Today we remember St Stephen, the first martyr. Just as Stephen some of his hearers who disliked his words, but could not counter the truth of what he said, were “infuriated and ground their teeth at him“. Stephen, however persisted in proclaiming the truth – and paid the price.
Countless gay men, lesbians and trans people have similarly encountered anger, hatred and violence for living lives of sexual or gender honesty, and even more for speaking publicly about the morality and integrity of our lives.
Blinded by their prejudices, unable to counter our honesty with valid arguments and unwilling to accept our difference from themselves, they too grind their teeth in fury – or resort to violence in words or actions, or attempt to exclude us from their religious communities.
But honesty and persistence pay off, in the long run. One of those assisting at the martyrdom of Stephen was Saul of Tarsus, who later underwent a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, and became the most persuasive and effective advocate for Christ, of them all – most notably, as the apostle to the Gentiles, arguing for inclusion of ethnic outsiders alongside the Jews in the growing Christian community.. In the same way, in recent years it has been remarkable how many previously implacable opponents of LGBT equality and inclusion, in secular law and in the church, have transformed their views after meeting and talking with queer individuals and couples, about their lives and families.
It is said that the growth of the early Christian church was watered with the blood of its martyrs – but there are two senses to the word. The better known usage, refers to those who have suffered physical death for their faith, but at a simpler, more literal level the Greek word from which it derives means simply “to bear witness”. It is tragic that so many of our community have suffered martyrdom in the first sense, of physical violence, murder or judicial execution simply for being true to themselves, but we are all called to martyrdom in the more basic sense – of bearing witness. The more we do so, the more of us there are who are able to come out publicly in church as well as in society, the greater the number of opponents there will be who, like Paul and his modern counterparts, will come to see the errors in their homophobia and hatred – and become instead, straight allies and advocates for inclusion, justice and equality for sexual and gender outsiders, alongside the heterosexual and cisgender majorities in the Churches.
Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people. But then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, some from Cyrene and Alexandria who were members of the synagogue called the Synagogue of Freedmen, and others from Cilicia and Asia. They found they could not get the better of him because of his wisdom, and because it was the Spirit that prompted what he said. They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him.
But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘I can see heaven thrown open’ he said ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they all rushed at him, sent him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
– (Acts 6:8-10,7:54-59