Sermon 27 Dec Feast of John and Stephen
Ex 33.7-11a, Acts 7.51-end, John 21.19b-25
Would have been my favourite aunt’s birthday today. Would buy us Smarties and let us use the red ones as lipstick. Sat me on the kitchen table while cooking, giving me bits of raw pastry to play with and letting me lick out the cake bowl. Auntie Popsy. Known as ‘our’ Pop. In the north east people with whom we have a particular bond are referred to as ‘our’ so and so. So here at church we would call one another our Mac, our Chloe, our Norma, our Sujith, our Antwi etc
Today we remember the 2 saints that our church is dedicated to – John and Stephen. We have a particular bond with them – they are ‘our’ John and ‘our’ Stephen. Rather wonderfully, their special days fall one after the other (26th and 27th) so we can celebrate them together. Immediately after Xmas Day our lectionary turns our attention to these 2 saints. I’d like us to consider why that might be.
In both cases it’s their deaths that are the focus – Stephen’s an actual description; John, an indication that he was very old when he died. Let’s look at our John first as it’s his day today. Our gospel indicates that he lived to a great age, so much so that it was popularly believed he would see X’s second coming. Tradition has it that he was the John described as the beloved disciple in his gospel and that he lived on the island of Patmos with a community of believers. Tradition has it that as he drew towards the end of his life the church elders carried him into church to give his last sermon. He was exceedingly frail but with great effort spoke these last words to his people, ‘Little children, love one another. It is the Lord’s command and it is enough’. He is said to have died soon afterwards.
Now, our Stephen. He would have been much younger when he died. His was a very different kind of death- violent, brutal, sudden. Stephen was a Greek speaking Jew, appointed with others of a similar background when a rift started to appear between the Greek and Hebrew speaking members of the very early church. He was a powerful preacher, was arrested on a what was presumably a charge of blasphemy (a strangely contemporary ring when we hear of what is happening to Christians in countries like Pakistan) and then reading his long speech to the Sanhedrin, it becomes clear that Stephen stood in the long tradition of the prophets – he doesn’t mince his words when talking about the extent to which God’s chosen people have rejected him. He’s particularly scathing about the importance they attach to their temple in Jerusalem. So he is stoned. At his death he repeats Jesus’ words from the cross – ‘Receive my Spirit’ and ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’.
Two very different saints at very different stages of life. I like to think that our John’s sermon was short not just because his strength was failing, but because he had probably forgotten most of it – perhaps a bit of dementia?! Stephen, so fiery, battering the Sanhedrin with his words and then battered to death by the rocks they hurled at him. John, an elderly pastor, wanting to gather his flock around him, to offer them a good ending. Stephen a young prophet, dying alone, unprotected.
Here we are at Xmas, celebrating a birth, and then the next day we’re asked to look at death. Perhaps this is to alert us to the cost of following Christ? Make the most of Xmas cos suffering is just around the corner?! Rather unlikely – I think the writers of our bible rather took for granted that suffering was an inevitable feature of being human. My own hunch is that it’s for an altogether more hopeful reason.
I had lots of aunts and uncles apart from our Pop who called me and my sister ‘pet’ and ‘our’ Christine. It was the custom in those far off days of my childhood that when aunts and uncles went to the seaside they would return with a stick of rock. Here you are, pet, they would say. What intrigued me about rock was the words – Scarborough rock, Redcar rock – and the way the words went all through the rock. If you broke the rock in the middle the words were there; if you sucked it to the very end they were still there.
It’s the same with our John and our Stephen. The words they say at the end of their lives had been clearly discernible in their speech and behaviour throughout. It’s all of a piece. Consistent. Note Stephen is still referring to his people’s sin, but, like Christ, asking that it might be forgiven; John emphasising again the priority of Christians loving one another. The nature of their deaths are consistent with how they lived, and more importantly, with whom they had particular bond. To both of them Jesus, whose birth we are celebrating, was not just Jesus, but ‘our’ Jesus and their kinship with him is clearly visible, running consistently though their lives like the writing in the rock, right to the very end.
Two very different people with different callings, but with the same writing running through their lives, encouraging us to follow our Jesus, whatever our stage of life.