Tuesday, December 26, 2006

St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

It seems odd to follow the joyous day of Christ's birth with the remembrance of one of the church's first martyrs. However, for those who truly understand the essence of Christmas, maybe it's not so strange to turn our attention briefly to this event. For we know that closely connected with the birth of our Lord was the activity of Satan stirring Herod to murderous acts of jealousy, resulting in the church's truly first martyrs: the slaughter of Bethlehem's innocents. Christ came into the world as it's savior, which meant He came to suffer and die. Christmas and Good Friday, and ultimately Easter, are all one seamless robe of witness. There is no glory without the suffering, no crown without the cross.

Stephen's work in the church was admittedly short-lived. Appointed deacon in Acts 6 to assist the work of the apostles, he is dead by the end of Acts 7. Yet, as happens even in such brief periods of work, much more may be done that is realized. Stephen, although a deacon and charged with assisting in the church's physical needs, was nevertheless a clear witness to the gospel as well. His defense of Christ in Acts 7 is bold, clear and thorough. The reaction to his words betrays the hardness of heart that is too often a part of those who consider themselves religious but have no faith. The Law, especially, hit hard on their stubborn pride, and they attempted to stop the pain of conscience by killing the messenger. How often, even in the church today, is the proclamation of the Gospel opposed because it touches too closely to our personal sins. Stephen could have 'played it safe' that day and kept silent. But the courage of this saint was such that he knew that he could not. The Word must be proclaimed, even if it means the risk of our very lives.

Stephen also demonstrated a rare love for his enemies. He prayed for them even as they were stoning him, imitating his Lord's prayer from the cross ("Lord do not hold this sins against them..."). He prayed for their salvation. How often do we pray for those who oppose us and make our lives miserable? And how different it might be if instead of nursing our own hurt pride and ego we interceded for the salvation of our own enemies.

St. Stephen is a model for all Christians in how to live and suffer and die faithfully in Christ.

As the collect for this day reads:
"Heavenly Father, grant that in our sufferings for the sake of Christ we may follow the example of Saint Stephan, that we may look to him who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. [LW, 116]

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