Our society has huge problems with anyone who values a cause above life. Perhaps there is a deep admiration for the martyrs, perhaps there is an ambivalence toward our shared values - whatever they are? Perhaps we admire the passion and utter commitment we see in those who put something they believe in even above their own lives.
But it scares us too! Our western culture is shaken to the very core by the acts of those who become prisoners of conscience, by freedom fighters, by suicide bombers.
The question is raised today by Stephens stoning. He was undoubtedly a martyr, he is a hero of faith, counted among the saints. We may not want to take the same course as Stephen for ourselves, but mostly wed want to take inspiration from his faith and sacrifice.
In much the same way we would mostly want to admire figures in our own times like Bishop Oscar Romero, shot for taking a stand for the poor, or like Xanana Gusmao or Mandella, Ghandi and so on.
What all these have done is close to what the suicide bombers of Palestine and the terrorists of El Qaeda claim for themselves - to stand up for what they believe in, putting their own lives on the line, to give 100 % and more - they say, for the good of others.
To come to terms with this conundrum we might want to think about the sanctity of life as Gods good gift, think of self love, of Jesus sacrifice once, for us all. But still there is an uncomfortable other side to the story.
Jesus did give his life for us. Jesus calls disciples to take up the cross and follow, to lay down ones life in order to find it and, in obedience, we find that many of the leaders of the early church were also martyrs.
But there is a difference!
I believe a stark difference between Stephen, these saints who give a 100 % plus and those who use their life and death to further a cause.
Its a simple matter, as Christians we are never called to take life or choose death. For Jesus and Stephen and all genuine martyrs death comes as a consequence of living 100 % for God - lives of dedication and commitment. There is no violence or forcing others by threat in following the way of Gods kingdom.
The definition of sacrifice I hold to dearly is "to sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love."
The act of love is clear in Jesus death, in Stephens - he prays for forgiveness for his killers as well !
its not hard to see the act of love in Nelson Mandellas patient wait in prison or the same for Gusmao in East Timor, but to kill for a cause is a stark contrast and should never be thought of as martyrdom.
Instead, Stephen ought to inspire us to live lives of passion, commitment and practical spirituality, lives of faith characterised by openness and outwardness, adventurous and enriching.
Christian discipleship offers the opportunity to engage in the life and mission of God; to be the very body of Christ in the world! The opportunity to engage in the abundant life of the Spirit and participate in the joy of heaven even here on earth.
This is what we see Stephen doing - Stephen, was so wrapped up in the vision of God that the pain of stoning was unnoticed.
But spirituality and faith are about so much more than whether we live or die - its about the real quality of the life we live and our capacity to give - "to make something holy by giving it away for love."
There was an old man on the bus, out past the fringes of town, a young girl sat opposite and spent most of her time looking at the small bunch of bright flowers the man held in his hands.
When he got up to get off the bus, he put the flowers in the girls lap and said, "I can see you love the flowers, I want you to have them. Im sure my wife would want you to have them too, Ill tell her I gave them to you."
The girl smiled, a little dumb struck, and watched as he got off and walked in the gate of the small cemetery.
This is the spirit of Christian sacrifice.
Here is inspiration to make the ourselves more holy, to make the world more whole, not by fighting harder for a cause but by living so connected to Gods Spirit that we can make a gift of flowers a sacramental gift, showing Gods love even by our small actions.
Remember, Christian discipleship offers the opportunity for you and me to engage in the life and mission of God; to be the very body of Christ in the world! The opportunity to engage in the abundant life of the Spirit and participate in the joy of heaven even here on earth and even to spread some of it around in a very needy world.