Each trial has its weight, which whoso bears,
Knows his own woe, and need of succouring grace;
The martyr's hope half wipes away the trace
Of flowing blood; the while life's humblest cares
Smart more, because they hold in Holy Writ no place." Lyra Apostolica.
Sermon IV. Feast of St. Stephen. The Power of Martyrdom. "And Saul was consenting unto his death."--ACTS viii. 1.
ONE of the greatest demands which the Church makes on us in following her services during the whole course of the Christian year is when she summons us to pass abruptly from Christmas Day to the Feast of St. Stephen, the first of the martyrs. It is indeed a sharp and exacting change. It is a change from rest to tumult. Yesterday we were sharing the peaceful joy of the Holy Family; to-day we follow the outbreak and violence of a crowd of fierce and implacable passions. It is a change from a higher to a lower world. There we were joining in the angel song, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace;" here our ears are deafened by the howlings of an irrational and infuriated mob. It is a change from a glorious sunrise to a lowering sunset. There the King of Angels was ushered into the world which He had made, born in due time of a Virgin-Mother; here the first of a great multitude who have been witnesses to the Kingdom and patience of Jesus, lies down in agony upon [65/66] the sod to die; and the first note of that plea which will last above until the Judgment, forthwith begins: "How long, O Lord, how long!"
At a scene like St. Stephen's martyrdom, it is a relief to place ourselves, if we can, in the position of some one bystander, to follow his thoughts and to share his sympathies.
All must feel this with respect to that far more momentous and awful scene which St. Stephen's martyrdom inevitably suggests. We cannot, on Calvary, stand quite in front of the Cross, and look the Divine Sufferer straight in the face. It is enough for you and me to associate ourselves in thought with some one of those near to Him; with the heart-broken Mother, with the beloved disciple, with the devout centurion, with the dying and penitent thief, or--as best suits the case of most of us--with the weeping Magdalen. There is a picture by a great modern artist which represents the nearer friends of Jesus huddled into a dark room, and gazing furtively out of a small aperture at the march of the procession up the hill of Calvary; and that which gives to this work of art its pathetic and indisputable power is that it recognizes the reserve under which alone the human soul can bear to look out of itself at what is really greatest in human history.
Something of the same kind, only, of course, on a very different scale, is true of the death of St. Stephen, and [66/67] indeed of every similar event. It is better to contemplate every such tragical occurrence from a single point of view; to master it as it appeared to some one person; to renounce as beyond our powers any attempt to comprehend it as a whole, and in all its bearings.
Stephen died, as has been already said, surrounded by and at the hands of an infuriated mob; but Holy Scripture guides us to regard the scene as though there were practically before us two persons, and only two. There is the martyr at the supreme moment of his suffering and his glory: and there is also "a young man whose name was Saul." [Acts vii. 58.] For the sacred writer the others do not exist, except as mere nameless ministers of evil; while Saul is there as, for the time being, the antithesis to Stephen; young, as Stephen was young; enthusiastic, as Stephen was enthusiastic; as passionately attached to the creed of the Pharisees as was Stephen to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. If Stephen was willing to shed his blood, Saul was not unwilling that Stephen's blood should be shed: "Saul was consenting unto his death." And this mental disposition of Saul's took shape in a public act. According to the rules of criminal procedure in the Mosaic code, the witnesses who [67/68] denounced a violator of the Law were to take the lead in his execution. The men who had reported Stephen's words to the Sanhedrim stripped themselves for their dreadful task; and by undertaking to guard their clothes, Saul was understood publicly to express his approval of what they were doing. As he said of himself, in an after-time, with bitter self-reproach, "I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him."
As we know St. Paul in the Epistles of his later years, we have no difficulty in saying that if he had any one characteristic gift, it was sympathy. No class of men, no form of error or of suffering, is beyond the range of his generous anxieties; and if there is any single description of persons for whom he has always a thought of true kindliness, it is those to whom on religious grounds he is most entirely opposed. In his later life he was an object of continual persecutions, as he tells the Thessalonians, on the part of his unconverted countrymen; and yet who can forget the pathetic passages in which he describes the great heaviness and continual sorrow of heart which he experiences on account of their exclusion from the Fold of Jesus Christ: or how he would be gladly made anathema for them: or how fondly he dwells on their ancient religious privileges; or how he protests what is his own heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel? [68/69] Sympathy with the ignorant and with those that are out of the way; still more, sympathy with the suffering, as with the slave Onesimus, were a part of Saul's nature. In later years, no doubt these dispositions were raised and refined by grace: but they had belonged to his original character; and we ask ourselves, how could he have ever brought himself to look on approvingly while life was being crushed out of the body of a young man, and for using words which in later years would have commanded his own warmest admiration?
