St Stephen’s day is, of course, on the 26th December and for that reason I think it often gets overlooked. So I thought that today would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the story of Stephen, who he was and how he became the first Christian martyr.
Martyr, incidentally means “witness” and perhaps as we follow Stephen’s story we’ll remember that he was the first Christian whose witness to Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life brought about his death, not on a cross but under a hail of stones and rocks.
As we follow Stephen’s story let’s see what there is in it for us today.
Are there things about the early church we can learn from?
Does it say anything about how we use our gifts in ministry?
Does it lead us to question anything about what we believe?
And let’s listen out for echoes of Jesus’ own story.
In the early life of the Christian church all the followers of Jesus attend temple. They are taught by the twelve Apostles, break bread and pray together. Those who own property and possessions sell what they have and everything is held for the good of all people according to their need. But, it isn’t long before a dispute arises over the distribution of food.
There were two groups of Jews in Jerusalem at this time. The first was the Palestinian Jews. They had been born in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. The second were known as “Hellenists”. They spoke Greek as their first, or possibly second, language and came from countries surrounding Palestine, in other words they were immigrants.
It seems that the Hellenist widows are not being given a fair share of the food when it’s distributed. Representatives of the Hellenists go to the twelve Apostles and tell them about this so that it could be put right.
The Apostles very reasonably, I think, say that they mustn’t be distracted from their work of teaching, preaching and praying. They suggest that the Hellenists appoint from among themselves seven men, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to sort this out and ensure that food is distributed fairly and equally.
This is when we meet Stephen for the first time. He and Philip are two of the seven but we don’t hear anything else about the other five except for their names. And we hear no more about the dispute over the distribution of food.
The story in Acts continues with Stephen’s ministry. We are told he is full of grace and power and performs great signs and wonders. He’s also an evangelist and, unlike the Apostles, travels outside the area of the Temple and Jerusalem. He goes out teaching and preaching in synagogues where the Jews are Greek speaking and speaks with a power and authority that cannot be denied.
The people of these synagogues take against Stephen accusing him of blasphemy. They take him before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and set up false witnesses who claim that Stephen has said that Jesus will destroy the temple and do away with the law of Moses.
Jesus remained silent when charges were brought against him but Stephen launches into a long and powerful speech, not in his defence but, as it turns out, accusing the people of Israel of idolatry and blasphemy.
The speech goes on for 53 verses in Acts chapter 7 but it’s well worth reading and I recommend this book by Tom Wright as a guide – “Acts for Everyone”, part of a series.
The themes of Stephen’s speech, using the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, are:
- The people of Israel have always been disobedient to God.
- They have worshipped idols and built shrines to them.
- They have not kept the law of Moses.
- They have always rejected and persecuted leaders and prophets who had been chosen by God to save his people.
He finishes off by calling them stiff necked, inflexible people who have now done the same as their ancestors did and have killed the Messiah.
The speech is inflammatory and it enrages the Sanhedrin and others listening.
This is the point at which our reading from Acts began this morning. Stephen looks up and declares that he can see the heavens opened and Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at God’s right hand. That’s the last straw, all hell breaks out and Stephen is dragged off, probably thrown into a pit, and stoned. A very cruel punishment and a terrible way to die.
Once again Stephen follows in the way of Jesus. He commends his spirit to his Lord,
just as Jesus did: “Father/Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit” and, remarkably, he forgives his tormenters “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
And he dies.
The story of Stephen.
But it holds also the seeds of at least two other stories which are about to begin.
First of all this triggers a fierce persecution of the followers of Jesus which results in arrests and imprisonment for many. It also sends the followers of Jesus out of Jerusalem to some far off places where they preach and teach the good news so that the church begins to spread.
Secondly, there’s a young man called Saul who guards the coats of the people throwing stones and who approves of this execution. As we know, Saul becomes a particularly ferocious persecutor of Christians until he travels along the Damascus Road. He then becomes Paul and takes the Gospel far and wide, preaching not just to Jews but also to Gentiles.
Perhaps it was Stephen, his assurance of faith, his words, his vision and his willingness to forgive his enemies, who sparked off in Saul the thought that maybe, just maybe Jesus was, in fact, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Collect for St Stephen’s day:
who gave the first martyr Stephen
grace to pray for those who took up stones against him:
grant that in all our sufferings for the truth
we may learn to love even our enemies
and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt,
looking up to heaven to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our mediator and advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.