Monday, December 26, 2022
Reader: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Response: “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”
Scripture: Acts 6:8-15, 7:59-60
Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia. None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.” This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.
The lying witnesses said, “This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.
As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.
This pericope following Christmas Day may seem quite out of place. Actually if I were following the lectionary (a systematic reading of Scripture), this is the passage assigned for today. Can you guess why? Stephen was celebrated as the first Christian martyr. The birth of Jesus upset the world then, even as it does today.
Immediately following the verse which ends chapter six, Stephen addresses the Jewish leadership in the whole of chapter seven. He traces their Jewish history from the call of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, to King David. Stephen accused the Jewish leadership of resisting the Holy Spirit like their ancestors he had just cited. At this point, we come to the last two verses where they rushed him and stoned him to death, the result being Stephen was the first Christian killed for bearing witness to Jesus as the Savior of all peoples.
We may think of martyrdom as something that happened to past believers. Not so. Today Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world for Christians to live. One of my IWS students from Nigeria was murdered along with his pregnant wife a couple of years ago. Christianity and Judeo-Christian values are under constant attack even in the United States. Should we be surprised? No. Jesus said such would be the case. Christianity upsets the social and political order.
While we have wonderful feelings of joy about the Christmas season, we dare not forget the wood of the manger is the first step to the wood of the cross. It’s important to always remember that Christmas and Calvary are part of the same story, just different chapters . . . they are not self-contained, isolated events.
Stephen is a great reminder that the birth of Jesus in our lives can (will) also bring suffering and pain at times. Jesus promised us that would be the case. Tertullian in the second century is credited with saying, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” There were times when Roman soldiers were so amazed at the Christians facing martyr’s death, that they converted to Christianity on the spot and died as martyrs alongside those they came to kill. Never under-estimate your witness to those around you.
Music: “Good King Wenceslas” A story of a paige and the king’s generosity on the Feast of St. Stephen
Awake, my soul, and with the sun
thy daily stage of duty run;
shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
to pay thy morning sacrifice.
Direct, control, suggest this day
All I design or do or say,
That all my powers, with all their might,
In thy sole glory may unite.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. ―Thomas Ken, 1670