And they stoned Stephen calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this he fell asleep.—Acts vii. 59, 60.
THE previous sermon was principally directed to dealing with two of Peter's miracles, the healing of the palsied iEneas and the raising of the dead Dorcas, which were evidently modelled after the fashion of our Lord's works. They suggested the thought that the aim of a true Christian in his life and work should be likeness to the Lord. I complete the considerations on which we entered then by my remarks now, which are mainly directed to the death of the first martyr, which is evidently modelled upon Christ's death. He teaches us how to live; He teaches us how to die. So from the words before us we draw the one thought of what death becomes to a man who is able, by faith and love, to meet it as Jesus Christ met it. It becomes I. A Willing And Trustful Surrender.
I need not, I suppose, spend time in pointing out the evident traces of a deliberate imitation of the great Example in the last words of the proto-martyr, but the difference between the dying Christ's words and the dying Stephen's are as instructive as the resemblances, and fling up these into greater prominence. I do not think it is fanciful, from that point of view, to lay stress on the differences in the order of the two prayers. It was at a very early stage of the long agony of the Cross that Jesus Christ prayed that His murderers might be forgiven, and it was at the end of the agony that He said: "Into Thy hands I commend my spirit." But Stephen reversed the order, for his first cry was: "Receive my spirit," and his second was: "Lay not this sin to their charge." I think that is a hint that the servant had not attained the sublime patience with which the Lord endured the long agony of the Cross. No wonder if, bruised beneath the cruel, heavy stones, and bleeding from many a jagged wound, he, like many another sufferer at the stake or on a bed, cried to the Lord to take him out of his pain.
Then the other difference which springs to sight on the most superficial reading, is that, while Jesus addressed the Father, Stephen addressed Jesus. No doubt the prayer, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," was the answer of faith to the vision that had been granted of the opened heavens and the Christ sprung to His feet to help His servant. But, however little conscious of theological inferences to be deduced from this cry to Jesus Stephen was, the fact that here, instinctively and most naturally, at that early stage of the history of the Christian Church, the dying martyr turned to Christ with a prayer does witness to his belief in Christ's divine nature and Lordship over life and death. Strange that a dying man should cry thus for help to a dead man who had not been able to save himself! Inexplicable, as I believe, on any rational ground, without the admission of the great facts of the Resurrection and Ascension. If Christ were risen indeed, and only if so, it was natural that the martyr should turn to the Crucified, and pray: "Receive my spirit."
There is another slight, but very real, difference in the two prayers, in that Jesus said, "I commend" laying greatest prominence on His own act of voluntary decease, while the servant said, "Receive," meaning substantially the same thing, but with a difference of perspective, as it were, and giving greater prominence to the Christ-act of reception than to the servant's act of surrender.
Now, all these differences, which though slight, are instructive, rest on, and are the expression of, the one difference that the one death was the death of the Incarnate Word, and the other was the death of the humble servant, and they hint to us that, however close may be the imitation possible to the best of His followers, either in life or in death, there will always be something over, which cannot be imitated, and before which we can only adoringly bow and aspire.
But nowturn, briefly, to the resemblances in this prayer.
I. We see in it, first, A Willing Surrender.
Ah! how different a death into which a believing will enters, concurring with a physical necessity and accepting it, and the death in which a man is dragged out of life by an unwelcome compulsion arising from his bodily condition. He is like a man hanging on the edge of a precipice, and convulsively thrusting his nails into the crumbling rock, and feeling it yielding to his touch. To go out of life because we must, is misery; to go out of it because our wills accept the necessity is triumph and victory. The one is death indeed, the other is the opening of the spirit to the influx of a larger life. Blessed is he who at that last hour goes willingly, because he knows that he goes after his Lord, recognizing that the grave, too, is a "place whither the Forerunner for us is entered," and hears as he passes into the gloom that Jesus lights up: "he that followeth Me shall not walk in the darkness, but"—even there—" shall have the light of life." It is blessed to have Him with us, when the awful isolation of death parts us from all others, and the spot where we stand begins to sink, as did the ground round Korah and his company, and a gap to open which deepens and widens to a gulf, across which the love that is closest can only cast a wistful look. The man that, dying, is made like Jesus can leave earth behind unregretting, and pass into the Obscure unfearing.
There is another thought suggested by that prayer: "Receive my spirit," namely, that there dawned before Stephen's dying eye the vision of falling, not into a vast dim abyss, but into soft and loving hands outstretched. I spoke of dropping from a precipice. Do you expect to drop down, down, down, not knowing into what, or do you expect that a yard or two below your feet there will be stretched out the hands that were pierced with the nails, and which will receive you when you fall? It is a blessed thing, dying, to drop into the hands of the loving Christ.
