Saint Stephen, the First Martyr – Readings

Commentary on Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22

Some people might find it strange that this feast of a martyr should follow immediately after the joyful celebration of the Birth of Jesus. Yet, it is very fitting that the first feast celebrated after Christmas should be that of the first person recorded as giving his life in the service of his Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and for the vision of life that the Gospel represents.

The Christmas story itself is full of challenge, as Mary and Joseph are forced to leave their home in Nazareth just when she is going to have her baby. And, that after the long journey to Bethlehem, there is no decent lodging. They have to take shelter in a stable where animals were kept.

Is this how the Son of God, our King and Lord, is to appear in our world? Yes! Jesus’ mission of self-giving begins right here, in the stable in Bethlehem. And is the first step in the saga that will eventually bring him to the high point of his mission – his suffering, death and resurrection. What could be more fitting than, on the day after Jesus’ appearance among us, we recall the first disciple of his Way to follow in his footsteps – and to do so all the way.

The Gospel reading from Matthew could almost have had Stephen in mind. It is taken from the discourse given by Jesus in chapter 10, where he sends out his disciples on their mission to do the same work he is doing. He also warns them of the kind of reception that they can expect to meet.

In the verse before today’s reading, Jesus tells them that he is sending them:

…out like sheep into the midst of wolves and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

As our passage today begins, Jesus spells out just what that means. They are to be on their guard because:

…they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues…

Some of their fellow Jews will be doing this to them. And Jesus says, they:

…will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the gentiles.

People of other religions, and none, will also act against them.

At the same time, when they are handed over, they are not to be anxious about what they should say in their defence or how to say it:

…for what you are to say will be given to you at that time…it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

We can see much of this taking place in the martyrdom of Stephen. He was both clever and highly intelligent, but also totally innocent of any of the charges laid against him. He was hauled before a court. He knew exactly what to say, and the only reply his accusers could make was to stone him to death in anger. But he was at peace and, in his dying moments, forgave his killers.

The First Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, recounts the story of the disciple Stephen who was called to more than just corporal works of mercy. He was a powerful voice in proclaiming the message of Jesus.

The verses describe his encounter with the ‘Synagogue of Roman Freedmen’. These people may have been descendants of Jews carried off to Rome by Pompey in 63 BC. They were sold into slavery but later released. They might also have been former slaves who came from North Africa or Asia Minor. When it comes to race or religion, exiles can be far more fanatical than those living ‘at home’. Hence, Hellenist Jews who became Christian were targets of the Freedman’s anger.

What truly roused them was that they could not better Stephen in their arguments. Like Jesus, he was filled with wisdom, and was guided by the Spirit in all that he said. Eventually, opposition grew to such an extent that Stephen was arrested and brought to trial in Jerusalem.

It is not recorded in today’s reading, but in the course of his defence he gave his judges a lesson in salvation history. As he spoke, Stephen explained clearly how Jesus was the expected culmination of all that happened in the course of God’s intervention among his people over the centuries.

The reading skips straight to Stephen’s last moments. Filled with the Holy Spirit (as Jesus had earlier promised his disciples), he told the assembly about the vision he had of Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand. The crowd stopped their ears to prevent themselves from listening to such blasphemies. The Scriptures had long ago said that no one could look on the face of God and live. Stephen had made it worse; he had put the man – Jesus – side by side with Yahweh.

He was then rushed out of the city for immediate execution and stoned to death. And, as we saw, there was a young man named Saul, at whose feet the executioners left their clothes. He looked on with total approval. This act would see the beginning of a great persecution against the church community in Jerusalem, led by Saul. Yet, as Jesus had said of himself:

…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…

How much did the death of Stephen really influence Saul? Was he actually the instigator of all that was happening? Saul would show himself a zealous persecutor of these ‘Christians’ – these heretical Jews who had to be crushed. But his time would come, and there would a miraculous turnaround.

Out of Stephen’s tragic death would come the conversion of Saul to become Paul. Far from being a fanatical Jew, Paul would become the Apostle to the Gentiles, bringing the Word of Christ not only to his own people, but even more, to the whole world. Could it be that the words of forgiveness uttered by Stephen as the stones rained down on him began to change Saul? As Tertullian, the second century church father, would say later on:

…the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.

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