Jesus said to his disciples:
“Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts
and scourge you in their synagogues,
and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake
as a witness before them and the pagans.
When they hand you over,
do not worry about how you are to speak
or what you are to say.
You will be given at that moment what you are to say.
For it will not be you who speak
but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will hand over brother to death,
and the father his child;
children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but whoever endures to the end will be saved.”
The Feast of St. Stephen Transcript
I have two younger brothers the elder of which is named Stephen. I wrote him this morning to wish him happy feast day. This day has a special poignancy, not only because it’s the day after Christmas, but because it’s the celebration of the first Christian martyr. The first adult to explicitly lay down his life for the sake of the Gospel.
There’s no evidence in the Scriptures that Stephen ever met Jesus. And it’s presumed that Saul, later St. Paul, never met Jesus as well. But as our scripture readings tell us today, this is the first meeting between the two. Stephen, in the scripture, is portrayed as Alter Christus. He prays for his enemies, and as he’s being stoned to death, he commends his spirit to the Lord. Even as Jesus hung on the cross and prayed, “Father forgive them they know not what they do.” And his final words, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” That’s not an accident, Stephen very much sees himself acting in the manor of Jesus. He was a deacon of the early church and he was persecuted, as our scripture readings today indicate, for speaking boldly of Jesus as the Messiah. For a pious Jew this was seen as blasphemy and so he was led out of the city and stoned.
We don’t know the actual date, obviously, of Stephen’s stoning, but the church selects this date to unite the birth of Jesus and the sacrificial love that Jesus came into this world to witness to and that we as followers of Jesus are called to witness to. So much of Christmas and our traditions are about the sentiment of the season and having that warm feeling of basking in front of the fire. There’s nothing wrong with those traditions, and they help to create a sense of cheer and unity, but the church reminds us on this feast day that our love has to go much deeper than that sentiment. Our love has to imitate the love of Jesus which is unconditional and sacrificial.
I suspect that many of us feel a certain gloom within the country at this point. With the volatility in the stock market, with the government impasse and the shutdown continuing, with the Democrats and Republicans and President Trump being at loggerheads. If each one of us were to imitate Stephen in praying for our enemies, what a different country this would be. All of us bemoan the fact that there’s such a spirit of animosity within the country, but I suspect so many of us say, “If they would only think the way I think, if they would only act the way I act, then things would be much better.” It’s those democrats, it’s those republicans, it’s our president…pointing our finger at them. What Stephen does, is set us an extraordinary example of praying for them; of praying for those who disagree with us; praying for those who persecute us; praying for those who say evil against us. It’s not just words on the lips, it’s a genuine love on our hearts.
Again, Stephen is imitating Jesus when he looked down on those who had engineered his death, when he looked down on those who were taking delight in that he was being brutally crucified, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them.” Those weren’t empty words on his lips, they came from a deep place of compassion; this well of mercy in the heart of God. That’s what we want to tap into in this Christmas season. And so the Church gives us this feast of the first martyr to remind us of the power of the incarnation, of the word becoming flesh, of God walking among us and revealing to us what it means to be human. That’s to protect all of life, from conception to natural death. It’s to say that every stage of life is sacred, but especially at this time of year we pray to protect the most vulnerable within our midst; those who have no one to advocate for them.
I have a tradition of writing an annual Christmas poem and I’d like to share that poem prayer with you now.