Where does our strength come from?
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‘When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.’ Acts 7:54-60
Saints are not a special breed apart. Saints are ‘holy ones’, ‘separated ones’, those called by the Gospel, saved by the Gospel and so set apart for the Gospel. In other words, all Christians are saints.
However, there are times when God especially tests individuals in the fiery furnace of tribulation - sometimes quite literally - and they seem so remarkable in the Christ-like way they respond that we feel they especially deserve the designation saint - hence St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But nonetheless they are still people like us but, in the moment of need and not before, God provides the extraordinary grace necessary to enable them to stand in an extraordinary way; for example, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and the author of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer. Under ‘Bloody Queen Mary’ who instigated the persecution of Protestants, Cranmer was arrested, put on trial and eventually burned at the stake in Oxford.
Here is a description of Cranmer before his execution, drawn by Sir Marcus Loan:
‘And if he knew that the stake was to be set up in the morning, how did he spend his last night of trial and sorrow? We do not know. But we almost feel the throb of pain in that last lonely vigil, with tears and shame, the shadow of failure, the trouble of conscience, and the longing for peace. Perhaps he would pour out his heart in the plaintive strains of his own beautiful Litany. Do we see that slender figure kneeling in the soft light of the candles, and can we hear his voice as it rehearsed those matchless words: ‘That it may please Thee to bring into the way of truth all such have erred and are deceived: That it may please Thee to strengthen such as do stand; and to comfort and help the weak hearted; and to raise up them that fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet: That it may please Thee to succour, help and comfort all that are in danger, necessity, and tribulation: That it may please Thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts; That it may please Thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to Thy holy Word.’ He was still deep in the valley of doubts and fears, but there was a glimmer of light at last; and so into his very soul came the Grace of God, and out of weakness he was made strong.’
Heavenly Father, I pray for those brothers and sisters subject to persecution and those undergoing lesser, but just as real, tribulations of the soul. I lift them to your care, sustain them, see them through. And those who suffer for your sake and for your name, grant them the heavens opened, the vision of glory, faithful even in death. If that day should come to me, give me the strength and carry me on your shoulders, knowing I am weak but you are strong. Let me go on praying, walking close with Jesus now and leave my future in your strong and capable hands. Amen.