I’ll never forget one story our parents have told us. They were in a small church leading the youth group on a retreat to Awanita Valley, your average retreat place with cabins and paddleboats and kumbayah, etc., nestled in the rural hills of northern Greenville county. And Dad decides to try to drive home to the youth just how distanced we all are from being persecuted for our faith. He takes the retreat’s staff aside and gives them instructions to help show the kids what an anti-Christian experience might be like. That night, the staff and other locals come flying up into the parking in ski masks and carrying shotguns, they round everybody up yelling profanity and pushing them around, and take the kids inside to threaten them for coming into their valley with this Jesus nonsense. They make them all get their Bibles and put’em in pillow cases, supposedly to be burned later, they won’t let anybody leave, and even the adults are freaking out (because Dad didn’t let them know what was going to be happening, for realism’s sake).
I imagine him in the corner wondering what he’s gotten started, as every kid up to the high school linebacker is crying his eyes out. Eventually, Dad lets everybody know what’s up, and that he just wanted to simulate church persecution to them. I don’t know how they reacted, or how long until they ever trusted him again, hah. But I appreciate what he was going for, kinda, and they remembered it forever. I used to doubt the story because I couldn’t believe anybody would really fall for it, but I think now that since it is so absolutely foreign to any of us to experience such, it might have been just surprising enough to seem real.
Faith-based persecution, even light suffering, let alone martyrdom, seems hard to get a grasp on. I know that sort of thing happened way back when. I’ve heard how it happens even right now with Christians all over the earth, and other faith groups too. Martyr is the label with which we honor people like Gandhi or MLK, Jr., but also the media’s title for, say, Islamic extremists and fanatical religion-gone-bad.
So what does martyrdom mean to me now? What do I know about faith-suffering? Those questions are perfect for Acts 6-7.
There was once a man named Stephen who’s probably responsible for how common it is to find a “Steve” or even “Steve-O” nowadays. He’s pretty well considered the Church’s first martyr, and his story is here. Stephen sounds like a beast of a dude, but not really in the grand heroic sense. Seems like he wasn’t exactly a charismatic speaker, or an extreme missionary, or a well-educated teacher. We hear that in the very first of the Church, as the fellowship was going excellent and everybody shared everything in common, and they were healing and trying to serve the poor, the apostles decided to appoint some respected men to be in charge of distributing food and goods to the poorest among them, like the widows and children. Stephen was one of these. One of the head “table-waiters for widows.” That’s important to me because too many times our martyrs are portrayed as only the super-extraordinary leader, or too many times martyrs are seen negatively because it’s almost like they’re extremists who go looking to die. Not so for Stephen, on both counts. The server of widows, with absolutely powerful faith, but nothing crazy that I can see.
If Stephen was so ordinary, how is it we find him in this extraordinary situation? The answer to that is what the story tells me about martyrdom — sometimes suffering, persecution, even death are just the simple result of faith-sharing. We know there are places on earth where publicly talking about Jesus can cause us great ruckus. Even if we aren’t over-the-top, or invasive, or rude with talking about our faith. The word martyr literally means “witness”. There is just opposition sometimes to bearing witness to what we believe, and what we’ve seen and heard; there’s even danger to it. Even in the U.S., even in the everyday, different kinds of opposition and danger, truly.
It should come as no surprise to us. I mean, consider what we know about testifying as witnesses, in the courtroom sense. I know some of you watch some version of “Law & Order” or fill-in-the-blank with legal TV shows/movies. Some of us have actually testified ourselves before, others have seen cases unfold or served the infamous jury duty. Think about some of the opposition, the danger, that faces those called to testify.
For one, I immediately picture where the witness is forced to sit in the courtroom. Up front, right by the judge, with everybody’s eyes fixed on him/her. The stenographer is typing every word you’re saying; you’ve taken oath and can be prosecuted for perjury. More importantly, the jury is set to make its decision in part based on your testimony. And sometimes those decisions are life and death, literally. This is the ultimate hot-seat. Put yourself into it and feel the pressure, the nerves, etc. Welcome to witnessing.
We apply all that to our personal Christian witness and can wonder, “have I ever been afraid to speak up because it’ll make me stand out, and might draw eyeballs to me?” Are we ever afraid of the weight of how important our testimony can be, bearing the pressure of the decisions people will make based on us? Think about it, and there’s more.
Second, as simple as the witness’ job seems — to bear the truth, the whole truth, etc. etc. — it’s not as easy as my walking into the courtroom and having casual conversation with the jury about my experience. The “whole truth” is drawn out of the witness through questioning. Prosecution and defense both fire the questions, and both have very different intentions for every witness. As the witness, my testimony is going to be quoted and twisted and applied for some ulterior purpose, whether I like it or not.
Even deeper than that, legal counsel spends much energy trying to discredit their opposition. They try to catch witnesses in a lie, make them contradict themselves, or rile them up into blurting things out. Think about the famous scene in the film “A Few Good Men” and that famous exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson:
If legal counsel can tarnish the witnesses credibility, his/her testimony is rendered powerless. Many times that means digging into a witness’ past, finding deep dark secrets, etc. Apply that to our Christian witness and get in touch with some of the danger there. Are we ever afraid of how people will interpret or twist what we say/do for the faith? Do we ever get let our worst moments define our witness? Are we ever worried about what people might dig up in our past, or see us do in the future, that will destroy our credibility? Think on it, and there’s a little more.
Last, when it comes to giving eye-witness testimony, some folks never make it to the witness chair. If you’ve seen the movie, “The Untouchables”, you know what I mean. It chronicles the task of special federal agents as they try desperately to pin something, anything, to crime boss Al Capone. Because Capone is squeaky-clean? NO. Take a look (it’s a little disturbing but mind the point):
He’s a mass-murderer among other things, but either everyone is afraid to testify against him, or the bold that choose to end up dead. Testimony that puts this guy away is priceless, it’s vital, and it is lethally dangerous. Eh hem, why else do we have the witness protection program? Like Stephen, something as simple as living a life that bears witness to what we’ve seen and heard and believe, that can put us terribly in harm’s way. In the U.S. we might not many of us fear death for our faith, but are we ever afraid of how this witness can change life as we know it, forever? It might rearrange all that we once knew and loved.
Weigh those possibilities, weigh the dangers of speaking the truth in love, or living the truth through deed. We can search for the fears that most make us hesitate or completely avoid actually living our faith. What keeps us silent?
And then follow Stephen’s story. How does he manage what he does in the face of all that? He just stands by what he has seen with his own eyes, what he has heard with his own ears, and what he has felt in his heart. Period. With no concern for the consequences. He is #1: emboldened by the very Spirit of God. So much so that some of the most educated men on the face of the earth (the Jewish ruling council) could not withstand his reasoning about Jesus’ identity, so much so that none could fend off the way his words hit their hearts, and his face was like an angel’s. Crazy. And #2, Stephen had eyes fixed on Jesus himself. In the Apostles’ Creed we claim that Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and I bet Stephen felt the same; but on this day, the day of his fatal witness, he saw heaven opened and Jesus standing at God’s right-hand. What better fuel for this widow-server to stand firm on that day? What greater honor?
We will certainly not all face the same story. We will some of us certainly not ever feel physically threatened for our faith. But we face opposition and different shades of danger. We face fear. Probably when we just set out to care for the poor, or some other basic Christian task. Let’s be clear that even the simplest choices, empowered by God’s spirit, searching for Jesus, might lead to a moment of some kind of martyrdom. But it will be a moment that cannot defeat the Spirit, and that might just have Christ Jesus standing to his feet.