From a sermon for St. Stephen’s Day
Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. (Acts 7:56)
When Stephen said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” that truth which he had been proclaiming presented itself to him just as actually as any visible thing presents itself to the eye. It was not a doctrine of the incarnation that he acknowledged in that hour – a mere doctrine would have stood him in little stead. It was a person who stood before him, a person on whom he might call, in whom he might trust. He was sure it was life and substance he was in contact with. It was a Son of Man, the fellow worker and fellow-sufferer with every human being; one who had broken down the distinction while he was on Earth between publican and Pharisee; one who would break down the distinction, older and more sacred still, between Jew and Gentile. Was it not an opening of Heaven which disclosed such a union of humanity with divinity? Did not that opening of Heaven foretell a shaking of all religions – of all politics on Earth – which stood on some other foundation than this; which either severed humanity from God or tried to fashion a God out of the human notions?
Yes! This was the witness, the distinctive Christian witness; that which it was worthwhile to die for, that which it was possible to die for. An immense majority might vote it ridiculous, but its truth or falsehood depended on no majority. Stephen could cast it forth on the Earth to perish, if it was an opinion of his or anyone else or of any age.
Would it, then, have surprised him to hear that this truth might have to be vindicated in after days as it was in his days against consistories of religious doctors substituting their dead systems for a living Creator and Father; denying that God had really been made known to us or that there is really a way from us to God. Would he not count it inevitable that any society which had learned to regard truth as a mere dominant opinion, to be enforced as other opinions are enforced, would lose its connection with him who is the Truth, would become hard-hearted and inhuman, therefore un-Christian, and would need to be reminded, even by those who do not bear the name of Christ, what he is and what he came into the world to do?
Saint Stephen’s witness is the witness which the church of God is to bear upon Earth. The true martyr bears that witness and no other.
But this would be a very impractical conclusion if it did not lead each of us to ask, “How may I, in my place and calling, bear witness to this Son of Man, if I indeed believe that there is a Son of Man and that he has revealed God to us and that he stands at the right hand of God?” I think, my friends, that no people can less escape that inquiry than we, the members of the Anglican Church. By every act and service from Advent to Trinity, by the language of our confessions, prayers, thanksgivings, by our creeds and sacraments, we solemnly avow Sunday after Sunday, day after day, our belief that there is truly a Son of Man, one in all things with us, who has justified and glorified our human race at the right hand of God. I doubt not that any who are raised up to testify on behalf of the truth which enabled Stephen to fall quietly asleep with a prayer for his country and for those who were stoning him will always find these creeds mighty aids and comforts. Still less can I doubt that the Bible, in its plain history, stripped of all refinements, will be to them, as the early part of it was to Saint Stephen, the chief strengthener of their faith, the great weapon against all artificial, notional, exclusive religion.
Judging according to human calculation there never was a time when such witnesses were more demanded or were less likely to appear. But we are not to judge according to human calculations. This is God’s own cause, and God will take care of it. In places of which we know nothing, by process of education which we cannot guess, God may have been preparing these witnesses. In the very year that is coming they may appear in our lands or in lands which we suppose in our vanity need reformation more. Whenever or wherever they arise they will speak with power to the hearts of those who need the Son of Man. They will be sure, even when their own vision is weakest, that the heavens will one day be opened and that the Son of Man will be revealed to the whole universe at his Father’s right hand.