In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen is described as one of the seven deacons whose job it is to care for the widows in the early Church in Jerusalem. His eloquent speech before the Sanhedrin, in which he shows the great sweep of Jewish history as leading to the birth of Jesus, the long-expected Messiah, and his impassioned plea that all might hear the good news of Jesus, leads to his inevitable martyrdom by being stoned to death. As the author of Acts, Luke’s description of Stephen bears direct parallels to that of Christ: for example, the passion; being filled with the Holy Spirit; seeing the Son of God at the right hand of God, as Jesus promised he would be; commending his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus commended his to the Father; kneeling as Jesus did in Gethsemane and asking forgiveness for his persecutors. Witnessing to Jesus by acting like Jesus in every way is thus seen by Luke as of the essence of the Christian life.
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
who gave the first martyr Stephen
grace to pray for those who took up stones against him:
grant that in all our sufferings for the truth
we may learn to love even our enemies
and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt,
looking up to heaven to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our mediator and advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Princes have persecuted me without a cause,
but my heart stands in awe of your word.
I am as glad of your word
as one who finds great spoils.
As for lies, I hate and abhor them,
but your law do I love.
Seven times a day do I praise you,
because of your righteous judgements.
Great peace have they who love your law;
nothing shall make them stumble.
Lord, I have looked for your salvation
and I have fulfilled your commandments.
My soul has kept your testimonies
and greatly have I loved them.
I have kept your commandments and testimonies,
for all my ways are before you.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now and shall be for ever. Amen.
Stephen said to the high priest and the council: ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’ When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, 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.
In all the excitement of the Christmas season and the ensuing feelings of exhaustion, it is not unusual for us to overlook the Festival of Stephen, deacon and first Christian martyr. Despite this common oversight it is good for us to pause for a moment and reflect on this man who is described as being full of faith, grace and spiritual power. We read of Stephen being one of the seven Greek speaking disciples of Jesus who were chosen to assist the apostles. These seven people are commonly referred to as deacons, although that description does not appear in Scripture. In the Church the term deacon is used to describe one who is called to serve in the Lord’s name. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (3.8-13) we find a description of the qualities that should be demonstrated by all called to the office of deacon: seriousness, honesty, sobriety, generosity and great boldness in the faith. This person specification gives us an idea of the role model Stephen is for all who profess the faith of Jesus Christ.
Today’s reading comes at the end of Stephen’s great speech to the Sanhedrin, or Council. This Council, which dated back to the fourth century BC, comprised 71 Chief Priests, Elders and Scribes. This was an aristocratic senate which formed the highest court of law in the Jewish tradition, and was noted for its competence and reputation. It was before this illustrious body that Stephen stood and spoke of the sweep of early Jewish history. Stephen also attacked the Council. He described them as being uncircumcised in heart and ears, that is, not truly dedicated to serving God. He described them as being just like their predecessors, that is, contemptuous of the prophets (God’s messengers) to the point of persecuting and murdering them. And … he accused them of killing God’s promised Messiah and, thereby, demonstrating their utter contempt for God’s law. Stephen must have known that his outspoken Christian testimony could only end in outrage, anger and his death. But … Stephen remained steadfast to his calling as a servant of Christ.
All who would claim to be followers of Christ are called to live the Christian life in the same spirit of seriousness, honesty, sobriety and generosity as Stephen. We are also called to show great boldness in the faith. It is easy for us to impose our own limitations to the life of faith. But … the life-changing nature of God’s call cannot be limited by us, not if we are to live out our discipleship to the full. We may not be called to die an horrendous death in Christ’s name, but we will never know the path God wants us to tread unless we take his hand and follow him. Consider Saul, the young man who looked after the coats of those who killed Stephen. Saul … the young man who would soon be transformed into Paul, that great evangelist whose profound hatred for Christians became the deepest and most committed love of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Prayers of Intercession
Let us pray to God whose name is glorified in his martyrs.
Grant that the Church may always witness faithfully and fearlessly to the truth of the Gospel. Endow her ministers with the spirit of humble service. We pray for all who hold the office of deacon.
Lighten the darkness of the world with the vision of Christ, crucified and risen for all people. Grant that all who hold power and pass judgement may be both just and merciful.
When we are tempted to conceal our faith, inspire us with the example of Saint Stephen. Help us to forgive any whom we think have done us harm, and forgive us the harm that we have done. Fill this community with love and shared understanding.
We pray for all who are being persecuted for their faith. Give them strength in their trouble and turn the hearts of their persecutors. Have mercy on the victims of war and violence.
We give thanks for all who have faithfully endured suffering in this world and have entered into their rest. Receive them into the joy of heaven with blessed Stephen and all the martyrs who have gone before them.
May our prayers be accepted through Jesus Christ, the strength and crown of martyrs.
Prayer for Christmas
Holy Child of Bethlehem,
born in a stable, laid in a manger,
no place is too low or mean for you to enter.
Come to us this Christmas time,
dwell in our hearts and homes,
and fill them with your love,
now and always.
The Lord’s Prayer
Let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore. Amen.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in:
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.
Phillips Brooks (1835–1893)