Saul consented to this tragedy. Why?
First of all, he was following the stream of general opinion. The whole world of Jerusalem, excepting what looked like a small sect, was agreed that Stephen deserved his fate. The learned said so: the governing class said so: and the people said so. "They ran upon him with one accord." [Acts vii. 67.] Few men have strength of character to hold their own against a great consenting force of opinion, even when they know that they are certainly right: and as yet Saul of Tarsus had no such reason for resisting; his convictions were with those of the majority. So he consented to Stephen's death.
For Saul was also moved by the instincts of religious loyalty. In his eyes Stephen was a rebel against authority. Saul was a Pharisee; and not long before Stephen's trial the Pharisees had gained an ascendancy in the direction of religious affairs in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, [69/70] conservative as to all that touched existing institutions, but lax, almost sceptical, as to matters of faith, would not have commanded Saul's hearty allegiance. But authority was now in Saul's eyes religious, and it was intolerable to him that it should be defied. Yet how was Saul to understand Stephen's reported menace, that "Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered"? What was Saul to make, either of the method or of the purpose of Stephen's appeals to the sacred history of Israel? The Crucifixion had only happened some nine months before, and it was fresh in everybody's mind. What, then, was Stephen's object in referring to Joseph's ill-treatment at the hands of his brethren; to the rejection of Moses by his countrymen; to the exaltation of Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses in their successive generations, in spite of surrounding adverse influences? Stephen's hearers, and Saul among the rest, fully understood the intended drift of this allusive treatment of ancient history; and, indeed, before he had finished speaking Stephen dropped the veil. "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so do ye." What was Saul to think of such language, addressed to men for whom ago and position, as well as their reputation for learning and goodness, had secured a first place in his mind among human objects of reverence. [70/71] Clearly Stephen was an insolent rebel against all that was best in Israel. Therefore Saul was consenting unto his death.
But Saul was also guided by the promptings of piety. What was the charge against Stephen? "We" said the witnesses, have heard him speak calumnious words against Moses and against God. "This man," said they, "ceaseth not to speak calumnious words against this holy place and the law." That Stephen had ever said anything calumnious against God is incredible: this was an inference which the witnesses drew for themselves from what he did say. But no doubt he preached to the Christians against attending the temple worship. For some time after the day of Pentecost the Apostles, and all their baptized converts, continued to join in the temple services, just as though they had still been Jews; while they had their own Sacraments and prayers in private houses in Jerusalem. But this state of things could not last. It was irreconcileable with the world-wide mission of the Divine Redeemer, and with the duties of an universal Church. And St. Stephen, noon after his ordination as Deacon, was one of the first to break through it. Accordingly he proclaimed, that in the history of God's dealings with the first fathers of the race there was nothing to show that God's grace and presence were confined even to the promised land, much less to a particular spot in it. [71/72] This is why, in his defence, he insists on God's appearance to Abraham in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, on Abraham's not having even a resting-place for his feet in the Holy Land itself, on the sojourning of Abraham's descendants in a strange land, on the education of Moses in Egypt, and the exile of Moses in Midian. This is his reason for pointing out that the law had been given, not in Palestine, but on Sinai; that the ground on which Moses stood at the vision of the burning bush, though it was only the ground of the desert, yet was holy; this is why he dwells on the long years that elapsed before the Tabernacle of David was prepared; this is why he reminds his hearers that when at length the temple had been built, prophecy, by the mouth of Isaiah, did not shrink from proclaiming that God's throne was in heaven, while His footstool was the earth, and that no human building could compass the Infinite Creator. For Stephen, the Church's freedom from the duty of attending the temple service was a conviction rooted in his study of early sacred history as illuminated by the Faith of Christ. But for Saul it was a blasphemous novelty; it was an attack on claims and on duties which all good Jews held in reverence. Stephen was an assailant of the temple. And to attack the temple was by implication to attack the Law which sanctioned and protected it; and to attack [72/73] the Law was to attack its Author, Almighty God Himself. Charges of constructive heresy, are often like charges of constructive treason; but to Saul's mind the case against Stephen was made out, and he had no doubt as to what should follow. Saul was consenting unto his death.
