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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr.
December 26th is known by many names. For some it is the 2nd Day of Christmas. The day celebrated in the 12 days of Christmas and for the giving of two turtle doves. In Great Britain, it is known as Boxing Day, a day from the past when the wealthy boxed up their left overs and gave them to their servants. In Ireland, December 26th is known as St. Stephen’s Day. It is the feast day we remember in the Christmas carol- “Good King Wenceslas.” It tells a beautiful story.
Good King Wenceslas looked out On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight Gath’ring winter fuel
It is the story of a Czech king, who much like St. Stephen the Deacon, was dedicated to serving the poor. On the Feast of St. Stephen, Wenceslas, who was actually only a duke at the time, was braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant who came into this royal courtyard. During the journey, the king’s page, who was accompanying him, was about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but he was able to follow by walking in the king’s footprints, step by step, through the deep snow. It is a wonderful metaphor for Christian discipleship
In his master’s step he trod Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor Shall yourselves find blessing.
Interestingly, like St. Stephen, Good King Wenceslas the I was martyred for his convictions.
Often, the feast days of the saints were marked by the dates of their death or their martyrdom, but we do not know when exactly St. Stephen was killed. Instead, December 26th was the date chosen to celebrate the transfer of his relics from their neglected burial site outside of Jerusalem to the church of Hagia Sion in 415. Surprisingly, for an overlooked saint and martyr, there is more recorded in scripture concerning St. Stephen, than there is written for most of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Our primary source is the Acts of the Apostles, and almost the entire 7th Chapter is dedicated to Stephens’s sermon before the Sanhedrin. It is a pivotal moment which would determine the future direction of the apostles and the church. And it all began with his name.
Stephen, whose names means crown, was easily identifiable in Biblical times by his Greek name, and therein lies the tension. There were two groups of Jews living in Jerusalem. There were the Hellenistic or Greek Jews who may have been born outside of Palestine, spoke Greek, and had adopted many of the Greek customs, and then there were the Hebraic Jews, those who were most likely born in Palestine, spoke mainly Aramaic, and were culturally Hebrews. There were always tensions between the two groups. People from both traditions were becoming Christian in equal numbers. As the church grew, however, it was discovered that the widows from the Hellenistic Jewish community were not being looked after as well as the widows of Hebraic Jewish community. There was blatant discrimination. When the matter was brought to the Apostles, they realized two things –one that the situation was not right, and two, that they were being pulled away from their primary task of proclaiming Jesus Christ as crucified and raised from the dead. To deal with the needs of the widows and the poor, they invited the church to select seven men who would be appointed as deacons. These men would look after the administration of the care of the poor, while the Apostles would devote themselves to the proclamation of the gospel. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Stephen was singled out as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Six others were chosen as well, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paramenas, and Nicolas. Interestingly, all have Greek names. This structural change in the leadership of the church brought immediate success. The number of followers increased greatly, and we read that even a number of priests became disciples of Christ.
Stephen had an advantage over the other deacons. He was also a great orator. This, however, created tension in the Hellenistic Jewish community. They were not all united in embracing the Christian way. They criticized him publicly, but he bested them. Stephen’s critics began to spread falsehoods concerning his teaching, and they raised charges of blasphemy against him. They specially stated that he was attacking Moses and the Temple. Thus, the scribes and leaders of the Temple took action and arrested Stephen. He was brought to the Sanhedrin, the highest legal council in Israel, to defend his words. In an extended sermon before the Sanhedrin, Stephen outlined a particular history of the Jewish people which emphasized the role of the outsider, worship in the wilderness, and the rejection of the prophets. This discourse contained many things unpleasant to Jewish ears; but the concluding indictment for having betrayed and murdered Jesus whose coming the Prophets had foretold, provoked the rage of an audience. It closed with the testy words, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” The people were outraged by this affront, but Stephen could only see the heaven opening up before him, and Jesus standing at the right side of God.
To the Sanhedrin, this claim that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God was such great blasphemy that they rushed upon Stephen, and drove him outside the city. Jewish law at that time permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Custom required that the person to be stoned be placed on a high elevation, twice the person’s height, from whence with hands bound, he could be thrown down. It was most likely while these preparations were going on that, Stephen first prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then while they were stoning him, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold their sin against them.” Thus, Stephen became the church’s first martyr.
The word martyr actually means witness, so in death Stephen witnessed to God’s steadfast love. That is really the ultimate moment in Stephen’s life. He pulled himself up under the crushing stones to pray. And who did he pray for? Himself? Save me. Lord, stop them. No. He prayed for his accusers. And what did he pray for? He prayed for their forgiveness. Like Jesus’ own words at his crucifixion, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold their sins against them.” And when he said this, he died.
There is an interesting twist to the story. It was the responsibility of those who had accused Stephen to throw the first stones, and so we read that the accusers laid their coats down so they could do this at the feet of a “young man named Saul,” later to be known as St. Paul the Apostle. He approved of the brutal killing of Stephen. But, he also heard the martyr’s prayer, and he was confused.
Stephen’s death that day had a massive impact on the church. It launched a persecution. All the Christian community, except for the apostles, fled the city of Jerusalem. There was a personal impact as well. It affected this young approving man named Saul, who watched idly, and yet who never forgot Stephen nor his witness. St. Augustine, the early church father, said, “The church owes St. Paul to the prayer of Stephen.” Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Forgive them. And the Lord did forgive this one man: Saul. That was the redeeming power of St. Stephen’s witness. It was the legacy of his witness. It redirected to mission of the church, through St. Paul, to the far corners of the world.
For centuries the location of St. Stephen’s tomb was lost, until the year 415, when a priest named Lucian learned by revelation that the sacred body was in Caphar Gamala, some distance to the north of Jerusalem. The relics were then exhumed and carried to the church of Hagia Sion, on December 26th the day that would be known as St. Stephen’s Day.
The story of the early Christian church is a story of martyrs. They were men and women who believed passionately in Jesus Christ and his love. They didn’t hide behind the safety of silence; they spoke and lived God’s Word when and where it was not safe to speak the truth; and they were willing to die for the truth of Jesus Christ.
The witness of the martyrs did not end with the early church. Generation after generation, men and women have dared to speak and offer their lives for the life of others. This was true of good King Wenceslas in Bohemia 900 years later. It was true of Jan Huss, in the 1400’s, who was burned at the stake for his convictions in liberating the Czech church. It was true of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who returned to his native German in the years leading up to World War II, who died in a Nazi concentration camp. It was true of the Naval Chaplains Kirkpatrick and Schmitt who continued to serve aboard the USS Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor and who ultimately lost their lives.
My friends, when we remember the life of St. Stephen, we remember all of those who have walked in his footsteps of Jesus. And we pray that you and I may dare to speak and live the word of Christ in this great world of silence. As the final verse the carol Good Kin Wenceslas says,
Therefore, Christian men, be sure Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor Shall yourselves find blessing. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.