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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Martyrs and Meditations

Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
December 26, 2018
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Matthew 23:34  34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

This week we celebrate, among others, the feast day of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. As we know, St. Stephen was among the Church’s first deacons and its first recorded martyr.   The seventh chapter of Acts tells us how he, along with six other “men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost”[1] was chosen to take charge of the daily food distribution among the Christians. At this time, the early Christian community lived in complete equality, sharing everything. It is the only known example of a “good” and successful communistic system, no doubt because it was overshadowed by the ministration of the Holy Ghost. Every effort was made to feed all the Christians, no matter how poor, how old, or how un-firm.

This system would not last long, due to the endemic necessity for each man to have something of his own, aided no doubt by our own innate sinfulness.  While it is not sinful in any way to desire one’s own things, the lust after possessions is infected with sin.  Later, monastic communities would spring up that would perpetuate the exalted ideals of the early Christians.  In fact, England was once very rich in monasteries and nunneries, making it known as “Mary’s Dowry.” England was literally bathed in prayer by many pious religious communities.  This continued until the reign of Henry VIII, who brutally suppressed the monasteries and convents, so that their assets would enrich the royal treasury and reward his political supporters with lands.  Sadly, much of historic English Christianity was crushed beneath this secular boot.  It is one of the more unfortunate parts of the English Reformation.

In like manner, St. Stephen offered himself to the rage of hateful and misguided men. As the account in Acts 6 and 7 tells us, he argued successfully with many of the Jews who disputed with him over the truth of Christ.  A diverse group of Jews from Celicia, Alexandria and Cyrene were mentioned especially in the Book of Acts, as well as a group known as the Synagogue of the Libertines.  These men were so frustrated by their inability to make any headway against Stephen’s wisdom that they paid off false witnesses to accuse him.

The result was typical of the machinations of evil men.  These false witnesses made claim that Stephen was suborning the historic Jewish religion by claiming that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the Law of Moses.  These, of course, were the same erroneous and accusatory statements that were used against Christ.  We know that when Christ said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”[2], He was referring to the temple of His body.  This happened, of course, when the glorious Resurrection occurred. The other charge, that of changing the Law of Moses, was just blatantly false.  Christ said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”[3] So, as usual, the forces of darkness could only marshal their dismal weapons of deception, falsehood, and hate.

When Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin to be heard (and judged), all who hear him are amazed, both by his appearance and his speech. He appeared: ”as it had been the face of an angel” according to Acts 6:15.  He is beautiful to behold.  He then proceeds to deliver one of the most effective and historic sermons in the New Testament, starting with Act 7:2.  This sermon spans the whole epoch of Jewish history, starting with Abraham and ending with Solomon.  It is simply amazing for both its brevity and its completeness.

Stephen ends his sermon with a ringing denunciation of the Jews, as he observes, rightly, that they are a “stiffnecked people” who “always resist” the Holy Ghost. It is hereditary, according to Stephen, who mentions that just as their fathers did, so do they today.  Then, comes the cutting edge of his point, as he boldly asks which of the prophets have their fathers not persecuted? Who of the righteous sent by God have they not injured or killed? They have, according to Stephen, received the law ordained by angels and have not kept it.  Finally, Stephen brings it around to the culmination of all prophecy, Jesus.  In a prophetic trance, he exclaims that he sees the Glory of God and Jesus standing by the right hand of the Father.

Up to this point, the Jews listened intently.  Perhaps they didn’t like what they heard, but no one could doubt its veracity and accuracy.  Now, as he has brought them all the way from ancient history to modern day, Stephen sees the righteous glory of God overshadowing him.  For the worldly crowd, however, this is too much.  Once Stephen has uttered this prophetic vision, he is doomed.  They cry out, cover their ears and rush upon him.  In a mob’s unreasoning fury and hate, they drag Stephen to the perimeter of town, where they hurl stones at him until he is dead. Yet, before his death, similarly to Christ, Stephen first calls upon the Lord Jesus to receive his spirit, and then intercedes for his murderers.  It is a blessed and terrible sight at the same time.  In the end, Stephen dies.  Note, however, the presence of a young man named Saul, who is holding their cloaks as they stone Stephen. No doubt, long after Saul’s conversion, this scene would be burned into his mind.

Now, we must ask the obvious question.  Why did Stephen’s homily raise such ire among the religious Jews?  What could be so alarming they found it necessary to kill him?  After all, stoning was a death reserved for those who broke a serious commandment or was engaged in gross idolatry. Could Stephen be accused of this?

On the surface, he could. According to religious authorities of the day, one who claimed to have visions of God would be guilty of blasphemy.  Recall how Caiphas reacted to Jesus’ statement when Christ said: ”Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”[4]  He arose, rent his clothes, and pronounced Jesus a blasphemer, worthy of death. 

The same could be said of Stephen, who has now claimed, in the presence of the Sanhedrin, to actually see God the Father and God the Son together in heaven!  It was unthinkable!

Yet, consider that this was not the real reason for their rage. No one likes being “caught out”, so to speak, and Stephen has just exposed the Jews at their blackest. His words are so accurate, so much to the point, that they are convicted of their sin and they don’t like it.  In fact, they hate it and they hate Stephen for having told them what they are really like.  It is this hate, this self-protecting, truth-denying hate that compels them to murder an innocent, nay, righteous man who has merely told them the truth.  How sad and ugly this is!

Aside from a fascinating historical scenario of the ancient Christian Church, what has this got to do with us?  What truths can we take away from St. Stephen’s victorious life and blessed death?

Truth number one is that the Church has always been “seeded” by the blood of the martyrs.  Wherever martyrdom has occurred, faith and belief have followed.  Churches are planted, and people are converted. St. Stephen is remembered to this very day for this very reason.

Secondly, whatever may come in our lives, we are to hold to a faithful witness.  God forbid we should ever face martyrdom, but if it comes, we must be faithful. In the same way, whatever the World, the flesh, and the Devil throws at us, we must be faithful.  Do not doubt, do not cavil or quaver.  Hold strong in the Faith.

We never know how or why our faith in difficult circumstances will affect, build up, or edify another. Also, we are pleasing in the sight of God, from whom nothing is hid, when we do so. 

Quoting Hebrews 12:1: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,  2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.  3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” Amen.

[1] Acts 6:3
[2] John 2:19
[3] Matt 5:17
[4] Matt 26:64