You wouldn’t think it would be that dangerous being a waiter. The occasional grumpy customer when you forget an order, inconvenient hours and low wages – but stoned to death? You wouldn’t think so. Yet in the sixth chapter of Acts Stephen is chosen as one of seven who will "wait on tables," an occupation and a witness that will lead to his death. The 12 apostles must not be distracted from their preaching to attend to the daily distribution of food to the widows. So Stephen and the others are chosen not to preach or to teach but to serve – an apparently lower-ranking occupation that is actually subversive because in his ministry of care for Jews and Gentiles alike Stephen manages to draw the ire of some powerful factional groups and that, Acts tells us, is what gets him killed. The point, in other words, is that the first Christian martyr is not a missionary, not an orator or a theologian or a bishop but one whose calling is to feed the hungry.
And today’s reading picks up the story just as Stephen, having preached a fairly forgettable sermon, prepares himself to meet his Maker. And in Luke’s made-for-Hollywood version we can’t help but notice some similarities between the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus. Like Jesus, Stephen is attacked by an angry crowd and taken out of the city. In his last words, Stephen commends his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended his to the Father. At the end, as Stephen prays for his enemies and forgives his attackers, "Lord, do not hold this against them," we hear the words of Jesus rattling in our ears, "Father, forgive them".
Clearly, as he builds up the story so we can’t help but notice the echoes behind it, Luke is trying to tell us something, trying to make both a theological and a practical point. Which is that discipleship – the decision to follow and try to behave like Jesus – leads inevitably to the cross. Discipleship – bearing witness to Jesus by imitating Jesus’ model of self-sacrifice – carries a high price-tag. If we do it right – that is, if we are actually whole-hearted about it, if we follow Jesus’ path of self-giving love even when it leads to confrontation with selfishness and vested interests – our own self-centredness as well as the insular attitudes of those around us – then there is a cost. Comfortable Sunday Christianity, Luke is reminding us, the sort of Christianity that affirms our own view of the world without demanding too much of us, the comfortable congregation of the like-minded is not actually discipleship.
I maybe should clarify that I am not actually recommending – and I don’t think Luke is, either – that to be Christian means you have to go out and deliberately make such a nuisance of yourself that people want to throw rocks at you. The bishop might have something to say about it, if too many St Michaels parishioners start coming to sticky ends ... actual martyrdom, after all, is not an end in itself but a consequence, in particular times and circumstances, of the choice to live Jesus’ way of love with integrity and without compromise. But Luke’s basic point, I think, is this: that the way of Jesus necessarily costs us something – that the cross, ultimately, is not just something we hang around our neck but something that comes with the decision to follow Christ. And it’s a good litmus test – the question to ask ourselves – has my faith got too comfortable? is this just a lifestyle or even worse, just a habit, just a way of keeping in touch with friends on a Sunday morning, just something I do because I’ve always done it? And the test is to ask yourself: what does my Christianity cost me? Is there really a struggle for me? Am I constantly finding I need to confront the contradiction between my own desires and the way of Jesus? Am I giving of myself – financially, my time, my personal space – to the extent that it really costs me something? Because if not, then Luke suggests I’m not doing it right.
Well, you might be thinking, what a cheery little number for the day after Christmas. First, the Church says, all through Advent – hang on, we’re not ready for the stable and the star yet, we’ve got work to do! And then the very next day, the Feast of St Stephen and the preacher is telling us to go out and get uncomfortable. Can we at least wait until we’ve eaten all the Christmas dinner leftovers?
But you see, there is a reason why the Church puts St Stephen on the 26th of December, why we celebrate the martyrdom of St John on the 27th and Holy Innocents Day on the 28th – and that’s because unless we do, then Christmas is incomplete.
Christmas – God’s creative initiative to bless and perfect creation by stepping inside it, the joining together of earth and heaven – is incomplete. Jesus, the Word of God made human flesh – who makes the mess and chaos of human life holy by taking it on himself – is unable to complete the work of incarnate love – without us.
There is an ancient Christmas blessing which I love, because it suggests that Christmas is not a fait accompli, not a done deal, until we do our bit. ‘Receive Christmas’, is the greeting. God has done this, God has entered our world and that changes everything – so long as we receive Christmas. God has been born into human flesh and that makes us holy, that gifts us and all creation with the language of heaven – so long as we are willing to receive it. We, in fact, have still to do the work of Mary of Nazareth, who consents to allow God’s Word to gestate and come to birth within her. She, of course, is the first human creature to receive Christmas, to recognise the task of allowing her own DNA to be transformed by nurturing the enfleshed Word of God within her. But the work of Mary is the work of Christmas that we all are invited to do.
God has entered our world, we are invited to enter the love-song of the angels, and yes – there is a cost for us as there was a cost for Mary, a cost for Stephen and as there has been a cost for every human child of God who has consented to be the parent of God’s Word. The wood of the manger, as is often pointed out, is also the wood of the cross, and the shadow of Good Friday falls in the corner of the stable. We know what this child is born to, and deep within us we also know what it means for us. That our own burden of suffering and joy is made holy – that the burden of suffering and joy of our world has entered into the body of Christ and so is no longer separate from us – that our own lives are incarnate within the frail and wonderful web of all that draws breath. We can never again see ourselves as separate from any creature for whom Christ suffered, the suffering, for example of those whose fragile boat was smashed against the limestone cliffs of Christmas island last week is the suffering of Christ, and wounds us wonderfully. To receive Christmas is to look for the woundedness of Christ in your own life, in the lives of those you love and in those whose lives never intersect yours at all.
To receive Christmas is to be wounded, to know that Christ is incarnate in you, to receive in equal measure joy and sorrow, and to accept the way of the cross.