Saint Stephen’s Day


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December 26th 

Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth…
Acts 7:55-60
Matthew 23:34-39

Saint Stephen, the first recorded Martyr has the most meteoric career in the whole of the New Testament: he appears at the beginning of Acts 6, elected as one of seven Deacons to serve at table so that the Apostles might devote their lives to ‘higher things’; he is seized by the religious authorities; proclaims a blistering testimony of Jesus in front of his persecutors which occupies the best part of two Chapters; and is stoned to death in the sight of Saul for blatant blasphemy.

The distinction between those chosen to bear witness to Christ through serving the poor and those who dedicate their time to prayer would seem to be somewhat stark (some would argue it was the beginning of the Church’s decline from Grace) particularly in view of Stephen’s testimony which equals any recorded by Luke from the mouth of Peter or other leaders. He unfolds the Jewish sacred tradition, showing how it connects seamlessly with the life and witness of Jesus; and in his particular devotion to the Holy Spirit he is comprehensively and coherently Trinitarian. He is a scholar as well as a waiter.

That tradition from Abel (a somewhat curious figure in this context) to Jesus has its darker side, described by Matthew. Prophets are uncomfortable witnesses of God’s Word and the Jews, so enmeshed in their moral and religious legalism, frequently punished those sent to warn them. In the case of Jesus, that traditional clash between The Word and The Law was compounded by the lack of a mechanism in the tradition to discern the presence of the longed-for Messiah. Thus, Jesus was killed because he would not deny a Messianic claim and when Stephen set out the same claim and reinforced it by reference to classical Judaism, his fate was sealed.

The passages in Matthew and Acts both underline the gravity of what was at stake and the harshness of the conflict this entailed. The natural conservatism of long observance made it difficult for the Jews to respond to the call for religious transformation proclaimed by Zacharias, Jesus and Stephen and, as the Collect points out in an elegant encapsulation of Acts, the missing element was a failure to heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The warning is timely when so much of our recent attention has necessarily been concerned in Advent with the purposes of creation and at Christmas with the mystery of the Incarnation because it is only through the Spirit that we can be nurtured in our witness through the Church of which Stephen was a founder.

Luke, characteristically, depicts a link between the earthly Stephen and the heaven for which he is shortly bound, a link which is only possible through an intense witness of mind and body, opening a channel through which the power of the Spirit may flow from heaven to earth. This enabling is the fruit of the sending of the Spirit after the Ascension of Jesus and is in sharp contrast with the palpable loneliness and hardship of prophets like Zacharias. We, as members of the Church, living in the power of the Spirit, are provided with that very mechanism of recognition which the Jews, of the Old Testament and the contemporaries of Jesus who figure in Matthew’s bleak assessment, lacked; and this places upon us a responsibility for witness as awesome as the means with which we have been provided.

The Collect draws attention to the idea, exemplified in Stephen, of steadfastness in the face of earthly suffering. Most of us will never have to undergo his ordeal but in times of trouble we should stay faithful for, we are encouraged in Matthew, Jesus so wants to gather us under His wing “As a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings” but, the passage continues ominously, “And ye would not; behold, your house is left unto you desolate.”

Other than Stephen’s winning combination of humility and eloquence, the quality that stands out, noted in the Collect, is his forgiveness of his persecutors. This is not the healing forgiveness of tranquillity nor the cold, measured forgiveness of the self righteous but is forgiveness in the terrible moment. It resembles the forgiveness of Jesus on the Cross but is much more dramatic. Crucifixion was such a notoriously slow process that Pilate wondered that Jesus died so quickly (Mark 15:44) but stoning was sharp and short, carrying with it a degree of direct personal contempt which is only vicarious in crucifixion. Stephen looked up to heaven and forgave which means, in this context, that he was commending his murderers to God, praying that they might join him in heaven; he could not, even in death, stop serving his fellow humans.

How often do we look up to heaven, beyond the text, beyond the prayer, stretching our imagination into areas of risk and even danger? Stephen took the risk and saw “The Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” After that, the stones could not come soon enough nor hard enough for either party: the Jewish authorities were outraged and frightened; Stephen was exultantly at peace. He had seen his final destination. We do not have that privilege; but the extent to which we can be drawn into the mystery depends upon our openness to the Spirit.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How helpful was the distinction between those who prayed and those who waited at table in the early church and how relevant is the division between priests and deacons today? Is the implied hierarchy divisive and disrespectful or enabling and affirming?
  2. Compare Stephen’s court room declaration in Acts 6; 7 with Peter’s court room declaration in Acts 5:17-42)
  3. Would we have thrown a stone at Stephen or, like Saul, held the cloaks?
  4. What does the story of Stephen tell us about religious conservatism?
  5. Why might forgiveness be so important on Boxing Day?

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