One of the first ways we learn is through imitation. We see someone doing something and we copy them. We hear speech and learn to speak ourselves by imitating what we hear. It’s so interesting (and often amusing) to watch children learn through imitation, to see them ‘play out’ scenarios they have experienced with their toys. I love watching Esther’s tea parties with soft toys when she gives them food and drink or her attempt to breast-feed her dragon through her navel in imitation of her mother’s breastfeeding of her baby sister. Watching her play charades at the church’s New Year’s Day party when she had no real understanding of the game but simply copied what she saw others doing was a joy!
There are many parallels between the death of Jesus and the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Both speak of forgiveness (Jesus’s ‘“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots’ (Luke 23:33-34) and Stephen’s ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ (Acts 7:60)) Both commit their spirits to God (Jesus’s ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46)) and Stephen’s ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ (Acts 7:59)) – with Stephen’s prayer to Jesus effectively reminding us of the deity of Jesus. Both demonstrate how to die well in excruciating circumstances, showing that a life surrendered to God can face death with confidence, faith and trust.
Death is the one absolute certainty in life, and yet many of us struggle enormously with this subject. Death is often physically painful, emotionally debilitating and theologically challenging, but the Bible gives us, in Jesus and in Stephen, a blueprint for death which offers us hope and confidence to allay our fears and terrors. Death is often described (as is the case here) as ‘falling asleep’ (see also 1 Thess 4:13, 1 Cor 11:30), and few of us fear sleep at night. Jesus came to ‘free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’ (Heb 2:15) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first account of a Christian’s martyrdom contains (in the words of F. F. Bruce), this ‘unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful description of so brutal a death.’ We might rationalise the death of Jesus as being because He was the Son of God and therefore ‘different’ to us, but Stephen was an ordinary disciple who gives us hope and confidence that even in death, God is with us, welcoming us home and waiting with open arms. Even in death, we can learn and copy those who have gone before us with the full assurance that faith brings: as Bill Lane said on being told he had terminal cancer, ‘I have taught you to live well; now I will teach you to die well.’ We need role models in the art of dying well as in everything else. Stephen is one such role model.