Saul was consenting; and the bloody work went forward until all was over, and devout men had carried the bruised and mangled form of the martyr to his burial. Saul was consenting; and he would fain plunge more deeply into the work of persecution. [Acts ix. 1, cf. viii. 3.] But when all was over, the memories of what had passed came back, unwelcome but irresistibly, to the mind of the young Rabbi; and, as he saw Stephen's death in the retrospect, he felt the force of three forms of power which will ever assert themselves within the soul of man. These are the power of suffering, the power of sanctity, and the power of truth.
Suffering is power; at least when it is voluntary. The sight of a fellow-creature meeting pain and death from which he might escape if he would, and for some motive which is perhaps only half comprehended by the bystanders, stirs in all of us a deep-feeling which belongs to our common nature. Even when, as in the case of [73/74] some Eastern fanatics, the suffering is undergone for an object which our reason must condemn, much sympathy remains: and we cannot reason ourselves out of it, since it is rooted in a district of our nature which is beyond logic. Yes, suffering is power; and this power is great in proportion to the sacrifice which the pain involves. The voluntary death of the very old, the involuntary death of the very young, touch us less than the spectacle of a young man, just reaching the maturity of his faculties, and conscious of what they mean and promise, yet willingly resigning them by undergoing tortures which it is in his power to decline. For he gives not merely his best, but the best which human nature has to give; he gives his life, when it is as yet unimpaired by the premonitory advances of decay which come with years. Everything is before him; he knows it; but he yields it all up amid a tempest of ignominy and pain, for the sake of some better object, clearly present to his understanding and having control of his will. So it was with Stephen when he first stood before the Sanhedrim. He might have conciliated the High Priest had he chosen to do so; but he chose so to speak that at the end of his speech he could no longer have averted his fate. [Acts vii. 1.] He knew what he was doing; he invited the consequences that followed: and Saul, as he remembered the first, and then the second volley of stones which crushed out Stephen's young life, felt, depend on it, the power of suffering. The form of [74/75] the dying Stephen would have haunted his memory; it would have suggested a world of thought beyond itself.
And sanctity is power. It is a greater power than suffering, but greatest, perhaps, when associated with suffering. Stephen was not merely a good man; he was holy. We all of us recognize the difference. Goodness means keeping clear of what is evil; holiness means a temper and spirit that is all its own, and that reflects a higher sphere of being. Of the seven deacons, Stephen alone is described "as a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost." His wonders and miracles are accounted for by his being "full of faith and power." This inward sanctity illuminated his bodily frame, so that when he took his place before his judges in the Sanhedrim, "all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the fad, of an angel." And the secret and character of this sanctity was made plain when he came to die. The great scene at Calvary had not been lost upon the first witness to its world-redeeming power: and the two cries which escaped the dying martyr were echoes of two of the Seven Words upon the Cross. Of these, Stephen began with the last: "O, Lord Jesu, receive my spirit!" He ended with the first: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
Ah! we may try to ignore the power of a holy life, and still more of a holy death; but there is that in our [75/76] nature which, in spite of our baser selves, insists on responding to it. We cannot shake it out of our memories; we cannot withdraw our moral sense from its empire; whether we will or not, it controls us in many a subtle and unperceived vein of feeling; it does this long before we do it final justice, and yield ourselves unreservedly to its magnificent fascination. The holiness of Stephen dying was not lost upon Saul; but time was needed ere it could exhibit its commanding power.