That prayer, "Receive my spirit," overlooked all the externals of death and change of condition, and was absorbed in the calm hope: "I shall be closer to Him than ever I was before." That is the one thought that enables us to minimize what else stands up gigantic and threatening at the close of every earthly life. Much in that future is dim, the faint light is peopled with mysteries ; the very glories that are there are so remote from our experience that they have little power really to attract us. But there is one hope—and only one, as I believe—that makes the awful prospect of immortal life a gift and a joy, and that is, that we shall be with Christ. He is Heaven, and Heaven is He. Stephen knew very little of what he was to meet beyond this earth, but he knew Whom he was to meet, and that was enough for him.
The death, moulded on Christ's, is—
II. A Calm Putting Away Op Earthly Passions.
"Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." He divested his spirit, as it were, of the foul stuff of hatred and vengeance, because he thought of the Master Who had said, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." I need only repeat, in a sentence, what I have already remarked as to the former prayer, viz., that here we have, in the instinctive, not deliberate, address to Jesus Christ in supplication, testimony to the early and deep growth of the highest conception of Christ's character in the primitive Church. Mark how he not only speaks to Christ as the Divine hearer of his prayer, but thinks of Christ as the Judge of men. It is Jesus Whom he asks not to " lay this sin to their charge." Is not that prayer a testimony, all the stronger because incidental and in the language of devotion not of theology, that the first Christians learned from Christ that "the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son"? That was the faith which went with the first martyr to his death. Let it be the faith which goes with you through your lives.
Let me remind you of one other point, namely, that this dying prayer of Stephen, whilst it is modelled consciously upon Christ's, is as consciously modelled in contrast to the dying prayer of another martyr. In the Old Testament we read of a certain priest named Zechariah, who in the Temple-courts was stoned, like Stephen, by the rulers and the mob. His last words were: "The Lord look upon it, and require it." Probably that remembrance came to Stephen, and he then and there deliberately chose between the austere petition of the prophet who had been trained under the law of retribution, and the pitying prayer of the Christ who came to establish the law of mercy and love; and cried, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." In life and in death it is for us to take the example of the Christ, in our attitude to all that are against us or hate us.
Lastly, we have here brought before us the death that is moulded after Christ's as being
III. A Calm Slumber.
"When he had said this, he fell asleep." We need quiet ere we can sleep. This man at one moment had his ears stunned with the fierce yells of the cruel mob, and his body tortured with the sharp, rough stones, and the next moment, how far he was from it all! What a calm ensued on the wild fury !" He fell asleep," and they might do what they liked with the corpse, Stephen was at rest.
Now of course that image of sleep as a euphemism for death is no peculiar property of Christianity, but the ideas that it suggests to the Christian consciousness are the peculiar property of Christianity. Any of you that ever were in the Vatican will remember how you go down corridors with Pagan marbles on that side, and Christian ones on this. Against one wall, in long rows, stand the sad memorials, each of which has the despairing ending, "Farewell, farewell, for ever farewell." But on the other side there are carved no goddesses of slumber, or mourning genii, or quenched lamps, or wailing words, but sweet emblems of a renewed life, and the ever-recurring, gracious motto: "In hope." To the non-Christian that sleep is eternal; to the Christian that sleep is as sure of awaking as is the sleep of the body. The one affects the whole man; the Christian sleep affects only the body and the connexion with the outer world.
"There is none other thing expressed,
But long disquiet merged in rest."
The Christian sleep of death does not seal the spirit in torpor. Seen from this side, death is sleep; seen from the other side death is awaking—waking to an intenser life than was ever experienced before; to a keenness of vitality compared with which the highest consciousness of existence and effort that we have ever known is but as the stirrings of a sleeper. "The drowsy pipe of halfawakened birds" does not contrast more with the fullthroated notes with which they welcome the sun, than does life here at its fullest and keenest with life yonder, with which, when we awake in Christ's likeness, we shall be satisfied.
I do not seek to blink the fact that, refine it how you may, and bring to bear Christian motives and principles as you will, the thing continues ugly and repellent. There is a sickly sentimentalism that tries to hide the hideousness of death by fine sayings about it—as artificial as the china wreaths of immortelles that one sometimes sees on graves. There is a hard materialism that refuses to recognize in death anything more than the natural end of natural processes, and so, in the most accurate sense of the expression, makes a man die the death of a dog. There is a recoiling dread of death which keeps many a man all his life in bondage, whenever he thinks about it. And I admit both that its repulsive features remain, and that, by a merciful provision, most men die quietly. But yet I say a Christian man who makes his life like Christ's, and his death like His, passing through the same physical experience as other men, does not die when he dies, but lives for evermore.
I beseech you, dear brethren, take the anodyne of death, the pledge of immortality, the life and death of Jesus Christ received by faith into our hearts. He that thus can, living, keep near the Master, so as to become like Him, will at the last be "conformable unto Hia death," and find that its blackness is lit up, even as the shadows on sunlit snow are heavenly blue, not black, and will pass from the imperfect conformities of life, by the way of a death moulded after Christ's pattern, to the perfect union where he shall be for ever with the Lord; and be " like Him, for he shall see Him as He is."