This blog is mostly sermons of a pastor serving Riverside Community Church, Mattawa/Desert Aire, Washington. An eremite is someone who lives in a wilderness or desert of some kind. I have often lived in remote places. Early Christian eremites lived under the discipline of solitude within the discipline of community. I try to be involved in worshiping, studying, and praying with others; and serving others wherever I find myself. I try to keep up with my correspondence in the electronic desert.
In our reading from the Book of Acts, the young man
named Stephen is the first martyr; the first Christian martyr who died for his
faith. Some Christians call him St. Stephen.
The other notable young man who became part of this
story, who guarded the cloaks of those who were killing Stephen, was named
Saul; named after the famous King Saul in the Old Testament.
Photos Taken Going to and from Kahlotus, WA
This young man Saul was one of the first haters of
the church; one of the early haters of Jesus, and his followers. He became
active in the organization of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Saul became a leading activist in
the tracking, arresting, and jailing of Christians.
Later on, the Book of Acts describes him as
“murderous” and that is likely so. (Acts 9:1) Still later, Saul the hater
became Paul the apostle; the missionary for Jesus; the long, long-suffering
lover of Jesus. Saul became St. Paul.
Over time, Saul became a martyr in so many ways; beautiful and dreadful.
The word “martyr” seems to me to be a horrible word.
It seems to mean something either frightening or threatening. At its core,
“martyr” means nothing more than “witness”. A martyr speaks, acts, lives for a
If the cause is unpopular, a martyr may suffer for
his or her cause. A martyr may die for their cause. It has become a word of
terror only because it has come to mean a person who makes other people die or
suffer for their cause.
The cause that Stephen would speak for, act for, live
for, and die for was Jesus; King Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
Saul would also come to speak, act, live, suffer, and die for Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
There are many causes in the world, and many martyrs.
It can be confusing and controversial, especially when being a martyr involves
suffering and death.
America, the homeland, and freedom are a cause, and many,
many people have died for this cause. Many more have suffered.
There were many martyrs for Jesus in the early days
of the faith, and there continue to be so. There are many Christian martyrs in
Islamic countries today, and in places like China
and North Korea.
Some Christians in Britain
have lost their jobs and some Christians in the United States have been taken to
court because they stood up for some part of their Christian faith.
Some martyrs are aggressive, and threatening, and
violent. There are some people who become martyrs by hijacking airliners and
flying them into office buildings, or by bombing spectators at a footrace.
These martyrs are famous representatives of Islam.
Christianity has had its own violent martyrs. We have
had our crusades and our wars of religion. Ireland was a place for Christian
warfare only a few decades ago. The world has not forgotten this, and the world
will use this knowledge against us.
But maybe this is a good thing. It is good for us to
be humble; and that, in itself, has something to do with a wholesome martyrdom;
being the best sort of martyr.
Because this is what we see in Stephen: those who
made him a martyr were martyrs themselves. They were witnesses; witnesses of
power, success, control, fear, anger, and hatred.
They believed in a God, whom they had refashioned in
their own image; who was on their side. And they worked with all their might to
call down a holy anger, and indignation, and vengeance upon Stephen and his
Stephen prayed his martyr’s witness like this. “Lord,
do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59) Stephen knew the mercy and
grace of God who came into this world in Jesus; a God who died for the sin of
the world on the cross. Stephen knew that, in Jesus, God had called his own
mercy and grace down from heaven to earth to change the lives of those who
would receive him, and to change the world through them.
Jesus had prayed, “Father,
forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) So Stephen did the
same. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Perhaps none of us will ever have to suffer or die
for our witness to the cause of Jesus and his kingdom. But we can all be
martyrs, because a martyr is simple a witness who speaks, and lives, and acts,
and works, and is willing to suffer and die for their cause.
We can see the power of this kind of thing in the
story of Stephen and Saul. The prayer of Stephen called mercy down from heaven
and it came to rest on Saul. Only Saul didn’t know it yet.
