A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2005
Text: Acts 7:55-60
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was much younger, I used to snigger at the story told in Acts 7, the public execution of the Christian man named Stephen. It cracked me up to hear the pastor talking about how a follower of Jesus “got stoned” in front of everyone. It was silliness on my part, immaturity speaking, but perhaps the flippant attitude I once showed toward Stephen betrays my discomfort with his story: The crowd killed Stephen because he was faithful to Christ; might the same fate come somehow to me? And how would I measure up when the cost of my witness was my life? It is not in good taste to make childish jokes about Stephen’s stoning…but it is often easier than gazing on it and considering the enormity of losing one’s life for the sake of the Gospel.
St. Stephen was the first of the young church to die for his faith, the first Christian martyr. There have been many more since him, untold thousands who have confessed Christ in their dying gasps before succumbing to the power of their executioners. We call them martyrs because that is the word for witness in the Greek language – witnesses, they are. They have borne faithful witness to Jesus and his love through their lives, and they have allowed their deaths as well to become a witness to him. A martyr, a witness, loses her life so that the world may know her Lord.
For those of us who already know a martyr’s Lord, her witnessing death stirs up terribly mixed emotions – admiration at the depth of her faith; joy at the powerful proclamation of the Good News; fear that such a punishment might come to us; and doubts about our own faithfulness to the cross when the time comes. Are we ready to lose our lives for Jesus?
Friends, I want to suggest that, for a Christian, that isn’t quite the right way to ask it. Instead, I think the important question is this: Do we know that we’ve already lost our lives in Jesus? Long before they hung on a cross or burned at a stake, the martyrs shared with us that strange baptismal gift – on the day we were welcomed into Christ’s church through the waters of baptism, we lost our own lives in Jesus Christ. We need not fear being put to death for his sake, because it has already happened! In the water and the words spoken over us, we died a true death, only to be raised to a new life in Jesus. We lost our lives in Christ, and gained a new life in him.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” In the moment of Paul’s baptism, Jesus’ death on the cross became Paul’s own death, slaying within him the sinful Old Adam and making room for Jesus himself, the New Adam. Every day Paul lived, he lived to Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ lived in Paul.
Jesus Christ lives within you just as surely as he lived within Paul, because you two shared in Christ’s death on the cross in your baptism. Just like Paul, you felt yourself dying – that sinful Old Adam or Eve struggling against the flood of Christ and losing, being washed away. Then, in that clean emptiness, God did something new – as surely as you were put to death with Christ, you were in that moment given new life, true life, the realest life there is: the life of Jesus himself, filling you to overflowing. This new baptismal life in Christ is yours forever, and nothing – not even the stones of a mob’s hands – can take that precious life away from you.
We need not fear a death like Stephen’s, should it come to us, because our lives long ago ceased being our own; the life inside of us is nothing but Jesus’ own life, and the power of the grave is hopeless against it. This is why Paul could say with such complete confidence, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Even in the face of his own coming martyrdom, when he himself would give witness to Jesus in his final breath, Paul could honestly say, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
To all of us who have been baptized into Christ, there is no greater wisdom. Our lives are Christ’s – they belong to him and are his very own life lived in us. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s – that deal was clenched long ago. And when we do die, however that death may come to us, it will finally be to our gain – it is only by our bodies’ passage through death’s gates that the deeper death and resurrection of our baptisms will finally come into its own, bringing us in joy to our Father’s many-roomed house.
Let us not weep too long for Stephen the martyr, nor fear too much his fate. The “big death” has already been done to us in our baptism, and now it is Christ’s own life that flows within our breast. When the “little death” comes at the end of our lives on Earth – however it comes – we can be sure that it will point us and all who witness it to the wondrous, life-giving love of Jesus Christ, whose life we share, now and forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.