The final words of Acts chapter 6 say of Stephen – and his face seemed to them like the face of an angel. So what does an angel look like? What indeed is an angel? One of the interesting experiences of my early ministry was one particular day when I went in to an infant class in the primary school in Beith in North Ayrshire where I had my first ministry. I was greeting with a bright smile from the teacher as she said, ‘Mr Whittle, we are so glad that you were due to come today. We’ve got a question for you. Can you tell us what an angel is?’ I must admit that I can’t remember what my answer was – but I have never forgotten being asked the question.
Angels, of course, appear in the Bible from time to time. In Genesis 18 Abraham found himself visited by angels. Isaiah saw a vision in the temple which included angels. Mary and Joseph were both visited by angels, as were the shepherds in the fields with their sheep who had the wonderful experience of that fantastic angelic choir. So how would you describe an angel? I guess, in most cases, that wings and a harp would come into it.
But, of course, that is not how it is. Angels are very special but, for the most part, they look so very ordinary. Angels walk second miles. They give away second coats. They turn the other cheek. They even love their enemies. Angels do very special things, but most of them so easily go unrecognised.
The story of Stephen is one of those stories of the very early church that shows such great commitment. Nothing was going to shake Stephen’s faith. As the writer says a little earlier in Acts 6, he was full of grace and power.
Stephen and his colleagues clearly lived in complicated and difficult times. That gives us the hint that there might be something useful for us to learn from his story. Our rampantly secular context certainly throws plenty of challenges at us. Stephen has all sorts of people stirred up against him. He is accused of a variety of things. Some tell lies about him. He is set upon and seized. But he stands firm.
So what do we do with the various things we find ourselves facing? How do we respond? Remember what C S Lewis once said: “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” May the example of the Stephens of this world inspire us to be the people we are called to be.