Mercy lay in the stony, weedy, barren ground of
Saul’s hater’s heart. In spite of the unfriendly, infertile soil of that heart,
the seed would grow. It would enrage Saul all the more if he had guessed the
plot against him; if he had known what Jesus was planning to do with him by
making him (in spite of himself) a martyr of mercy.
Stephen died without knowing what his witness had
done. He didn’t know what God would make of his prayer of forgiveness. He would
join the cloud of the witnesses (the martyrs of mercy) who always watch the
race on earth, as we run that race. (Hebrews 12:1) Stephen would watch it
happen from another place.
Being a martyr has nothing in the world to do with
being a doormat, or even a victim. Being a martyr means being a faithful
witness, with the accent on being faithful. Sometimes this calls for courage.
Being a witness of Jesus who died to bring grace and
mercy down from heaven into this world does not mean being a doormat or a
victim, but it does mean being like Jesus, and this takes much more than
I confess that I don’t use the word martyr very often.
I don’t like the sound of the word, but it is what I must be. It is what I
truly must want to be. It is why I speak and live the way I do. I often fail. I
am sometimes faithful. I will tell you that we should all, each one of us, want
to be martyrs with all our hearts. But this desire carries dangers that we may
In my first church I had a great martyr in my Sunday
school class. I sometimes called him my evangelist. I taught the oldest kids’
class. Glenn was in that class with me for over five years.
There was this bully in his class at school named
Tony. Tony was big, and tough looking, and probably old for his grade. I think
Glenn was in the sixth or seventh grade when he beat Tony up.
Tony had tried to bully Glenn. Tony was a much bigger
kid than Glenn was, but Glenn stood up to him. The interesting thing is that it
wasn’t long before Glenn was bringing Tony with him to Sunday school.
This is because Glenn was my evangelist. Glenn was as
good a martyr in the act of fighting as Stephen was in the act of dying. This
turned out to be very important; to be as good a martyr, or witness, in the act
of fighting as we are in the act of praying; to be a witness for mercy. The
danger is that this almost never happens.
I really don’t know how he did it. I don’t think that
Glenn ever knew how he did it but, when he beat Tony, he somehow called down
from heaven the grace and mercy of God into Tony’s life.
Saul, before he met Stephen, and before the seed of
Stephen’s prayer took root in him, had another idea of what it meant to be a
martyr. First of all his idea was to be an aggressive martyr. His job as martyr
was to bring down the anger and the indignation of God on others. His job was
to make others afraid, to make others hurt, to make others fail, even to make
If the Christians overwhelmed his side, and if they
had conquered Jerusalem,
and took him prisoner and tortured him, Saul would still have threatened them
with the vengeance and the wrath of God. That would be his witness and his
This was the example that was set for him in his own people’s
history. In the two centuries before Jesus, when the Jews rose up against the
Greek kingdom that ruled over the Holy Land,
they showed great courage. They succeed, in the end, but they often had
setbacks. When the Greek king captured and tortured the Jewish rebels the
rebels often threatened their captors.
The Second Book of Maccabees tells about a torture
victim giving his witness to those who were torturing him. He said, “You have
authority over men, mortal as you are, and can do as you please. But do not
imagine that God has abandoned our race. Wait and see how his great power will
torment you and your descendants.” (2 Maccabees 7:15-17)
What if Jesus has spoken words like that on the
cross, instead of praying, “Father,
forgive them, for they know not what they do?” What kind of martyr would we be,
with such a king? But what kind of martyr are we really, when we come down to
For most of my school years, as a kid, I was a bully
victim. It’s a complicated story.
Sometimes, I swear, I had a dozen kids chasing me. In
fact that was how they got caught once.
I was twelve years old, and my school was a big, old
junior high near down town, in the city of Anaheim,
in southern California.
