But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Christmas is a time for children – so we say, and with some justification.
Certainly the commercial version of Christmas has been targeted at children, and certainly it is the commercial version of Christmas that our children have embraced. Certainly when my son declared yesterday that this Christmas had been the ‘best Christmas ever’ he wasn’t referring to it having been a particularly meaningful time of worship and reflection on the birth of Christ.
Even so, I take note that while the commercial world has embraced the Christian feast of the Nativity with some gusto, it has given a wide berth indeed to the feast days that immediately follow it, and I’m thinking here especially of the Feast of Stephen, which is celebrated today, the first day after Christmas, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated in two days’ time – that ‘feast’ when we mournfully remember all the little children who were killed in Bethlehem as King Herod attempted to destroy Jesus as a child.
For indeed it appears that no sooner have Santa and his elfish crew retired from centre stage than the whole arena is suddenly bathed in blood! Christmas may be a time for children but the days that follow are not nearly so kid-friendly or commercially viable! Why on earth was the church calendar designed this way? Why remember the bloody deaths of the little children and of dear old Stephen at this time of year? Why remember their bloody deaths at all?
Some might suggest that this reflects the dark side of Christianity – a reflection of the church’s unfortunate obsession with suffering and death! It’s something that comes to the surface more clearly at Easter time, but even here, in the middle of this happy celebration of the birth of our Lord, it seems that the church cannot leave us to relax with the singing of a few good choruses of ‘Silent Night’ without inserting a couple of horror stories in alongside them!
And yet there is another explanation as to why the church would remember this bloodshed in such close proximity to the remembrance of the happy birth of Jesus. In the case of Stephen, at least, there are some very good reasons for thinking that the end of his earthly life should be celebrated right alongside the celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life. There are good reasons, but to understand those reasons we need to understand something of Stephen.
And the good news is that we do know quite a few things about Stephen, even though he only appears for the first time in the book of the Acts of the Apostles chapter six and is dead by the end of chapter seven!
We know for instance that he was an accountant, or at least that he served the early church as an accountant of sorts.
We know too that he was a great public speaker and debater. Indeed we’re told that while many sought to take him on in the public forum, “they couldn’t resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he kept speaking.” (Acts 6:10)
And we know too that he was a Greek, or at least a Greek-speaking Jew with a Greek name. And while we wouldn’t normally attach any great significance to a fact like that, I think we’ll find that in Stephen’s case it is his ethnicity that is the key to making sense of both his preaching and his death, and of his role as an accountant for the church.
In terms of his accountancy position, let’s deal with that one first, as it is straightforward:
In Acts chapter 6 we are told that a dispute broke out in the church between the Greek-speaking Jewish members and their Hebraic Jews, who would have spoken Aramaic as their first language, and that the issue was whether the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in the daily welfare distribution.
This is the first-ever recorded church dispute, and it is highly instructive.
For one thing it reflects the fact that from its inception the church had been caring for the weak and the marginalized (in this case widows).
On a less positive note it also reflects the fact that money issues and racial tensions were not things that crept in to the church over time, but were there from the very beginning!
And yet the third and very positive thing that comes out of this story is that the Apostles took this issue very seriously. They were concerned to see that the widows were properly looked after – so concerned in fact that, rather than try to hastily deal with the matter themselves, they appointed seven highly capable men to manage the welfare program, the leader of that team being Stephen.
Interestingly too, Stephen and all six of his assistants seem to have been Greeks! It seems that the early church not only took their welfare responsibilities seriously but took the racial issue very seriously too, and it is the racial issue, I am suggesting, that is at the key to understanding the ongoing ministry and, ultimately, the murder of Stephen.
Stephen, in his preaching ministry, comes into conflict early on with a group of Jews who belonged to a certain “Synagogue of the Freedmen”, and with a some Cyrenian Jews, Alexandrians, and Jews from Cilicia and Asia (Acts 6:9). In other words, this Greek-speaking Jewish Christian came into conflict with a broad coalition of Greek-speaking Jews. The issue was always racial!
This coalition that opposed Stephen laid charges against him before the Sanhedrin, saying “This man never stops saying things against this Holy Place [i.e. the Temple] and against the law”, and we are told that they are trumped up charges, though when you listen to the speech that Stephen makes in his defence you get the impression that the charges were not entirely erroneous.
