Reading 1: ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Responsorial Psalm: PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17
Gospel: MT 10:17-22
Liturgical colour: Red.
Today, the day after all the joy and celebration of the birth of Our Lord, and after all the traditional enjoyment of the traditional festive food and gift giving, we come in total contrast, to the Feast of St. Stephen the first Martyr.
Throughout the Old Testament we see the faithful persecuted and often even killed by the faithless. But it’s not just an Old Testament phenomenon. This is what humans can do in their natural and unredeemed state. We don’t like our sins pointed out to us. We manage to convince ourselves that we’re really not all that bad. We work hard to justify our sins. We find the really, really sinful people in history—men like Nero or Stalin—and we compare ourselves to them and actually start to feel pretty good about where we stand before God. And that’s when one of God’s faithful workers comes along—someone who, while by no means perfect, is living a life renewed by grace and who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit—and suddenly all the illusions we’ve built up about our own goodness dissolve and we get angry. Like Cain, instead of acknowledging our sins and instead of repenting, we torment, persecute, and sometimes even kill the God’s people when they show us up.
In the Gospel Jesus weeps over Jews, knowing that they will continue to kill his messengers. They’ll be killing Jesus himself in short order too. They won’t heed the warnings. But brothers and sisters, Jesus warns us—the faithful—too. To his disciples he says:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
He prepares us for the fact that as we joyfully follow him, as we joyfully do the work of his kingdom, and as we witness the great Christmas joy we’ve found in the manger and at the cross—as we live a life of joy before our King—we will face the persecution of the world. To submit ourselves to that seems nonsensical. How can we find joy in persecution? We find it there, because when we make Christ our Lord, he gives us that eternal perspective we’ve been hearing about through Advent. Suddenly the things of the world are so much less important. Our focus is on Jesus and on building his kingdom. Our focus is on being witnesses of his new life and taking his Good News to the world. And that change in perspective means that if we can effectively communicate the Gospel to someone while being tormented or even killed, well then, so be it. Our joy in living in and sharing Christ is greater than our joy in the things of this world—even in life itself, because we know that our share in eternal life is so much greater. But it’s not just about joy. It’s about love too. That’s another theme that carried through Advent. We saw Love Incarnate in the manger yesterday. And now because God has so changed our perspective by loving us, we start loving as he did—we can’t help it! And it’s not just that we love God’s Church or that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that we even love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. That’s the hardest command of all for us to obey, but the reason it’s so hard is because we haven’t been perfect in love ourselves. The closer we grow to Christ, the better able we’ll be to live it. But it’s also true that the better we live it, the closer we will be to Christ!
Living that way is hard. We so often get bogged down in the world. We focus more on life here than we do on life in the New Jerusalem. We fall back into living in fear instead of living in faith. The witness of St. Stephen should focus our eyes on our Lord and Saviour and on living the life he has given us. No one knows for sure why this feast falls on the day after Christmas, but one thing I’ve realised is that it’s easy to be excited about grace and to live as Christmas people on Christmas Day. But friends, we’re incredibly fickle, and the next day we forget about being Christmas people and go back to living in fear and faithlessness. We forget our witness. How often do you come to worship God on a Sunday morning, getting excited about grace, and yet even as you drive home someone on the road does something that makes you angry and you forget all about grace; or you get bad service while you’re out having lunch, and you forget all about grace; or you get a bad news the next morning about your job, and you forget all about grace. The Church reminds us today that being Christmas people requires real commitment on our part and that as much as it’s joyful work, it’s hard work and work that requires real faith in the promises of God.
The story of Stephen actually begins in Chapter 6. He was among the group of seven men appointed the first deacons by the apostles. They were the servant-ministers of the Church in Jerusalem. Stephen was excited about his work. Acts 6:8 tells us:
Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
He was doing what he was supposed to do as a Christmas person and he attracted attention. The problem was that he attracted the attention of Jews who didn’t like what he was doing. Now, I say “the problem”. That just shows how our perspective isn’t fully where it should be. We see it as a “problem” when we face persecution. We forget that God is sovereign and that he’s working everything out for the good of his people and the spread of his kingdom. Persecution is hard and painful, but it’s still “good”. Remember, Jesus tells us that we find blessing in it. So it was a “problem” that the Jews were upset by what Stephen was doing, but it wasn’t really a problem. God was still in control. We need to keep that in mind in our own lives: Christians don’t have “problems”, we have “opportunities” to exercise our faith.
And Stephen knew that, even as these angry men dragged him before the Sanhedrin and produced all sorts of false witnesses who attested that he was as a blasphemer. He was on trial and it wasn’t going in his favour. And yet even as these men told lies about him, St. Luke tells us that Stephen sat there with the face of an angel—he was peaceful even in the face of condemnation. The one other place in Scripture we hear a description like this is of the face of Moses after he had been with God. Stephen was close to his Saviour and was experiencing the “peace of the Lord”.
