Right at the start of Acts, we come to a verse that many biblical scholars consider the theme of the entire book. We find it in Chapter One. Luke is summarizing Jesus’ ascension, where he is carried up to heaven, and just before he is lifted up and obscured by a cloud, he says his last words to his disciples in Verse Eight: “You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In an ancient work of history, like Acts, the author often places a theme at the outset, then spends the rest of the work expounding on it. You can see how this happens in Acts: “You will receive power from the Spirit” the verse says at the start, and we know how that occurs so vividly on the Day of Pentecost and in other less dramatic ways beyond. “In Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” the theme verse concludes, describing the movement of the story from the center of Jerusalem to all the places it reaches with its ripples.
And in the middle of the sentence, which is really at the center of Christ’s call, we hear this: “You will be my witnesses.” Jesus is repeating words he also says near the end of the gospel of Luke, just so we don’t miss that this is what Acts is about. This is what the early church is about. It’s what the life of any of us following in the way of Christ is to be about. We are all witnesses. It’s a pervasive concept in early Christianity. And our story this morning of the ministry and death of Stephen helps us know more of what this word “witness” means, and what the charge asks of each of us.
At first, it seems a clear commission. You are to be witnesses, as in eyewitnesses. That’s what the word meant first to early Christians. A witness was one who had seen it for themselves. Mary was a witness — she hears her name in the garden and recognizes, (“Rabbi!”) that it’s him. Thomas was a witness — he meets Jesus on the other side of locked doors and so many barriers to belief, saying “My Lord and my God.” Peter was a witness — he meets the risen Christ on the shores of his regret and he comes to realize nothing he can do, no denial he can make, can separate him from the love of God in Jesus that comes back to find him.
They are all witnesses. And nothing was more valued in the early days of Christianity. It’s part of why nothing was written down for decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why would you want a written account when you could hear straight from the witnesses themselves?
But very quickly the theme develops. Beyond those who have seen, the category of “witness” comes to include those who help others to see. From catching sight, it comes to mean caught up in the Spirit and story of Christ’s life and resurrection. From something you see, it comes to mean something you bear. Bearing witness. Becoming the evidence of the resurrection of Christ for those who will never see it for themselves. And Stephen was a witness.
Through the first 4 chapters of Acts, it’s largely wind and fire, light cues and dramatic swells, and thousands added to their number, which leads this movement of the Spirit to begin to encounter some of the realities of organizational life. They have to set some systems in place. There are people to be fed, widows to be cared for, orphans to be found. And so the apostles appoint seven people to the tasks, including Stephen. When we meet him he’s stewarding money, he’s overseeing food collection. He’s a rising star, in fact, because there’s nothing all that disruptive about feeding people and clothing people. In fact, such charitable acts are generally embraced and supported by those who desire for everything to remain just as it is. It’s as the former Brazilian Archbishop, Hélder Câmara, famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Stephen could have continued to thrive in his ministry by most standards. He could have been a community leader. A consensus builder. He could have kept a busy calendar moving from one meeting to another. He could have been admired, embraced, esteemed, well on his way. But he felt a call to be something else: a call to be a witness.
And Jesus has told us clearly what it means to be a witness. Remember his words from Matthew: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
Did you hear that? “If you are a witness,” Jesus says, “you will be hated because of me.” There’s no confusion about the source of this hatred. It’s Jesus. And Stephen comes to know this so jarringly. Beyond food collection and straightforward acts of charity, he’s out performing signs and wonders — things that stir people up and help them to imagine another life for themselves and another way for their world. He’s frustrating those in power with his presentation of the gospel and his insistence on the way of Christ. It finally culminates in Chapter 7, as he’s dragged before the council, accused on trumped up charges, and he begins a speech where he tries to say to this council: “Look I am not saying or doing anything that is not true, and you should know this above all. Just think of who you are.” And he begins this recounting of Israel’s history where he explains to them that the God he knows in Christ is the God of Israel. And this God has always been mobile, on the move, unbound by our structures and customs, and unlimited by the parameters we would set. And further, Stephen points out that this is the God whose prophets we have always resisted, confined, even killed. Just look at Jesus of Nazareth.
Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of how she was once leading a retreat in the foothills of Georgia, when she asked the group to share with one another someone who reminds them of Jesus. One by one they shared about family members, friends, teachers finally reaching a silent, pensive member of the circle. The woman raised her eyes to speak and said, “I had to really think hard about that one. I kept thinking, who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I felt like I could kill them for it?” (1)
Stephen could have slipped back into obscurity, been a good friend, good teacher, good role model. He could have avoided the conflict and evaded the crisis. He could have kept all the good work, you see, and just left Jesus out of it. He probably could have been a celebrated minister, frankly. But he was called to be a witness. No matter the risk.
Which leads to another understanding of what it means to be a witness in early Christianity. The Greek word for witness in this passage, and the word used in early Christian history is martureo – martyr. “Martyr” means “witness.” A witness is the one who lays down their life because of their commitment to Christ. The one who loves sacrificially, without restriction or hesitation, even if such love puts them in a place of danger.