The old buildings had a lot of corners, and nooks, and crannies where bad
things could happen, but you couldn’t hide a dozen kids chasing one boy through
I was exploring possible escape routes one day (because
it is always good to plan ahead for what you know is coming) when I
unexpectedly came across a doorway that led to another route to get to the
buses at the end of the day. When the last bell rang I got to that door and
made it through.
This caught the other kids completely by surprise. They
were so surprised that they forgot where they were.
They started shouting, “Get him! Get him!” That is
what attracted the attention of the teachers. They got in a lot of trouble, and
that was one of the best school days of my life in my seventh grade career. At
the same time, it is a sad thing to be able to say something like that.
As a kid you don’t always know what to do. I tried
fighting once, and it didn’t do me any good at all. And I got in trouble for
I wanted to be a witness. Even though my family
wasn’t that much for church, I knew who Jesus was, and I believed that he loved
me, and I was interested in doing what I thought he wanted me to do. So I
“turned the other cheek” and I “did unto others what I would have others do to
me.” (Matthew 5:39 and 7:12) But that didn’t work to my advantage either.
What I was most tempted to do (the biggest danger) was
to think that, since I was doing what was right (and they weren’t) that I was
better than they were. It was hard to avoid thinking that. (If you have ever
been there, you know this.) There was real pleasure in thinking that: a
dangerous pleasure. At the same time, I think I knew that it was a completely nasty
pleasure and that, if I felt that way about it, I wasn’t really any better than
One morning, in the seventh grade, another boy came
up to me and said something like this: “I really admire you. Even though you
don’t fight back you don’t give in to those guys.” So I don’t think I looked
like a door mat or a mere victim. Who would admire that? It’s true that I would
run for my life, but I wouldn’t cringe. I would take it and not whine, or complain,
or cry about it: except I did cry about it to God, at night.
I had very strong experiences of the presence of God
at such times. There were no words, but there was strength, and love, and
Later on, after we had moved to my home town, there
was a kid named Chris who belonged to the group that bullied me during my high
school years. For some reason he asked me to help him with his homework. I did
this, not because I was afraid of him, but because Jesus said, “Do good to
those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27) At that age I certainly thought that all those
kids hated me. But Chris became a friend.
But there is no guarantee that anything like this
will happen. Stephen’s prayer had no sentimental power over Saul. That prayer
never tugged at his hard, hating heart. We will look at that next Sunday.
Our witness has no power in and of itself. Our life
as a martyr has no guarantees in and of itself. Stephen never saw the fruit of
his mercy and prayer during his short life. The power belongs to God alone, who
asks us to pray for his mercy and grace to come down from heaven and work in
Even though we seem to have a hard job to do, and
even though we are tempted to say the opposite of any prayer for mercy to come
down upon others, even though we seem to do all the talking, we are still
silent partners in God’s work.
God is the strong partner who works in his own time
and in his own wisdom. God works with a love that we are able to trust if only we
have met him for ourselves and shared our lives with him.
The cross of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead
are the power that changes people, and changes this world. In the future, Saul,
in the days when he had become Paul, said this about the power of the cross and
the rising of Jesus in his life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no
longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the
flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
When my life as a martyr made me cry in the night,
part of the silence of God in the darkness was the silence that came from God
being the one who was crucified for me, and part of that silence came from my
There are people whose martyrdom is a tactic to bring
fear, and anger, and defeat to others. Jesus makes each one of us a different kind
We do not need to suffer or die, unless there is no
other way to live faithfully for a God who died on the cross to bring mercy and
grace to work in the world, and to be a force that makes a difference and
changes the world. So let us always pray to make everything we say and do fit
the purpose of bringing that grace down even to a world of people who never
seem to give any sign of wanting to be ruled by that grace.
There is no other way to be a proper martyr. There is
no other way to be a true witness.
Stephen knew this. He had learned this from Jesus. So
he prayed a prayer and lived a martyrdom that made haters into lovers and
witnesses of Jesus.