And truth is power; when it has no longer only an abstract existence, but has taken possession of a living mind and will. When Saul of Tarsus first heard of Stephen's declaration that the temple and the Law belonged to a past dispensation, his whole soul rose against what seemed to be an utterance at issue with the truths that were dearest to his heart. And as he followed Stephen's appeal to the sacred past--an appeal in which the patriarchal and Jewish history was for the first time presented to him in an entirely new light--he doubtless regarded it as only a fine specimen of the sophistry by which error endeavours to look like truth. All this ground had long been familiar to him; but it had been traversed under the guidance of a totally different tradition. Could it be supposed that this young Hellenist had the key to the real drift and meaning of the sacred history, and that the great masters of learning in the Rabbinical schools were hopelessly wrong?
And yet it is clear that the ideas which are prominent [76/77] in Stephen's dying speech haunted the memory of Saul of Tarsus, and did their work when the tragedy outside the city gate was, over. It has been remarked more than once, that the great doctrinal positions which are illustrated with such fulness in St. Paul's Epistles exist in the germ in the speech of St. Stephen. [As especially by Baur, 'Paulus der Apostel,' i. 2.] The treatment of the patriarchal age as religiously more important than the age of the Law becomes in St. Paul's hands, when writing to the Galatians, the superiority of the Promise to the Law which could not disannul it. The elevation of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to positions of religious leadership, by Divine choice and not for reasons of existing position or accomplishments, foreshadows the doctrine of grace in opposition to that of natural or human merit in the Epistle to the Romans. The essential spirituality of worship proclaimed by Stephens is the lever with which St. Paul lifts into view the universality of Redemption and the world-wide mission of the Apostolic Church. The temper which Stephen denounced in his judges is denounced in very similar terms by St. Paul in his Epistles to the Thessalonians and the Romans, and in his sermon at Antioch, and in his address at Rome. Stephen's dying words had evidently clung to him; and when he had gained, by his conversion, the key to [77/78] Stephen's meaning, Stephen's very phrases were cherished, as invested with associations most precious and sacred.
In the true martyr, then, we find truth, sanctity, and suffering, which combine to invest him with his peculiar glory among the servants of God. These three--truth, sanctity, suffering, each of them in its perfection, meet in Jesus our Divine Lord; Who, Martyr as He was, was also so much more than the very first of martyrs. But, such is our human weakness, that these characteristics never meet in unimpaired perfection in any one of Christ's dying followers. It always has been, it always must be easy to point out some flaw in the highest of merely human characters; in the men who have done and suffered most for God's glory and for man's true interests. But the grandeur and power of martyrdom will survive the carping attacks of a petty criticism, which is itself probably incapable of a single generous resolution to do or to endure; nor is it destroyed by the more serious danger of spurious imitation. "There have been false martyrs," you say. Of course there have. Every beautiful thing in Christendom has in turn been travestied; precisely because, in this strange world of ours, the beautiful provokes the appearance of the hideous, the right that of the wrong, the true that of the false, the original that of the caricature. Our Lord said that there would be false Christs; we all know that there have been false miracles in abundance. But the false miracle [78/79] implies the existence of the true; the false Christ throws us back on the One object of our adoration; and in like manner the false martyr does but serve as a foil to the martyr in truth and deed, such as was Stephen. Saul of Tarsus lived to name in his prayer to Jesus "Thy martyr Stephen," a to the shedding of whose blood he had himself consented; he at least had no doubt that the conditions of a true martyrdom had been fulfilled before his eyes on the day when Stephen died. [Acts xxii. 20.]
The presence of Saul of Tarsus at the martyrdom of St. Stephen suggests some final considerations.
It shows us what is the view which a Christian should take of an opponent of Christian truth, whether on a larger or a smaller scene. An opponent, however fierce, is always to be regarded as a possible convert and ally. He may be a party to the worst outrages against justice and charity; and yet there is, depend upon it, a corner in his heart which is not beyond the reach of God's grace, not beyond the pathetic and commanding influence of truth. Often indeed men resist truth all the more fiercely, when they already, but unconsciously, admit its force, and are afraid of finding themselves submitting to its claims; they try by precipitate action 'to arrest the silent dictates of the reason and the heart; they keep the [79/80] raiment of the murderers, lest by a sudden impulse they should take their place side by side with the victim. Meanwhile, He who is the Truth has them in His keeping, and has far-reaching purposes of grace and mercy in store for them. They too are to be thought and spoken of tenderly; probably they are already nearly setting out on the road to Damascus.
