54 Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. 55 But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. 56 He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One[a] standing at God’s right side!” 57 At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, 58 threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. 59 As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” 60 Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.
(Theologian’s Note: Sadly, I could not record this sermon. For best experience, please play the music that follows while reading the sermon. I preached it with this music in the background, which was super fun. This is also the uncut version; the performed version was drastically cut so that it would fit the music better. Enjoy!)
Prepare to get a little uncomfortable.
The music you are now hearing is a piece of music written by a 20th century French Catholic composer named Olivier Messiaen. It was written in 1931, when Messiaen was 24 years old. It is called “The Apparition of the Eternal Church.” And it is uncomfortable, to say the least.
It was written to be a musical representation of what the eternal church were to sound like if it we were able to hear it. Unbearable discord melts seamlessly into sublime beauty, harmony dances with dissonance. Joy and sadness intermingle, mirroring the history of the church in the lives of its people. Some listeners hear it and it sends them into the heights of ecstatic joy. Some hear it, and it’s 10 minutes of Dante’s Inferno. I want you to hear it. I want you to listen to it. And I want to tell you a story, a story about men and women who love God, and what happens to people when they go where it is uncomfortable. I want to tell you of the persecution that goes with discipleship.
The story begins with Jesus, as it should. It begins with Jesus bearing witness to the world, giving good news of the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, helping the poor, and challenging the authorities. It was his challenge that scared the people in power, and so they had him arrested, persecuted, beaten, whipped, mocked, condemned, and killed. While dying, he rasped out a plea for God to forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing. Discord, dissonance, chaos held sway.
Three days later, the music resolved, harmony returned and joy came into the world with his resurrection. That resurrection set into motion a pattern of persecution resolving into justice and resurrection joy for all who believe, all who have faith, all who love God and so love others in return.
The faith we belong to is one that stands directly in the face of persecution, an inevitable aftershock of the resurrection. But are we truly ready to face it?
The impact of persecution rears its ugly head again with St. Stephen. Stephen, a man whom the disciples chose to preach, to do miracles, to help the poor, to do the work of the Gospel. Stephen, a man “of exceptional faith” and who Luke says was “empowered by the Holy Spirit,” who stood out even among those who stood out. Stephen’s story very much mirror’s Christ. He did good. Those in power took notice. He was persecuted and accused on false charges, questioned and cowed. And what did he do? He gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the story of God and God’s people in the entire biblical narrative, and in so doing, turned the accusation back on his accusers, prophesying that they are falling into the same bad habits that have plagued God’s people for centuries. For this boldness and Spirit, they dragged him to the front of town and beat him to death with stones, while he cried to God to forgive them.
None of us can possibly imagine what it’s like to be stoned to death. It, aside from crucifixion, is one of the most humiliating, painful, and horrifying deaths one can die. Bit by bit, stones both blunt and sharp assail skin, tearing the flesh, bruising and breaking and battering the body until the body can’t take anymore. All the while, people stand around the accused hurling insults, snarling, shrieking, spitting slander and hate the accused dies bit by excruciating bit.
That is the sound of the church. That is persecution, and redemption. Sin, and forgiveness. The discord and the pain of persecution has stained the church from its very beginning, and continues through history as a reminder that belief in the kingdom of God does not go unpunished. One of the most crucial people in the history of the church, Saul, who became Paul, was present at the stoning of Stephen, and I have no doubt that stoning was the first thought that came to his mind after he was baptized by Ananias in Damascus. The spectre of persecution hangs like a pall over our faith, and our faith is made stronger because of the persecution. That does not diminish it’s terrifying impact on us.
Over and over, persecution helped define the church. From St. Stephen, stoned to death, to Perpetua and Felicity, two women dedicated to the faith and persecuted by the Romans to the point of burning at the stake, on down the ages through the Medieval period and the Reformation, the Renaissance, and into the modern age, we see the pain of those dedicated to the faith.
The age of persecution did not end in the 20th century. After the first World War, the government of Turkey took on one of the first great genocides of the modern era in an attempt to eradicate the presence of the Armenian population in their country. Primarily Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Armenians suffered greatly at the hands who would have them exterminated. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million. Other indigenous and Christian ethnic groups such as the Assyrians, the Greeks and other minority groups were similarly targeted for extermination by the Ottoman government, and their treatment is considered by many historians to be part of the same genocidal policy. You may not have heard of the Armenian Genocide, for which that is a greater tragedy. We must remember our fallen brothers and sisters, so that we may live boldly in faith as well.
If you think such persecution ended then, you underestimate the power of the Gospel to challenge those in power. In El Salvador in the 1970s, a bishop named Oscar Romero was appointed as Archbishop of San Salvador. During his time as bishop, a close friend named Father Rutillo was killed by the government for organizing self-reliance groups among the poor in the countryside, preaching justice and equality. After Rutillo’s death, Bishop Romero dedicated himself to the same conviction as his friend, becoming vocal and advocating for fair treatment by the government and an end to the violence, oppression, torture and mistreatment of the poor. 1980, things came to a head. “Romero was shot on 24 March 1980 while celebrating Mass, at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and at that moment he was shot. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite.”
Know this, though: Christians in the West, specifically in the US, do not face persecution. Compared to the stoning of Stephen, we don’t face it. Compared to the burning of Perpetua and Felicity, we don’t face it. Compared to the assassination of Bishop Romero, we don’t face it. A complaint, a stern disagreement, a respectful request—that is not persecution. So don’t think that I’m simply telling you to complain louder about what the TV tells you about persecution around Christmas or about prayer in public schools, because that isn’t even on the radar. That isn’t persecution, because you aren’t being shot at, burned or stoned. Persecution is about staring death in the face and saying Jesus is Lord. Persecution is about risk. Persecution is about being uncomfortable.
I could go on and on throughout the ages about the martyrs of the faith, but many of you may ask me, what’s the point of talking about persecution anyway? Being faithful witnesses to Christ means going to places where you are uncomfortable, saying things that you know are true and yet knowing that there are consequences to speaking the truth. We have, for the most part in the West, a very comfortable faith that in all honesty does not ask much of us. Such is how privileged we are—but that is not how Christianity operates, let alone flourishes. Persecution is what defined the faith, and struggle is in the very heart of our faith. The aftershock of persecution is an inevitability if we are truly following Christ, but the point of it all is that whatever we suffer in this life pales in comparison the redemptive power of Christ. Death is defeated in the resurrection; we have nothing to fear in death.
So my question to you is this, as the Apparition of the Eternal church fades into the darkness: are you following Christ to the uncomfortable places? Are you willing to take a hard look at the world and focus on issues that really matter, like poverty, illness, death, depression, persecution, prejudice, discrimination, injustice, and sin? Are you willing to listen to the voice of the church that echoes down through the ages? Are you willing to endure the dissonance in pursuit of greater harmony? Are you willing to speak life into death?
Are you willing to face the music?