In fact, when the high priest gave Stephen a chance to defend himself, what did Stephen do? He didn’t try to explain away the things he had said and done that he got him into trouble in the first place. No. He took the opportunity to preach the Gospel to the whole Sanhedrin! He addressed them and started with Abraham and told the story of redemption down through Joseph and Moses. He told them the stories of their fathers who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and then again how God cared for them in the wilderness and drove out their enemies in Canaan to give them a home—and he stressed how all these things were made possible by God and were his gifts. And as he told the story, he noted how over and over the people rejected God—gladly claiming the great things he gave them, but never truly receiving God himself. And with that Stephen brings them right down to Jesus and he says:
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. (Acts 7:51-53)
He doesn’t pull any punches. He tells them that in rejecting Christ, they’re doing the same things that their fathers had done before them in rejecting the grace of God and in being disobedient. We don’t have time this morning to read Stephen’s full sermon, but I urge you to read through it—Acts 7—sometime this next week. This was a man who was full of passion for his Lord. He was full of passion to share the Good News, even when he was in the lion’s den. What strikes me is how what Stephen does here runs counter to so much of what the Church today tells us to do in terms of evangelism. We’re told today not to be confrontational; we’re told not to talk too much about sin—or not to talk about it all—because that might turn people off; we’re told to focus on the positive; we’re told to witness the Gospel with our lives and that we might get into trouble sharing it with our mouths. Look at what Stephen does! Not only does he live the Gospel, but he speaks it out loud and clear! He confronts these men right for being the religious hypocrites they are. Stephen didn’t just sit there, quietly and say to himself: “I’m not going to bother with these guys. I’d just be casting my pearls before swine.” No, he shared the Good News with them and he did it peacefully and joyfully. And he did it because he was living in the grace and love of Christmas. He knew that these men might never come to know the Saviour but for his witness, but he also knew that if they were truly reprobate, their rejection of his Gospel sermon would simply confirm to them and to the world their rejection of the Saviour, and God would have greater glory in their condemnation. God’s Word never returns void. Stephen knew that.
St. Luke continues the story and tells us their response:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 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.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 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. (Acts 7:54-60)
We might read that story and think, “Wow. Stephen certainly had a bad day!” Our eyes are blind to God at his work. Stephen took a faithful stand for his Lord, and even as they got ready to drag him out to be stoned, God granted him a vision of his own glory and of Jesus enthroned beside him. Stephen’s “bad day” was a good day for the Church, because on that day God set Stephen before the rest of us as a witness—a lesson as to what it means to be Christmas people—people of his grace and his love and his power. He showed himself to Stephen so that Stephen could show himself and his faith in Christ to the rest of us.
But Stephen’s story does more than just encourage us to share the Good News and to stand firm in our faith. He reminds us what it means to witness the Gospel in our deeds. Stephen had that vision of the Lord Jesus before his eyes, and so even as these evil men started hurling stones at him, he responded with Christlike love. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, do you remember what he prayed? He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.” To the last Jesus was concerned with the souls and with the eternal state of the people around him—even his enemies. He was an evangelist to the end, even when there were no more words to say to his persecutors and murderers, he was praying for them. And Stephen, with his eyes on Jesus, does the same. There was nothing left to say to these men and there was nothing left for him to do, and so he prayed for them: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Luke tells us that St. Paul was there that day. He was holding coats so that people could do a better job throwing rocks at Stephen. Of course, this is when he was known as Saul—before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and had his life changed forever. The next verse, 8:1, tells us that Paul approved of Stephen’s execution. What we don’t know is what impact Stephen’s loving and gracious response had on Paul’s future conversion. But Luke certainly included this detail for a reason.
Brothers and sisters, Stephen reminds us that we need to be living as Christmas people, not just on Christmas, but every day. But he also shows us very dramatically what it means to live in the life and grace of Christmas—especially in light of St. Luke’s note that Paul was there that day. We never know who is witnessing us and how those around us may, or may not, be impacted for the Gospel by what we say and what we do and by how we deal with the circumstances of life. Who would have thought on that day that Saul of Tarsus—Hebrew of Hebrews and member of the Sanhedrin, the man who hunted down Christians and brought them to trial before the Jewish authorities—who would have thought that Stephen’s witness of love and grace that day might change the whole course of Church history as Saul later became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.
And lastly, Stephen teaches us something about the extreme nature of grace and love and forgiveness. These men were more than just run-of-the-mill enemies. These weren’t just men who didn’t like him or were just angry with him. These were men who saw him as a threat to their existence and wanted to kill him—who did kill him. Stephen didn’t reciprocate their anger. No, he saw them as Jesus saw them: sinful men whom he loved and who would face eternal damnation without the Gospel of love and grace. Stephen knew the love that overcomes a multitude of sins and he knew it because he had experienced it himself through Jesus Christ. St. John reminds us that anyone who claims to love God, but hates his brother is a liar—that you can’t have experienced the redeeming love of God and still hold grudges and hate in your heart against those who have wronged you. Friends, to hold a grudge, to resent the sins of others, to fail to show a forgiving spirit, is to be self-righteous—it’s to ignore what God had done for you! Stephen could look on these angry men with love, precisely because he had himself experienced the love of Christ and God’s forgiveness—and he knew that there was nothing these men could do to him that was as bad as even his own smallest offences against God. God had forgiven him so much—and he realise that so well—that it was a “small” thing for him to forgive these men and to show them love. Lest we think that Jesus and John are just speaking in hyperbole when they tell us to love our enemies, St. Stephen shows us how the love of Christ really does work out in our lives—or at least how it should, if we truly claim to love God and to have experienced his grace and forgiveness.
So remember today: We are a Christmas people, living in the grace and love of God. But remember too that God calls us to be Christmas people every day. The joy of Christmas is something that should permeate every aspect of our lives that we might be witnesses, even to our enemies and even to those who would kill us, of the love and grace that God has shown us through his Son. And so we pray, “Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings for the testimony of your truth we may look up steadfastly to heaven and see by faith the glory that is to be revealed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and pray for our persecutors as St. Stephen your first martyr prayed for his murderers to you, blessed Jesus, where you stand at the right hand of God to help all who suffer for you, our only mediator and advocate. Amen.”