Saint Stephen, Martyr
26 December 2017
Saint Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith, is a fascinating man and a powerful witness (which is, of course, what ‘martyr’ means).
One of the seven deacons elected by the first Christian community, ostensibly to help with the distribution of food to the widows in the community, he became embroiled in a major confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem, which lead directly to his murder at the hands of a group of religious thugs.
The way Luke tells the story, the period after the election of the deacons was marked by dramatic growth for the community. As we learn from the story of Stephen (and from the adventures of Philip in the next chapter) these deacons did a lot more than looking after the administrative needs of the community. Rather than community book keepers, they seem to have been wonder working evangelists! Working miracles in the name of Jesus is bound to attract attention at any time, but as Peter and John had found out a little earlier, in Jerusalem, after they had been instrumental in securing the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the religious authorities were especially sensitive. The powerful proclamation that Jesus was alive from the dead and acting now in the ministry of the Church was way too threatening for some. They organised to have Stephen arrested and hauled before the Sanhedrin. He fearlessly launched into a comprehensive retelling of salvation history which culminated in him forcibly rebuking the chief priest and his council for betraying and murdering the ‘Just One’. As you might imagine, it went downhill from there.
Luke’s portrait of Stephen is extraordinary: a man full of the Holy Spirit, faith, grace and power; his opponents could not get the better of him because of the wisdom and power with which he spoke; when dragged before the Sanhedrin his face was like the face of an angel and when threatened by them he was given an open vision of heaven with Jesus standing at the right hand of God. As he was dying as a result of his injuries from brutal stoning, he forgave those who were right then and there engaged in the act of murdering him. In a fascinating twist, we are told that the brilliant young scholar Saul of Tarsus not only witnessed this barbarity, but entirely approved of it.
Of the many lessons we can take from Stephen’s ‘witness’, let’s focus on that one.
There are many around the world today who seem to approve of the persecution of Christians. Even here in Australia, it has become acceptable to mock people who follow Jesus. How about this crazy idea: Perhaps some of the most aggressive, angry voices raised against the faith in Australia are today’s ‘Sauls’ who will become tomorrow’s ‘Pauls’. Today, like Stephen, let’s walk in courage and the Holy Spirit and do as Jesus commands: pray for those who hate us.