Yesterday's PAYG was based on the story of the stoning of Stephen, traditionally identified as the first Christian martyr, with martyr being understood as someone who dies, or at least is tortured or interrogated, for what they believe. However, given that the Greek word translates simply as witnesses, we discover martyrs (witnesses) in the crowd who observe his execution:
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"
But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.
Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7: 54 - 60 NRSV)
Witnesses are not passive observers, they are there for a purpose - in this case to oversee the execution. As I was pondering the passage yesterday, and continued to overnight, I was struck afresh by the fact as members of a religious establishment, we find ourselves cast, not in the role of Stephen, but of Saul and the other witnesses. The temptation is always to defend the status quo, to protect the ideals and values that have served us well, rather than to be willing to hear new things.
Saul, later Paul, must have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the events of that day, and though he presumably eventually came to terms with his own past, he could not change it. Of the ministers I know, there are many, myself included, whose theological understandings have changed, sometimes dramatically over time. We, too, have our pasts, with the bits that make us cringe or that we would now approach differently. I think perhaps the challenge is to move from passive by-standing to active witnessing - both as we reflect on our own past, and as we observe what is happening around us.
Open my eyes so that I may see more clearly the reality of which I am part
Open my ears to hear beyond the words, to the nuances and codes
Open my mind to engage with challenges and conundrums
Open my heart to the ache of sacrificial love
Let me be no passive observer
No pseudo-objective commentator
Let me be a witness for truth
Let me, even me. be a martyr for your cause