It has been my practice in recent years, to use the same benediction to close significant services like funerals and weddings. I do this because so often these are moments not only of celebration, grief, and the life of God reflected in the life of the church, but they are also moments of deep self-reflection and consideration, when we ask ourselves honest questions: How am I living my life? How am I keeping the covenants I’ve made? How am I caring for those God has entrusted to me? Into such moments I often speak the benediction written by William Sloane Coffin, longtime minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, which includes the line “May God give you grace to risk something big for something good.” Always — always — someone I do not know finds me to ask, “What was that prayer you shared at the end?” They are especially moved by that line, “I like that line,” they say “the one about risk. Can you write that down for me?”
I think it’s a way of saying “I want my life to bear witness. I want my life to count for something much more than my own ambitions. I want to be so wrapped up in the life of God that I don’t worry about safety so much.”
The ancient historian, Tertullian, once wrote that “the blood of the martyrs” — the witnesses — is “the seed of the church.” It’s what reminds all of us what it means to be followers of Jesus. It reminds us that resurrection does not free us from danger or risk. It reminds us that we are called to put something in ourselves on the line. We are to be “those who lose their life for my sake” as Jesus once said. To be a witness is to know the secret Jesus whispered that to find your life you have to be prepared to give it away, and that to give of your life is to find it returning to you anew. This is what Stephen knew, even in death, as “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
I want to be a witness. Then again, I guess we are all witnesses — in one way or another. Because there’s at least one other witness in today’s passage — not an eyewitness of resurrection, nor an image bearer of the risen Lord, nor one who lays down life for the sake of Christ. No, there’s the kind of witness who just stands by quietly while it all takes place. “They laid their coats at the feet of a young man Saul,” the text says. And he witnesses it all.
This week, as many of you know, several of us from First Baptist Greensboro with others in our wider Baptist family were in Birmingham as part of the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The gathering was held in Birmingham, in part, because this year CBF hosted a meeting called “The Angela Project.” This year marks 400 years since the first enslaved person from Africa set foot on this continent, landing in Jamestown, Virginia one year before the Mayflower. She was from Angola, in south-central Africa. In records, she is called “Angela.” The Angela Project is an effort to reckon with this history and engage the church in more meaningful works of racial justice. We met this week in Birmingham on Wednesday June 19 — Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. And this meeting of the Angela Project on Juneteenth was held in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, white supremacists with the Ku Klux Klan set a bomb that killed four girls as they prepared for Sunday School: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.
In that space on that day for that meeting, we were invited to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This is a common practice in such spaces of racial justice and reconciliation work. It’s a widely celebrated song, known as the “Black National Anthem.” It comes from the words of the great poet, James Weldon Johnson. It begins with the stirring words, “Lift every voice and sing / Till earth and heaven ring / Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…” and it includes the words in the second verse, “We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”
I always sing that song with deep confession and a tentative, breaking voice. But in that place, on that day, present for that work, I could not sing. I was overwhelmed as I thought to myself of all the times, now as then, that we — especially we who are white Americans — have been bystanders. How many times have I been a passive witness? How many times have I been a silent self-preservationist? How many times have I been the coat-check for the world’s injustices? How many times have I stood by silently amidst racism, poverty, an ongoing immigration crisis and family separation at our border? How many times have I stood there looking on at the injustices that pile up in front of me?
I want my life to bear witness. I want to set down self-preservation and take up Jesus. I want to be so caught up in the life of God that I forget to protect myself.
Some years ago, the late Donald Coggan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1970s and 80s, was traveling by train through the English countryside, when a young Anglican seminarian noticed him across the aisle. The young student was thrilled to see one of his heroes. He introduced himself, and began to engage the Archbishop in conversation. They spoke for the length of the trip about life and ministry, as the student sought to soak up as much as he could.
When the train reached the station, they prepared to part. They exchanged the usual pleasantries – “Dr. Coggan this was such a thrill. Take care.”
With that, they walked down the platform and came to a bit of a logjam at the luggage. You see the awkwardness for the young man: “What do I do? We’ve already said goodbye…I felt good about my goodbye. Not overdone. Very professional. But now he’s standing right there.” The seminarian decided to resume small talk, and they spoke for a few more minutes before luggage was retrieved and then the student said again, “Dr. Coggan. Thank you. So wonderful to meet you. Take care.”
He turned to leave, but felt the Archbishop’s hand catch his arm. “My friend,” the Archbishop said, “Not take care. Take risk.” (2) Take risk.
Maybe we think we couldn’t be such a witness. We couldn’t live with such risk and self-sacrifice — the world is too big, the challenges too grave, the comfort too assuring, the dangers too stark. It couldn’t be us here and now. But remember what Jesus says, just as he’s rising up beyond our view. It’s his last word to us as it was to them, echoing at the center of it all and in the center of our lives even now: “You… you are my witnesses.”
- “The Perfect Mirror” in Christian Century, March 18-25, 1998
- Story once shared by Dr. Neville George Callam, past General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance