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THE PRAYER OF STEPHEN.
(Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 1832.)
TEXT: ACTS vii. 60. “And Stephen kneeled down and cried with, a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
FREE and unrestricted as we are in our church as to our choice of subjects for meditation from the treasuries of the divine Word, many of you may still perhaps wonder why I have selected this passage. For you are aware that I have often lately taken occasion to express the opinion that the state of things brought before us in this narrative no longer exists in our times: that when people boast of having had to bear sufferings for Christ’s sake, it has usually been only a self-deception on their part; for when the thing has been more closely looked into, either it has been found to be no suffering at all, judged by the ordinary measure of human life; or, if it was real suffering, then it was not for Christ’s sake, but for the sake of some man’s system or opinion. But all Scripture given by God is profitable for doctrine and instruction in righteousness; and there is no part of it, however slight its direct bearing on our circumstances may be, about which that statement does not always hold good; and that, without our having to wander into applications of the words widely different from the direct meaning of the writers. Therefore, with this belief, we will take to-day, as the subject of our devout meditations, this prayer of Stephen in its various aspects.386
I. I shall call your attention first to the thought that most deeply touches and stirs our feelings, that we may then be able to take a calmer view of other points,—the thought, namely, that these words are the prayer of a dying man. And it is the utterance, not of one who was merely experiencing the common lot of men, but of one who was dying for the Saviour’s sake, and for the confession of His name,—the prayer of him who was, after the Saviour Himself, the first martyr in the Christian Church.
What a joyful thing it is to think of these words in their original connection! how immediately and vividly they recall to us those words which they so closely resemble, the words of the Saviour on the cross; Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! And yet we do not even know if he who uttered them had ever heard of those words of the Saviour; for it was not until later that the plan so rich in blessing to believers was systematically set about, of collecting and handing down the sayings of the Lord, so that every one might easily acquire a knowledge of the most important of them. But if Stephen had not heard them, it only proves the more certainly that the same Spirit who had spoken in the Master was speaking in the disciple. And because this Spirit has never since that time been withdrawn from the Christian Church, because it is He who is the source of all good gifts, of all words and deeds that tend to the advancement of the kingdom of God, we may all claim this utterance as our own. For remember the words of the apostle, that “all things are ours,”—each individual with his gifts and his works,—so that in the Church of God every deed pleasing to Him is not only a common benefit, but something that all, as members of one body, may appropriate as their own. And how often may similar prayers have gone up inaudibly from the hearts of those who followed the first preachers of the gospel on this thorny path! For how much precious “blood was poured out in later times through 387this same animosity of men against the greatest proof of goodwill that God had ever shown them! And how could it but be that in those who were impelled by the same feeling to brave such dangers and sufferings, the same Spirit should stir their hearts and speak through their lips in a similar way?
But now that the Christian faith is enthroned in so many nations; now that, ready as the heart of man would still be to rise against the name of the Lord and to fight against it with the sword of earthly power, none are tempted to do so, because there would be no chance of success; now that through the increase of intellectual gifts and the manifold outward blessings produced by the beneficent spirit of Christianity wherever it has reached, the Christian nations maintain so clear a supremacy over all others;—whence now should come any such sufferings for the Saviour’s sake? The more remote from us those times become, the more rare become such instances of persecution. Christians themselves have indeed sometimes been found in fierce antagonism against each other, each party sure that truth and pure love to the Saviour are on his own side; while their party feeling makes all real knowledge and perception of His teaching impossible. But seeing that this has only occurred on passing occasions and in times of unusual excitement, we gladly throw over it a veil of loving oblivion. And yet we cannot but say that though the trial may not perhaps come in exactly the same form, yet times of a similar nature may be before us. Tor just because the spread of the Christian faith brings in its train so rich an enlargement of all human faculties, of all mental endowments, of all the comforts of common life; because, at the same time, on its doing so depends the possibility of making known the word of the Lord ever more widely among men, till it gradually fills the whole earth,—for these very reasons everything that concerns the true prosperity of men in all their affairs stands in close connection with the kingdom of God. And if differing 388opinions arise as to what does advance the well-being of men; if men engage in hot controversy,—each seeing in him who differs from him an enemy of all good, whether as hindering human development, or as an enemy to repose and peace and to the secure enjoyment of what God has given us; if from feelings they go on to action, each believing that he has a right, or that, in fact, it is his duty to crush the other by all lawful means; and so cripples him in his work, and prejudices others against him and alienates them from him so far as he can; then indeed there is suffering for the sake of convictions and for the sake of what is good. And the more really such disputants are Christians according to the Spirit, and not merely desiring to be called so; and the more they therefore connect all the good that they might wish or effect for men with the Fountain of all good, desiring that it should conduce to the advancement of God’s kingdom; just so much the more sure are they to see, in everything that opposes them in their efforts, sin that is specially sinful as rising in hostility against the Lord.
Only there is one thing that we must not forget. Even in such cases, if we regard what befalls us only in its bearing on ourselves; if he who suffers in this way—granting that he has been the means of doing good in the way of his calling and duty—is thinking only of himself, then there cannot arise from his heart a prayer such as this that we hear from the heart of Stephen. For in that case it is not sin, specially as sin, that he desires the Lord may not lay to men’s charge, it is only that he is willing to forgive the wrong done to himself. But if one is strong enough to look away from himself at all in his last moments—and we imagine such a one, after having been, perhaps for the best part of his life and up to its close, the object of enmity and persecution one who has experienced all that can be poured from that fountain of bitterness into a human life;—if we think of him looking back as one whoso only thought about 389himself concerns the well-being of his soul, how must the past appear to him? If the sufferings which the Lord has appointed to him have not served to purify his nature and to eradicate from his heart the last root of bitterness against his brethren; if they have not cleansed his heart and ripened his spirit by compelling him unceasingly to labour that he might, amidst those distracting troubles, keep steadily in view the aim set before him: if they have not worked to these ends, then, oh, far from thinking of others and having wishes for them, what can be his nearest concern but to repent and seek mercy for himself, because he has not used according to God’s will those things which, bitter though they were, were gifts from Him? But if his trials have produced such fruits,—if he has been ripened in the school of suffering and persecution, and so grown in the true wisdom of God’s children,—if the image of the Saviour’s gentleness has been so formed in him that the malice of his enemies could never call forth answering hatred in him, but that he ever met with love those who opposed him; oh, then he has indeed cause to praise God for what He has done for him. And what kind of a prayer will he offer for those whom God has used as His instruments? What but that God will bless them for the salvation that has come to him through them, for the good they have been the means of doing for him? And far from thinking of the wrong which he has suffered, bitter as it has been, he will, in his last moments, bless his enemies as the channels of God’s grace and love.
II. Let us therefore mark, as our second thought, that this prayer, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” in any circumstances similar to those in which that servant of the Lord was placed, can be the prayer only of one who entirely loses sight of himself. By this I mean that we, as Christians, should not at all be taken up with the weighing and considering of our own position, as to what, according to the 390customary and prevalent notions of men, it may contain of happiness and prosperity. He who cannot rise above this, but is always taking an estimate of his life, comparing himself, in this respect, with others, and asking, on every favourable or unfavourable turn of his affairs, who has been the cause of it; he who thus never loses sight of himself cannot but regard those whose influence has proved so adverse as in the case before us, as his enemies and adversaries. And if any one, while full of such feelings, could yet rise to such a prayer as this, and say, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge, nothing could be less like the prayer of Stephen. It would rather be a vain and false generosity; it would be what men so often, though erroneously, call noble, and take much credit to themselves for, as something great and difficult of attainment; counting it, though I must call them mistaken, as the highest point of Christian virtue, to be able sincerely to forgive our enemies. I, at least, am so far from holding this to be the height of Christian love, that I do not believe it would enter the mind of a real Christian at all! For he who loses sight of himself in the way I have spoken of, so that his only thoughts about himself are as to what he is bound to do, what is committed to him, what he has to render account of; who, whatever befalls him, whether joyous or grievous according to the world’s view, only seeks to turn it to account, and asks what use he is to make of it; he who feels and acts in this way,—for him there are never enemies,—never any over whom he vaingloriously exalts himself, and then magnanimously asks forgiveness for them, as it were, for his sake. If, then, we detect in ourselves any such feelings, let us at once search our hearts for the hidden selfishness which is there, that we may rise out of it to the self-forgetfulness in which we shall simply regard ourselves as instruments in God’s hand for the work of His kingdom. No, let us never turn back to striving for earthly possessions and advantages, even for good ends. Let us never measure 391by so mean a rule an existence which, if it has really become one with the Saviour, can have no other aim than, like Him, to do the will of God. If we have taken up such a position towards men that for us there exist no circumstances in which we could call any man our enemy; then, in whatever way they may act towards us, they are always and only our brethren, whom we are to care for, to warn and instruct, when we are in a position to do so, to draw away from danger, so far as they are willing to grasp our offered hand, and in whom, even should they reject all our advances, we can never see enemies or antagonists. And the more justly we can claim to have dedicated our life to the Saviour, and as His servants, to whom His word is addressed, to have recognised in it the will of our heavenly Father; just the more certainly is it some remnant of that dangerous spiritual pride through which we are so ready to exalt ourselves above others, which leads us, in any case, to take such a view of our relations towards others as to suppose we need to ask forgiveness for them for sins committed against us. We are anxious that they should honour us as persons whose lives are devoted to the kingdom of God; we think that on this account they should give way to the violent outbursts of their passions much less against us than against others. Thus we set ourselves up over them, and then we are willing to ask pardon for them from above. But that cannot really be called prayer, to ask that the Lord will not lay to their charge the sins which, in fact, they cannot have committed against us. For nothing can properly be called sin but that which is sin against God. And beside such sins, be they laid to men’s charge or not, any wrong which we may have suffered from them must utterly disappear. Men may, no doubt, do us wrong, and we ourselves may forgive them for it, and we do well in so doing; but sin they commit only against God; that is, against His holy laws, against His will, made known to us through His Son. Hence he only who 392has one sole aim in view, who is concerned about nothing and wishes for nothing in this life but to see the kingdom of God ever more firmly established, more widely extended, more gloriously built up; he alone, when men, by their sin, oppose this purpose of God, can say, in deed and in truth, without the slightest reference to himself, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
III. Let this then be our last lesson from this subject, that these words can express the thoughts and feelings only of a man who seeks after nothing but the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Such a man, without doubt, was he whose last words are here reported to us. For, consider, he was one of those whom the assembly of believers had selected from among others, in the confidence that they would manage the temporal affairs of the Church with perfect integrity and most impartial and careful fidelity, and would themselves do works of love in distributing the gifts of love among those who needed them. This office, to which he and the others were ordained by the apostles of the Lord, opened to him a wide field of work, and yet he did not feel that this was enough. He felt that this special work must not hinder him from fulfilling that great duty which was then binding on all Christians—the confessing everywhere of their faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. Therefore Stephen did not forsake the place where he had been accustomed to meet with others on appointed days for prayer, and to hear and meditate on the Scriptures together; but after his appointment, as before, he went to this gathering of devout men who still adhered to the old covenant. But now he did so especially for the purpose of giving an account of the faith that gladdened his heart, if perhaps he might win some into the blessed fellowship of the Son of God; and it was this course of conduct that brought him into the position in which we see him in our text. And what ardent zeal for the progress of God’s kingdom appears in his whole discourse! 393He was a stranger in the land of the covenant people, one of the descendants of Abraham who belonged to the Dispersion. The most devout among these always aimed, above everything else, at returning to live in Jerusalem, where they would be near their holy temple, and be able there to join in the worship they loved, and to celebrate the glorious feasts of their people. Stephen had succeeded in doing this; and therefore in his speech he rapidly reviews the past history of the nation, in order to show that though for long he had been, as to his place of abode, a stranger, yet, while far away, he had been no stranger to the progress of events among his own people. He shows himself well acquainted, not only with their external, but with their inner history; he reminds them, for their warning, how persecution had always fallen on the prophets who had sought to press the claims of God’s will on the people; and he shows his hearers that all the prophets had spoken of that Just One whose name he now declared. And so utterly was his whole mind bent on the one object, that though he might easily have foreseen what he was bringing upon himself (for already the people had gnashed at him with their teeth), yet he so lost sight of himself that in the fervour of his speech and exhortation, looking up to heaven, he felt constrained to say that he saw the Lord standing on the right hand of God: so fully assured was he that the way which he proclaimed was the one way by which alone man could gain access to God, and that, in clue time, all should bow to Him whom now in the Spirit he saw at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Such was the character of Stephen; and therefore he had no thought to give to the injustice done to himself,—none to the wild storms of passion that raged against his life. He heeded only his people’s resistance to all the testimonies from history and from the word of God, their persistence in the sin against which he had warned them from the example of their fathers, their stubborn 394opposition to the counsel of God; and, with the thought of these things weighing on his heart, he prayed, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
It is not improbable that we may find occasion to use this prayer, not merely at the close of our life, but throughout its whole course in this world, where it has not ceased to be true that the flesh lusts against the Spirit. Let us therefore use every such occasion as a means of maturing in ourselves a state of mind like Stephen s. Let us especially use in this way every occasion on which we can show that while we estimate the actions of men only as to what may be their bearing on the beneficent will of God, we also see in all wrong-doing only opposition to the good that God has in tended towards men; and that when we say, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” we use the prayer in the sense in which Stephen used it, and with no thought of ourselves. For what, my friends, does it mean, this laying of sin to a man’s charge? It is laid to his charge if he holds fast to it; it is laid to his charge if he is successful in it; it is laid to his charge in the surest and saddest way of all when he reaches, even for a passing moment, the goal at which he aims; it is laid to his charge when he persistently disregards all exhortations to enter the kingdom of God, and turns a deaf ear to the solemn voice that invites all to come. When Stephen uttered these words, was not this what he meant—that God would be pleased not utterly to exclude them, on account of their sin, from that kingdom of His into which Stephen as a faithful servant had sought to draw them, and invited them even with his last breath—that He would not lay sin to their charge by closing that kingdom too early against them, so that even yet, during their life on earth, they might begin to share in its blessings,—that He would bend to the keeping of His commands those powers which were now arrayed in hostility against the kingdom of His Son? That was what Stephen had in his mind when he 395said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” and that alone is the meaning it should always have for us. When opposition to the progress of God’s kingdom abates; when minds that have been at variance draw ever closer together in seeking salvation at the same living fountain; when the spiritual eye becomes clearer to distinguish truth from error and turns towards the heavenly light; then sins are forgotten and forgiven; then indeed they have vanished, for their power has ceased. When, on the contrary, men harden themselves in opposition to God’s way of salvation; when they stop their ears more and more closely against the call, “Arise from the dead and Christ shall give thee light”; then, too truly, their sins are laid to their charge. And how nobly Stephen’s prayer was fulfilled at least in one case! But how notable a case that one was! For the convert was Saul, at whose feet were laid the garments of those who assembled in wild fury to stone Stephen. He was thus not merely a witness of the deed, but took part in it, and ap proved of it. And though we know nothing of others who joined in it, what a blessed result of this prayer is seen in the life-work of the great apostle! And who can tell what influence the remembrance of this memorable scene may have had, when the Saviour called to him in this way, “Saul, Saul, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” And for those who are able in the same pure way to plead with God that He may not lay the sin? of their brethren to their charge, there will always be such blessings to rejoice over.
But the more we have occasion to use this prayer, the less must we let it remain only a petition. If we use it in the spirit in which it was used by Stephen, then, as long as life and strength continue, our. desire must not rest satisfied with rising to heaven; it will return, as it were, with blessing to our own hearts, and become a fountain of deeds well-pleasing to God, of love that cannot be wearied, of zeal that never grows cold in leading men to Him in whom alone they can 396find salvation. We must not tire of trying to draw men to Him, and we must continue steadfast in the duty of being always ready to give a reason of the hope that is in us, and to direct every one into the right way; till at last, when the Master calls us from the scene of our active service, and our life on earth is closing, to the prayer that the Lord will advance His kingdom and dwell in His grace wherever faithful souls already fear and love Him, we shall join, as an inseparable part of our last benediction, this other petition, that the sins of those who still strive against the kingdom of the Saviour may not be laid to their charge. And this longing for blessing to others which characterized the prayer of Stephen as it had characterized that of the Saviour, which alone has always set the stamp of consecration on those who were martyrs for the faith—for those who were not capable of such a petition were no true martyrs—this spirit is still in operation, and its effects may be clearly traced. Therefore however much disunion we see in the Christian community and in regard to all spiritual matters; however often evil passions may mingle with those things, and wrath and hatred be stirred up; let us only, as long as we live, oppose to all this the power of love, striving after this one thing, to overcome evil with good. Then shall we be sure of having, even in our last moments, none but loving feelings towards those who have been most hostile to us; and on prayers breathed in this spirit there will always rest the blessing of Him whose prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” we are to use as our pattern,—of Him who could regard even the sin of resisting Him, the Son of God, as ignorance—as darkness to move compassion, and that only lacked the light. Let us resolve to rise by the help of the divine Word to the spirit of this prayer, and more steadfastly to consecrate our whole lives to the work of bringing hearts into union, that there may be less and less sin, and therefore less cause to pray that it may not be laid to men’s charge.397
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