Now I won’t read through Stephen’s speech. It takes up the entirety of the longest chapter in the book of Acts and is indeed the longest speech given in the book of Acts. Suffice it to say that the speech of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is not a defence that he gives in order to get himself acquitted but is rather his account of Biblical history, which he sees not as a monochrome story of commandment and institution but rather as history of dynamic engagement where God has dealt with different people in different lands in different ways.
Yes, Solomon built God a house, Stephen says rather sarcastically (7:47) but then adds “but the Most High does not live in buildings made by human hands”, (7:48) which he indeed illustrates extensively from the Biblical story, showing that God has never been tied to any one particular place in the world.
Moreover, while Stephen acknowledges the significance of the law as given to Moses, he does not see his fellow Jews as the historic guardians and upholders of this law. Rather he sees his fellow country-men as being heirs of a rather sad history of struggle and disobedience to the Mosaic Law, to the point where they are in need of divine help and mercy just as much as everybody else is!
In short, Stephen’s tirade (for that is what it becomes) is not really against either the Temple or the Law as such, but rather against his fellow Jews who put their faith and trust in those institutions and in their own ethnicity rather than in the messengers that God sends to them, most obviously the ‘righteous one’ – Jesus! ‘You did not listen to Jesus. Instead you betrayed and murdered Him’ says Stephen, as he sets the stage for his own betrayal and murder.
Now I won’t go into any more detail about Stephen’s speech, but I do see him as a man on the cutting edge. I don’t mean to suggest that he was so far ahead of his own time that he had no regard for laws or shrines of any kind but simply proclaimed the equality of all persons before God, regardless of race, ethnicity, colour, gender or sexual orientation. I don’t think he was quite there yet. And yet Stephen was the first Christian who publicly challenged the idea that the church was just an extension of the synagogue.
Stephen loosened the strict association between God, the law and the Temple. He saw that you didn’t need to worship in any particular temple to worship God. He saw that there was more to faith than rigid obedience to a religious code, and he saw that being God’s person and being Jewish was not the same thing.
Unfortunately Stephen did not live long enough for his own thinking to develop further and it took Paul to push Stephen’s insights to their logical conclusions. But Stephen is the hinge (so to speak) between St Peter and St Paul. Stephen is the one who stirs up his own Jewish community by challenging them with a vision of a God who was much larger than the one they had envisaged.
We can’t help but notice St Paul’s presence in the background of this grizzly scene of Stephen’s lynching. He wasn’t going by the name of ‘Paul’ at that point of course but was still the unconverted Saul – a Jew who at that stage was also concerned with matters of ethnicity, with racial purity, and with maintaining a tight association between race, religion, law and Temple.
That whole edifice begins to break down with Stephen and, ironically, most especially through the death of Stephen! For it is the death of Stephen that kick-starts a wave of persecution for the early church that ironically results in Christian people relocating to distant cities where they continue to spread their message – in other synagogues at first and, as they go even further afield, to places where there were no synagogues.
Thus the murder of Stephen indirectly accomplished exactly what his persecutors had tried to prevent. It helped push the Gospel of reconciliation and hope beyond the boundaries of national Israel and Judaism, just as it no doubt also played a role in helping to shape the man who would go on to fearlessly preach the equality of all persons before God, regardless of race, status, gender or colour – namely, the Apostle Paul.
And that’s why it’s so important that we celebrate the life and death of this man. And that’s why it’s so important that we celebrate this man’s death alongside our celebrations of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life!
Because there is more to Christmas than just a happy family in a Nativity scene, just as there is more in that manger than just a chubby baby with a smiling face. For Christmas is not just the birth of a particular child (albeit a very special one) but it is also the birth of a new hope for the world – a hope that the barriers that divide us will one day come crashing down, that the racial tensions that continue to plague us will soon be resolved, and that everybody, regardless of race or colour or gender or any other characteristic that has been targeted for discrimination and abuse, may soon be one.
That is the hope that is born to us in Jesus! That is the Gospel that is taken up by the church and proclaimed throughout the world. And that is the truth that our brother Stephen lived and died for. He was a man worth remembering!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2010.