We were pleased to welcome +Andrew to join with our Patronal Celebration during the final days of Advent
I realised – this week – that only once – in nearly 40 years of ministry – have I kept the feasts of St. Stephen, St John – and – the Holy Innocents – as feasts of Christmas. And never once, in nearly forty years – two days before Christmas! But it makes sense! So many of us are away, or off after Christmas and we pass them by.
Today has made me realise we shouldn’ because they are a foil to our infatuation with the Christmas Charles Dickens created and the Victorians left for us. I am as guilty as anyone there – only last night, I was searching for “A Christmas Carol” on Prime.
But – Christmas is not only about peace on earth and goodwill to all – it is – also about conflict. The first Christmas was almost smothered by it. Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents and the imposed ‘peace’ of Rome. And, eventually, as the early church came to birth Stephen’s stoning. I like – very much – the way Gary picked up on Stephen’s martyrdom, using Luke in Acts “But Stephen, full of the holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look!’ he said, ‘I see heaven open – and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”
That little phrase, heaven open – is ripe with meaning and significance. Because, in the Old testament, heaven was rarely open. And – when it was – Moses standing before the burning bush – and Elijah at the mouth of the cave – and Joseph dreaming of a ladder – and – the boy Samuel called in the Temple at night They were – moments of clarity –in an otherwise dark and dismal world – when, as we’re actually told, in the first book of Samuel there was no word from the Lord in Israel – and heaven was closed.
At Christmas, of course, all that changes. When Christ is born, the whole created order – angels, and shepherds, wise men and beasts are drawn to his glory, and the gates of heaven are opened wide. Never to shut again. And, then – as He taught, and healed; prayed and loved, suffered and died, it was as if He was labouring hard, to make sure the doors would never slam shut, leaving us in darkness, isolation, fear, sin or death – ever again.
And this morning, we remember that when Stephen was stoned – he saw heaven open too. He lived right into the warning in Jesus’ call. If anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me. That, of course, has often led to persecution. For some reason, I don’t often tell people that when I confirm them! The word the Bible uses for this – is martyr Which sounds a bit strong until you remember that martyr and witness are actually the same words in the Gospel, and for a reason – because witnessing for Christ has often meant people have died for Him.
You and me, we belong to a worldwide movement a global family – of people we’ll never see – brothers and sisters who still face persecution, danger and death – daily. In 2013 – in Egpyt, when President Morsi was removed from power – 100 Coptic churches were attacked within 24 hours. And do you know what? There wasn’t one single act of retaliation from the Coptic community. They not only remained calm, they talked about love!
And – you may remember this – in February 2015, 21 men, Coptic Egyptian Christians working in Libya were captured by ISIS. Later, they were paraded on a beach and beheaded on camera, to scare us witless. The video – which, of course, they released on the internet – shows all 21 men kneeling down on the shore – wearing orange jumpsuits their killers standing behind them, heads covered, holding long knives. The video shows that those 21 innocent men remained – dignified, faithful and courageous – quietly proclaiming their faith to their last breath. No show of anxiety or anger. In fact, they kept looking over at one another, as they knelt there – to comfort and strengthen one another. Trusting that Jesus – the invisible 22nd man – was with them – to the end. And you know what? Instead of screaming for revenge, their families spoke, again, about forgiveness and love. And the Coptic churches in Egypt are full today.
In Pakistan – just this year – four Christians visiting their families for Easter, were gunned down in the market outside Church.
And – this is even closer to home for me – our friend – David Mohammad a Somali, the son of a sheikh who became a Christian as a refugee, in Aden was killed by his family – when he went back home to Baidowa, on the Ethiopian border – to tell his father he was now a follower of Jesus. He knew the risk he was taking – his eyes were wide open – and he went anyway. I don’t know what he saw before he died. I do know that after he was shot, his body was dragged through the town behind a Landrover, as a warning not to convert.
Thank the Lord – God has never called us to follow Him in that way. But we are called to stand with them, and anyone who is ostracised and marginalised – because of their race, or their religion, or their tribe, or their sexuality, or their politics, or because they are poor and especially – when they have had to flee for their lives. We are called to witness that God’s love is for everyone. Full stop. Regardless.
That’s the good news That God loves the world – so much!
The truth is, some don’t like that. Even some of our sisters and brothers. And that hurts. But we are called not just into the light – but to be light Being and bringing hope – and love and peace – and joy. I came across this recently from the New Testament scholar – Marcus Borg, and I love it – “The Christian life is not about pleasing God, the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
God longs for us to see heaven open – and to love. To love God – and to love one another. Our Christian life is not about finding a way out, an escape from this cruel and beautiful world – but – remembering heaven is open – seeing what is already true – that God loves this world so much – He chose to become one with us. That’s what John writes about and Stephen died for. Through the Holy Spirit, heaven is still open, and Christ – is still with us. May God forgive us when we fail to live out of that love give us strength to do so when we waver and bless us as we do. Amen.