Hold not this sin against them

7th Sunday of Easter   12 May 2013                                  Fr Adrian Ling


Hold not this sin against them                                        Acts 7.60

Not as famous as St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls is almost as important. Just as St Peter’s basilica is built over that apostle’s tomb, so St Paul’s rises above the tomb of the apostle Paul. To the left of the high altar there is a chapel dedicated to St Stephen, who we hear about in the first reading today. A notice outside the chapel of St Stephen says that it was placed there as ‘a reminder of the aggressive past of St Paul, and a symbol of the triumph of grace.

St Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith, tends to get rather overlooked because his feast day is Boxing Day, ‘The Feast of Stephen’ that we sing about in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’. Whenever you see Stephen represented in art he is shown dressed in a dalmatic, the robe of a deacon, and often holding the stones with which he was martyred. As that cruel act was taking place, his attackers laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul, as Paul was then known.  Saul set out to destroy the early church; he was a vigorous, hate-filled persecutor of Christians until his own sudden conversion and change of heart, thus beginning the triumph of grace referred to outside the chapel.

Stephen was a remarkable young man; in the preceding passage he had told the Jewish authorities what he thought of them, how they had been faithless to God. The faith of Stephen was so intense that he described seeing the heavens opened and Jesus there with God in heaven. The rapture of that vision inspired Stephen to behave as Jesus behaved. The anger and hatred of these men could not destroy Stephen or his faith. ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them,’ he begged, just as Jesus on the cross had implored God to forgive those who were killing him, ‘for they know not what they do.’ Stephen has become like Christ. They are as one.

How hard it is to be forgiving.  What a challenge Jesus and Stephen present to the Christian. Forgiveness is at heart of the Christian faith, and the mark of a true Christian. Our modern society does not do forgiveness, but demands justice, retribution, compensation. We want someone to blame. Don’t get mad, we are told, get even.

Though we pray as Christians that we may forgive those who trespass against us, do we always mean what we pray? Or is there a list of exceptions stored up our sleeve. Forgiving is not easy when we have been really hurt. Forgiving is especially difficult if the person who has offended us does not ask to be forgiven. It may be because of a refusal to accept the blame or because they are unaware of the harm they have caused.

Getting to the point where we can forgive the big sins is a Christ-like triumph of grace. Forgiveness sets us free from the negative feelings of hatred and resentment that entrap us and gnaw away inside us. To get to that point is not easy, it may take a long time, and will not come by magic, you have to want to want to forgive in the first place, and it will take much prayer.

A great example of that is Margaret Mizen, who lost her 16 year old son  Jimmy in an attack in London 5 years ago. She has written a book about her reflections.* She says that she could not have gone through her grief without God. Prayer helped get through, she and her husband would cling to one another and pray. And she says that not holding on to anger was what helped her family to pull through.

We do not have control over all things that happen to us, but we do have some control over how we react to them. I have seen how some people are held back, trapped by an inability to forgive and to move on, and I have rejoiced to see others, reach that point of liberation.

Forgiveness is not just to be applied to other people but also to ourselves. St Paul would always have the death of Stephen on his conscience, he later referred to a thorn in his flesh that constantly afflicted him, was that perhaps a prolonged feeling of guilt as to what he had done to him? We have to live with the consequences of our actions, but we also have to forgive ourselves, and not be submerged in guilt. 

Jesus prayed that the love which the Father gave to him might be in us. May we be united with our Lord in faith and action, and love with his forgiving love, that we may see the triumph of grace in us. 


*Jimmy: A Legacy of Peace, Margaret Mizen and Justin Butcher, Lion Books, 2013