- 26 December 2021
- Meg Matthews
December 26 is Saint Stephen’s Day.
Who is Stephen and why has he got a special day named after him, I hear you wondering.
Did you know that Stephen is the first recorded martyr in the early Christian church?
Our Acts 7 reading described in scant detail the stoning of Stephen following white hot rage on the part of the religious leaders. It appears that he went to his death firm in his faith in the Lord. And almost a throwaway line is that a young man named Saul minded the coats of those who threw the rocks.
What does the story of the stoning of Stephen make you wonder? Here are my 3 top Questions about this passage:
· Who is Stephen?
· Why were the Jewish authorities so mad with him?
· Why was he so ready to pay such a price for his allegiance to Jesus?
So who was Stephen?
Stephen is first mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 6, when a complaint arises that the Aramaic speaking widows are being cared for while the Greek speaking widows are neglected. This actually tells us that the first Christians were living as family, with mutual responsibilities, especially for the needy.
Jesus’ Twelve disciples delegate the distribution of food to 7 deacons, or helpers, so they can continue to focus their energies on the ministry of prayer and the word. Stephen is first mentioned as one of these seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and aid to the needy.
Acts 6 tells us a bit about the character of Stephen:
V 3: choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.
V 5 They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.
V 8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
V 10 Opposition arose, but they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Why were the Jewish authorities so mad with him?
The beginning of today’s Acts 7 reading says this, “When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.”
Why was this so?
Stephen, though appointed to the administrative task of delegating food to those in need, seems to have turned into a powerful speaker and teacher as well. He arouses the indignation of fellow Hellenistic Jews who are offended by his teaching about Torah (the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) and his teaching about Temple (the central place of Jewish worship) – reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching on these topics – with the consequence that Stephen is seized by a mob and brought before the Sanhedrin. His speech before the council gives an overview of Israel’s history and has 3 points:
1. God’s faithfulness to his promises
2. God’s mobile presence, meaning he is not limited to either Israel or the Temple
3. And Israel’s repeated acts of disobedience.
He ends his speech with these challenging words:
51 ‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: you always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.’
He really gives it to them with both barrels. He’s saying very bluntly that not only have they resisted the Holy Spirit, been stubborn and hard hearted, but now they have betrayed and murdered the Messiah!
This enrages the council. What comes next is violent, but not completely unexpected. They are furious. They gnash their teeth. They cover their ears and yell at him, then they rush at him, drag him out of the city and stone him!
And we are told one small but significant detail: the witnesses to this atrocity, this cruel murder, ‘laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.’
Even as he died, one pounding, agonising rock at a time, Stephen prayed that his murderers may be forgiven, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ Reminiscent of Jesus’ cry from the cross at his own agonising death, “Father forgive them”
For Stephen, the cost of holding firm in his allegiance to Jesus was great.
Was there a benefit? Stephen’s death marks the beginning of wide scale persecution of the believers, with everyone except the apostles – who decided to remain in Jerusalem and tough it out – scattered across Judea and Samaria. Saul, the one minding the coats at the stoning, was instrumental in this persecution, going from house to house, dragging people to prison.
What, we might ask, was God doing? Just as his church is getting going, it scatters; runs away. Was that what God wanted? I think we have to conclude yes, it was part of his plan to grow the church.
It was persecution that pushed the first believers out from the security of being together in one place, and that resulted in growth.
Being forced or pushed out of one’s comfort zone can lead to benefits, but often comes at a cost.
Let’s take a look at one early Christian who was pushed into great discomfort.
1. Paul – yes, Saul of Tarsus who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen – after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, he began a powerful ministry which took him to many places including Damascus, Jerusalem, Tarsus, the island of Cyprus, and various places in Asia Minor, including what we now know as Turkey and Greece. An example of persecution leading to gospel growth. But it always came at great cost.
Cost. We know from historical and New Testament records, that many of the early believers in Jesus bore their new faith at great, and for some, the ultimate cost – their lives. Did you know that many of Jesus’ 12 disciples, his best friends, those ordinary fishermen, tax collectors, family men, doubting, questioning, confused, slow to learn…
Yes that ordinary bunch of blokes…. They mostly went to their deaths because of their dogged allegiance to and preaching about Jesus, their crucified leader and Lord. If I ever doubt the truth and impact of the resurrection, I need only look at the lives of these ordinary friends of Jesus and their willingness to die holding true to the fact of the resurrection and true to their Lord. Most of them were killed, martyred, for that faith, and the fact they wouldn’t stop telling others about it!
Stoned, crucified, beheaded… it’s a grisly tale of cruel violence; it’s also an inspirational tale of loyalty and utter conviction. And willingness to pay the ultimate cost.
My 3rd question: Why, along with these many early disciples, was Stephen so ready to pay such a price for his allegiance to Jesus?
Stephen was utterly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah – God’s rescue plan for humanity. He faced a terrifying death rather than renounce his Lord. He was willing to pay the ultimate price, for the ultimate treasure. Would we be willing to pay that price?
Let’s not forget History and the cost that so many were and still are willing to pay.
Here’s one example of costliness:
In 2010, Ten workers affiliated with a Christian aid group were murdered in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan after providing eye care to people in a remote area.
International Assistance Mission, an openly Christian charity, has operated in Afghanistan for 44 years, negotiating with various governments, including the Taliban, for permission to continue its work assisting people in need of care.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the deaths of the ten aid workers….people who would fit seamlessly into our parish… an eye surgeon, a dentist, a nurse… people like us.
Each of these people paid the ultimate price. Their commitment to Jesus and their commitment to serve others cost them greatly.
What can we learn from Stephen and these people about what commitment to our faith might cost us?
As Christians, must we be willing and ready to die for Jesus?
Maybe, though most of us will never be in that position. We’re not likely to get stoned, beheaded or lynched for being a Christian in Australia are we? But there are Christians in the world today who face persecution, imprisonment and for some, death.
But we do face opportunities to stand up, or not, for our belief in Jesus, and that may come at a cost.
That friend who claims that religion is irrelevant and God is dead; and if you speak up you risk argument or worse, derision.
Do we engage in the debates on moral issues, or just shrug and mind our own business? Sometimes it feels too costly to stand up for what we think might be the Jesus perspective.
Following Jesus should come at a cost. He tells us that in many places in the gospels.
Luke 9:23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Jesus makes no bones about it: the cost of following him is expensive.
Luke 14:33 Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Anything, everything, comes at the cost of something else.
What did it cost God to rescue us? The most precious thing he had… his son.
What might following Jesus cost us? Might be possessions, status, career, relationships.
The Cost for some is great: persecution, even death.
Today’s Matthew 10 reading exhorts us, “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
The cost of following Jesus may be, should be, high, but the benefit will be enjoyed for eternity.
Lord Jesus, thank you that you call us to love and follow you. May your spirit enable us to stand firm and true, no matter the cost. May you be Lord of all that we are, all that we do and all that we have. Amen