’s Day, as you know, is celebrated on the 26th December, the day after Christmas.

Now that’s fine if your church, like ours is dedicated to St Stephen. We keep our Patronal Festival as part of the Christmas Celebrations. But in other churches, St Stephen tends to get somewhat overlooked.

Which is a pity, because unlike some of those lesser-known saints we read about in the Bible or church history books, we know quite a lot about him. St Luke for example, tells us that he was ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ and consigns two whole chapters of Acts to Stephen’s ministry, trial and death. So let’s use this morning to focus on Stephen – a man who not only got on well with people, but someone whose faith resulted in his becoming the First Martyr of Jesus Christ’s followers.

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

After Pentecost the twelve Apostles quickly came to see 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’.

But teaching and preaching were not the beginning and end of the Church’s ministry any more than they had been of Jesus’s. 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, and he made it abundantly clear that ‘being a Christian’ wasn’t just a matter of being religious: and His Church soon discovered that too.

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 try doing it yourself! Help one lot of people, however deserving, and another lot will feel hard done-by. Expect all your recipients to show their gratitude for what is being done for them and you’ll be in for a big disappointment.

The Church in 1st Century Jerusalem was no exception. The Greek widows were soon complaining that the Hebrew widows were getting more food than they were. The Apostles got caught up in a major dispute, one which had nothing do with faith in Jesus Christ. So, very sensibly, they told their colleague 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 young 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. Might he have 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 1930’s student in Oxford who heard Archbishop Temple preach at a Mission. He told the Archbishop ‘after hearing your sermon, I’ve decided to give my life to Christ. What must 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 he 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 is 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 – 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, isn’t it, that God will require the same of us from time to time?

We are all called to Mission – yes; but a vital requirement of any missionary is sub-mission. Submission means being willing to allow others to tell us what to do, and doing it with good-will. ‘Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus,’ Saint Paul tells us. The problem consists in recognizing the opportunity of serving the Lord when it presents itself to us. How often do we see those routine duties of our faith as ‘just another boring thing’? And yet which of us, if we recognized Jesus in the street and he asked us to do something rather boring for Him would not seize the opportunity with thankfulness?

Whether St Stephen experienced ‘The Bump’ we don’t know. But having applied himself wholeheartedly to table-serving, St Stephen soon found himself being called by God to exercise a completely different talent – that of defending the faith.. He performed miracles like the Apostles; he ‘did great signs and wonders among the people’. That attracted the attention of the authorities. They arrested him, put on trial and made him defend his beliefs.

As a result, in God’s good time and way, Stephen’s second talent came into play: his gift for preaching – the ability to explain what you believe and why you believe it, to other people. Stephen’s success as a preacher 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 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 its very beginning at the canteen sink, had always been that his witness to Christ Jesus his Lord and ours should end in precisely this dramatic and violent way. For in the crowd watching his martyrdom stood a young man named 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 played a decisive part in St Paul’s conversion.

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 ended in his becoming Stephen-the-Protomartyr. 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’

In the life of this one young man we see how his submission was transformed into his Mission.


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