St. Stephen, Deacon & Martyr, Year B
Based on 2 Chron. 24:17-22; Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60; Matt. 23:34-39
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
When I read the lessons for this Sunday, my initial response was to ask: "Why should the church be dwelling on the tragic deaths of prophets and martyrs when it's Christmastime? Why the focus on death when we celebrate life?" After all, tis the season to be Joy-Full, Not Mourn-Full.
Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it has often been through the deaths of prophets and martyrs of every age that the church has been inspired and given new life. The ancient church ~ living under persecution ~ discovered this truth very quickly in the saying: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Or, to put it another way: "nothing is worth living for unless it's worth dying for." Such was, and still is, the faith of the prophets and martyrs in every time and place.
These prophets and martyrs make most of us nervous, I suspect ~ after all, most people don't like the thought of knowingly, freely, willingly giving up their lives for the sake of their faith. A lot of people don't even want to think about persecution and dying a martyr's death. Today, people are often treated with scorn and derision when they refer to them with words like: 'He or she has a martyr's complex.'
Reflecting on the significance of martyrs deaths, Harold Fickett, in Stories For The Christian Year, makes the following observations: "T.S. Eliot's poem, "Journey of the Magi," contains the brooding spirit demanded by a feast day like St. Stephen's that teaches us how quickly death follows on the heels of birth. At the end of the poem, the wise man who is remembering his journey to see the Christ Child says he'll be glad to meet death. He is no longer at ease among what he now considers a pagan people…and he tells us that he has seen both death and life, but before his visit to Judea, he thought these were different."
"But the meaning of the Christ child's birth for this wise man, and the meaning of a martyr's feast day coming on the day after Christmas for us, comes to be about how we must live as dying creatures. We have to embrace death. We have to greet death with gladness, although everything in us pleads with us to deny its reality. This is the good news capable of assuaging our fears."
Another meaning of celebrating the festival days of prophets and martyrs is that They Give Us Hope. Hope That Their Lives Have Made And Continue To Make A Difference. They, like us, were and are only one ~ yet, their lives counted and they continue to count. The church and world are better because of people like: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Anna, Stephen, Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and the Mothers of the Disappeared. All of these and countless others have shown that The Power Of One Person Can And Does Make A Difference.
As Allene M. Parker has pointed out: "Just a few years ago, persons around the world witnessed an amazing display of courage and faith as news cameras brought the events taking place in Beijing, China, into our homes. How can we forget the young man who stood out from among the crowd of students and confronted the oncoming tanks of the military? This young student dared to risk almost certain death facing these machines of destruction. It seemed a miracle that in the midst of bloodshed, the tanks actually stopped."
"Although many persons died in the fighting in and around Tiannemen Square, this particular student was not among them. However, he could not count on surviving when he stepped into the path of the tanks. For the Chinese student, his actions spoke louder than words, conveying the depth of his faith in the purpose that brought him to stand with the others for freedom."
"In Stephen's case, his valiant witness did not prevent the stones from flying, and he was killed. Yet as Acts continues, we discover his witness was not in vain."
We learn that Saul ~ who watched and agreed with Stephen's death ~ would later be led by God to become the great apostle to the Gentile world. No doubt that Stephen's martyrdom was an instrumental factor in the whole process, which drew the Apostle Paul into the Christian faith.
Stephen's life also inspires our lives ~ We Too Can Make A Difference, Our Lives Do Matter, Our Lives Count. The Power Of One Can Indeed Change The Whole World ~ That, Too, Is The Message Of Christmas. The Incarnate Christ Has, And Continues To: Change People, Change The World, Change Us.
There's yet another meaning of celebrating the festival days of prophets and martyrs. We learn in the death of Jesus and the death of Stephen How To Love And Forgive Our Enemies. The deaths of Jesus and Stephen put into action the truth of Jesus' teaching in Matthew, chapter five, verses forty-three and forty-four: "You have heard that it is said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
This is one of the most difficult and radical truths of the Christian faith. It also makes us very nervous ~ since we all question whether or not we are able to live up to it! It turns our worldview inside out and upside-down!
Who is able to have ~ asks Glendon Harris ~ "the ability and grace to grant acquittal when one has been wronged? This is a grace that includes forgiveness, yet it goes beyond that virtue. It is the ability to nobly wipe clean any blame for an offense. It is granting exoneration even before there is a need to forgive and forget."
"It is difficult to grasp the enormity of spirit involved to make such an utterance of forgiveness as Stephen's last words, especially when one is being put to death ~ brutally, painfully, unjustly. The natural human response is revenge, retaliation, or retribution. At least, self-pity. But to respond with magnanimity, in such an unfair situation, requires a huge load of what that word magnanimity means, literally, "a largeness of spirit."
If Christians around the world were able to put this teaching of loving our enemies into practice ~ just imagine how peace would break out all over! This teaching of Jesus is one of the main reasons why he truly is the "Prince of Peace."
May something of his peace fill our hearts, minds, and lives today as it did for Stephen and countless others who have been granted the grace to live and die for the Prince of Peace and his realm.
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