An Example (Acts 6:8—7:2a, 51–60)
Rev. Peter Heckert
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation on this Feast Day of Saint Stephen comes from our Epistle text where Luke records, “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …
A good buddy of mine – a brother, really – is wont to tell people that his favorite Christmas carol is “Good King Wenceslas.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, it’s not surprising; it’s not a very well-known carol these days, but even if you don’t know the lyrics, you’ll likely recognize the tune: “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.”
Now, I will encourage you on your own to investigate who Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia was, because his is a fascinating history and legend, but that’s not what we’re examining here today. Rather, our focus is upon the setting of the song, specifically that it all took place “On the Feast of Stephen.” That’s the feast day that we are celebrating today. We’re not used to celebrating feast days of saints here at St. James, but every once in a while, such days fall on Sundays, and we’re presented the unique opportunity to examine, consider, and thank God for the example of faith in Christ that said saints have left for us.
That makes today … interesting. The Feast of Stephen stands in rather stark contrast to the general Christmas sentiment of peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. While we are still basking in the glow of Christmas joy, we hear what many would deem … a sad story, of the first martyr in the history of Christianity, Stephen the deacon. His was a ministry of service, helping the people and freeing the apostles up to proclaim and preach God’s Word. He was one of seven chosen to help serve in this capacity, and was described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit … full of grace and power, [and] doing great wonders and signs among the people.”
Clearly, God was using this man mightily … but as is often the case for those whom God uses, agents of the evil rose up against him. “Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.” When they couldn’t take him down that way, “they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses ….” These people were out for blood, and poor Stephen was the target of their ire and rage. The lies they told about him were, from my perspective, nothing short of infuriating. “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
I confess that, were I in his place, I wouldn’t have easily kept my cool. But Stephen was a better man than I. Luke tells us that “his face was like the face of an angel,” and when prompted to speak, he did not attempt to defend himself, to declare his innocence; he certainly didn’t deny being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, in a section that our reading omitted, he gave those Jewish leaders a history lesson of their people, and not a very flattering one. The purpose of his history lesson was to point them to the actions of their people, always persecuting those whom God had sent to them, the prophets and priests, grumbling against those who proclaimed God’s Word to them … because, as sinners, they didn’t like to have their sin set before them. He finished his speech by declaring, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
That went over about as well as you’d expect; “they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.” However, what really sealed his fate was what he did in the midst of their rage: “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ ” The crowds thought this beatific vision was blasphemy and acted accordingly, taking him out of the city and stoning him to death. However, before he breathed his last, as they were in the midst of stoning him, Stephen did something absolutely incredible: “he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ ”
His testimony and witness before these hostile people is why we call Stephen a “martyr,” literally, a “witnesser.” He bore witness to the truth of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ. He proclaimed the Word of God, both Law and Gospel … and the people hated him for it. They hated him enough to kill him for this witness. Certainly, Stephen is not the only martyr in Christendom – there have been such witnesses and testimonies moments before death throughout the centuries, down to today. However, he certainly enjoys the honor of being the first to give his life for such faithfulness to Christ and His calling, even echoing his Lord’s words from the cross, praying on behalf of those killing him.
Could you do the same? In our country, these are threats we’ve rarely had to face, but such violence and persecution are an everyday reality for our brothers and sisters in Christ the world over. And indeed, there may come a time in our own country when we will face vitriol and hostility. Do you think you could or would follow Stephen’s example? I don’t know if I can answer that, and I don’t know if you could truthfully answer it either. Thankfully, we have the promise of our Lord Jesus, should that ever be asked of us, that “the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say,” certainly in the way that He did through Stephen.
This is why feast days are helpful for us. No, we don’t reverence or worship these faithful saints, but we do thank God for the example of their witness and courage, even in the face of vehemence and death. The fact is, Stephen bore such faithful witness because the Holy Spirit gave him utterance. He trusted so strongly in the Babe of Bethlehem. He knew where he stood, he trusted that his sins were fully atoned for and that death was merely a portal to enter into the blessed presence of his Lord and Savior. That’s why, I’d argue, that celebrating his feast day the day after Christmas is entirely appropriate. While Stephen did, indeed, die at the hands of evil men, yet he is still alive in Christ, the crucified, resurrected, eternal Word incarnate.
+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.