You might think it’s a good job that Ella- Rose is too young to understand the Bible readings we’ve just heard, because they seem a bit gloomy for such a happy occasion.
Jesus talks about a home in heaven for us at the end of life: and the story of Stephen tells us how suddenly and violently his life ends.
But I think these are amazing readings, which remind us that Ella –Rose is starting out on a journey today which Jesus promises will never end. Today we celebrate Ella Rose’s baptism and remember that the love of God is here for her and will travel with her all through the life that we know and beyond it to the place we call ‘heaven’ – the life that never ends, in God.
I have often used the words of Jesus from John’s gospel at funeral services – they are words many people find comforting. A promise of a Home in
Heaven, many dwelling places, prepared for us by Jesus himself, a place of peace and eternal rest.
But the Story of Stephen reminds us that this earth is not our home, but that if we are followers of Jesus our eyes should be on something higher than our own comfort. Stephen is content to be a faithful follower of Jesus and to stick to the truth of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son, even though it cost him his life. But the good news is that Stephen knew that God’s love which he had seen in Jesus would never leave him, whatever happened.
We do not live in a place or a time of such danger – we know that Ella- Rose will never be kidnapped or tried or stoned for her faith. But we should not let this relative safety and security blind us to the truth: this world is not our home –this little span of life is not all we get: our journey is much longer than that.
Baptism is the beginning of a much longer journey with God than we can possibly imagine. That is both a comfort and a challenge to each one of us. If this world is not all there is: if God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe, then how we live our lives is affected by that.
Stephen thought that living always remembering God’s love was worth giving up his life for: and he’s only one in a long line of 2000 years of Christian martyrs. Even today, especially in those countries where different faiths clash, there are people who lose their lives because they refuse to give up their Christian faith.
Stephen was not recruited as a preacher or a teacher but as an administrator, helping to share out food in the early church. Yet Stephen is ‘full of grace and power’ and begins to do great wonders and signs among the people, and so becomes involved in a debate in the Synagogue about the rightness of choosing to follow Jesus. Trumped up charges of blasphemy are brought against Stephen, in a bid to get rid of him.
In his defence, Stephen paints a picture of God constantly calling his people forward, and people constantly resisting. So all the prophets of God have been persecuted, and latterly Jesus has been rejected, says Stephen. “You have received the law given by God’s angels and yet you have not kept it”. The people in the synagogue rise up in fury and stone Stephen, as we have heard.
Stephen preaches the need to listen to the new things that God is doing, the need to be prepared to hear the gospel afresh and not stick with what is known and comfortable. And he lives what he preaches – he doesn’t just settle for the job of administration he has been given, but is open to the prompting of God’s Spirit which leads him to teach and preach and be faithful to God’s message even to the point of death. His sight is not set on his own plans for life – but on the dwelling place prepared for him by Jesus in God’s kingdom.
The challenge to each one of us is to respond to Christ’s call on our lives by having our eyes open to the things of heaven – the gifts which God gives us – peace, love and our true home.
This journey starts with God’s love for Ella-Rose & each one of us, and it calls us to follow Jesus Christ in our walk to heaven. And then o this journey through life we have to be prepared to be someone remarkable, for God.