Next, we here learn what persecution can and what it cannot do. It can put down a given form of opinion or belief, if the persecutor can, and is prepared to, exterminate. In this way Christianity was crushed out of Northern Africa in the fifth, and out of Japan in the seventeenth century. In this way the Inquisition stamped out Protestantism in Spain; in this way 'Roman Catholicism was stamped out, for a while, by Calvinism in Geneva, and by Lutheranism in Sweden. What is wanted is sufficient force, a clearly-conceived purpose, and ruthless determination. If persecution does not exterminate, it only fans the flame which it fain would quench. The English Reformation owes less to the preaching of the Reformers than to the fires of Smithfield. The Church of the first centuries is really more indebted to the persecuting emperors, than to the emperors who were philosophically or contemptuously tolerant. The Church of Jerusalem was for the moment dispersed by the death of St. Stephen and by the persecution which followed; it was dispersed, only that it might reassemble with larger hopes and a wider experience; it seemed to die back, [80/81] that it might presently expand from an unknown community in a provincial city into the world-embracing Home of souls.
And hence we may take note of the criminal folly of persecution, at least in all who name the Name of Christ. It has been said by a great living historian, whose labours have conducted him over a period of our history which religious passion, from more sides than one, has stained with blood; that if you sincerely believe in a religious creed you must punish its opponents, because a murderer of souls is a greater criminal than a murderer of bodies. This is a natural view of the case for a man to take who endeavours by an effort of imagination to realize how religious truth would look to a believer in it, but who not unnaturally overlooks the conditions by which, in a believer's mind, faith always is, or ought to be, accompanied. To recognize the converting office of the Holy Spirit is to feel that persecution is a crime; since it is an attempt to achieve by outward and mechanical violence, results which, to be worth anything before God, can only be the product of His illuminating grace. To silence is not necessarily to convince; and until conviction has been achieved, mere silence is religiously worthless. No, Brethren, the attempt to propagate or to suppress religious conviction by "cruel mockings and scourgings," or by "bonds and imprisonments," [Heb. xi. 36.] was appropriate on the part of pagan persecutors; but true Christians must [81/82] still proclaim with the Apostle, that "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal." [2 Cor. x. 4.]
Here, too, above all we discern the signal service which the martyrs have rendered to the world. The martyr may be unlearned and simple, he may be poor and uninfluential, but he achieves a great work. He raises the general idea of a religious creed from the level of the merely relative to the level of the absolute; he raises it in thousands of minds from the rank of opinion to that of certainty. For everybody knows that mere opinion about religious matters does not reasonably warrant a man in dying for it. We might die for the certain; we content ourselves with arguing in favour of the probable; or, if we are not allowed to argue, we hold our tongues. That which we hold as only probably true may, we feel, be conceivably false: and therefore to make for it the last and greatest of sacrifices--to stake our all upon it--would be unreasonable. But Truth as distinct from opinion, does warrant these sacrifices; and the martyr who makes them enriches his country and his age; enriches the Church and the human race with a new and invigorating idea of what Truth, in its absolute and sacred essence, is and means. And therefore, while other sufferers die and are forgotten, the martyr rightly has his place in the Calendar of the Church, and in the hearts and memories of her faithful children.
"I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire; and [82/83] them that had gotten the victory over the beast and over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty: just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of Saints." [Rev. xv. 2, 3.]
As the years pass, we learn the value of that lesson. All is passing. This very week the gifted writer who knew how to trace with finished exactness the inmost recesses of character, [George Eliot.] and the accomplished and kindly naturalist, whose observations have opened out to this generation unsuspected fields of knowledge, and who, in his most intimate study of nature, never failed to recognize Nature's God, have disappeared from among us into the Unseen. [Francis Trevelyan Buckland, died Dec. 19, 1880.] At no distant date we each of us must follow. And among our fellow-creatures, none surely so brace us for meeting that which lies before us, as the men to whom the future world and the Divine Redeemer Who is its Interpreter and its Monarch were so real, that they shed their blood to attest this reality; none have a greater claim on our grateful reverence than that noble and now almost countless army which for eighteen centuries, in all the countries of the world, has been painfully taking that road to heaven along which St. Stephen led the way.