Listen now

I wonder how many of you watched the Coronation, yesterday? The final blessing, spoken by Justin Welby, included these words: ‘Christ our King, make you faithful and strong to do his will, that you may reign with him in glory…’

In our reading from Acts this morning, it was thinking of Christ as King that helped Stephen to get himself killed.  It probably didn’t help that he also called his audience stiff-necked, ‘uncircumcised in heart and ears’. That might be something that Charles, or more likely his father Philip, might have said in years gone by and which got all the wrong sort of publicity.

Working the crowd

Stephen was chosen by the early church to work for the community. Here he was working the crowd, but not in a good way. In contrast, next week’s reading from Acts sees Paul seeking common ground with his Greek audience, in what might otherwise have been an equally fatal encounter with the authorities.

The Lectionary keeps us, or spares us, from the whole of Stephen’s sermon which comes just before our verses. It’s much longer than anything we see from Paul or Peter or even Jesus for that matter. Today, we just get to see the conclusion. The dreadful consequence. Perhaps it’s a case of ‘preacher beware’ if you go on for too long. Fortunately there aren’t too many loose stones on the ground in Christ Church this morning.

A continuation

But I do need to sum up that earlier speech for you, for the later verses that we’ve been given to make sense.

Stephen did not put up Christianity against Judaism. Perhaps it would have gone easier on him if he had. Instead, the narrative that he gives is demanding his audience to reconsider their Jewish identity and what place the Law and the Temple should have in the future.

Stephen takes passages from Israel’s Scriptures and compares and contrasts them. He looks to prove that the way of Christ is not a departure from the worship of, and covenant with, the God of Israel – but a continuation of it.

Two sorts

In Stephen’s worldview there are two sorts of people. There are those who accept God’s message and those who don’t. And those who accept God’s messengers and those who don’t.

In those earlier verses of chapter 7, Stephen looks to align Jesus, himself and the early church with Abraham, Joseph and the prophets. Those who oppose are linked with the Egyptians and Joseph’s brothers and those Israelites who rebelled against Moses in the wilderness.

As Luke portrays it, those who follow Christ’s Way follow the tradition of those faithful in Jewish history who have kept covenant with God. Even Stephen’s rebuke of the Temple uses words from Isaiah (66:1-2). He taps into an old argument as to whether God should be properly worshipped in a man-made house or whether God is on the move and cannot possibly be contained.


But Stephen’s words enrage those who brought him to trial because it brought into question their deep held beliefs. And in truth they’re not so different from many of us now. We too can get wrapped up in our own self-righteousness. We too can hold fast to our long-held rituals and ways of thinking about things. Sometimes it’s easier to destroy rather than discuss or debate. And we can do that subtly behind the scenes rather than being caught out in the open with a stone in our hand.

But there’s nothing subtle here. They put him to death. Death by stoning. But Stephen prays for those who bring him violence.

Thomas More

1500 years later, this passage was said to have brought great comfort to Sir Thomas More, after he too had been condemned to die. He was particularly caught by the transformation that later turned Saul into Paul.

His biographer recorded these words from Sir Thomas, after the death sentence had been given: “More have I not to say (my Lords) but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul…was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue their friends for ever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.”


Mark Twain is credited with saying that: “History never repeats itself – but it does often rhyme.”

Stephen’s life and death repeatedly rhyme with Jesus’ own. Both served their community, both offered a vision, both were full of the Spirit, both showed signs and wonders. Then the arrest, the angry mob and both killed before witnesses whilst praying for their executioners’ forgiveness.

And then those final words. Luke 23 has Jesus saying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And here Stephen says: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Both rhyme or echo with Psalm 31:5 ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit…’

Jesus says: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen says: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”


In Greek, it doesn’t say that Stephen died. It says that he fell asleep. For the Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, Stephen falls asleep because he died praying forgiveness for his enemies.

Kierkegaard wrote: ‘Now there is only a moment left, a minute: he prays for his enemies … we learn from him — to pray for ourselves, to pray for our enemies — and then to fall asleep …’

There’s rhyme of that in a book that I’ve just finished reading called ‘The Light Between Oceans.’ One of the characters is an Austrian man, called Frank, who was living in Australia at the outbreak of the First World War and was interned there since he was considered to be German. He continues to suffer prejudice and abuse after the war is over, eventually leading to his death.

At one point his Australian wife, Hannah, asks him how he can forgive those who give him such an awful time. “I chose to,” he said. “I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend time hating people for what happened, or I can forgive and forget.”                  

“But it’s not that easy” his wife replies.

“Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting”. Frank says. “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things…. I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount… No, we always have a choice. All of us.”

A mark of us too?

Maybe there was also a hint of that same rhyme in the Coronation yesterday which included the hymn ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’. It has the line: ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me his praise should sing?’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if within the Royal Family there could be forgiveness and restoration.  That forgiveness and restoration were a mark of our nation during Charles’ reign. A king who promises that he comes not to be served but to serve. But wouldn’t it also be a wonderful if it was a mark of us too? That we too are known for service and restoration and forgiveness. Amen

‘Forgiveness’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley on May 7th 2023. It was based on Acts 7:55-60.



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