Saint Stephen - Deacon and Martyr - 26 December 2010

Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15
Psalm 31:1-5
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60
Saint Matthew 23:34-39


BACKGROUND – By chance, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is followed by three significant commemorations that offer some level of commentary on what it means to celebrate Christ’s birth.  The days are: St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr (26 December), St. John, Apostle and Evangelist (27 December), and The Holy Innocents (28 December).  Some have spoken of these days as “three heavenly birthdays” following the birth of the Christ.  Others have commented on the days by noting that Stephen was a martyr “in will and in deed”, John was a martyr “in will but not in deed”, and the Innocents were martyrs “not in will, but in deed”.  The days point out the cost of honoring the Baby born in Bethlehem, and serve as a caution when Christmas is over sentimentalized.  There is little cost in these days if one honors the Christ, and perhaps we should be aware that there ought to be.  Stephen knew that cost, and freely accepted it.  In the account in Acts, Stephen mirrors the attitude of Jesus on the cross.  His service and his death points out to the Christmas Church what Dietrich Bonhöffer would call “the cost of discipleship.”

Isaiah Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15

At the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came from the LORD: Thus says the LORD: Stand in the court of the LORD's house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word. It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings. You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently-- though you have not heeded-- then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.

The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, "You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, `This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.

Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, "It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears."

One can quickly see the wisdom behind this reading chosen for this day.  There is a cost to prophetic works.  Jeremiah’s difficult words, called “the Temple discourse” (7:1-15) result in the reaction of the powerful in Judah.  Jeremiah’s challenge to them about their faithfulness to Jahweh is met with threats of death and persecution.  Such attitudes on the part of Jerusalem’s elites will be noted by Jesus as well – Jerusalem will be known as the place that “kills the prophets” (Luke 13:34).  Jeremiah sees and understands what is going in in Judah, and in its attempts to find a political solution to its problems, rather than on returning to God.  So the prophet speaks harsh words, and the powerful utter threats.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Breaking open Isaiah
  1. When you think of prophets, what modern men and women come to mind?
  2. Have any been martyred or persecuted?
  3. Have you ever had to speak hard words to those around you?

Psalm 31:1-5  In te, Domine, speravi

In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me,
O LORD, O God of truth.

An Assyrian Siege

The writers of psalms were not ashamed to use other materials from psalms, and even other works.  In this work we have quotations from other psalms, from the Book of Jonah, and from Jeremiah as well. One can see the almost haphazard collection of verses, where in verse three, we have images of “castle” and “stronghold”, both military in nature.  The following verse, four, has an altogether different image, using a hunting scene as its base. As we read the lines of the psalm we can well imagine them in the mouth of Stephen as he faces his martyrdom.

Breaking open Psalm 31
1.     What are your favorite biblical passages?
2.     Could you string them together into a psalm?
3.     Would it be a psalm of lament, or of thanksgiving/

Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?"

And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever 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. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he 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 the Acts of the Apostles, Luke has a program in which Peter walks in the footsteps of Jesus, both miracles and statements, which is then followed by Paul (whom we meet late in this reading) doing much the same thing.  Luke also has a similar approach to Stephen, whose passion bears a strong resemblance to that of Jesus.  Appointed a deacon to help serve those who were needy among “the Hellenists”, Stephen serves as a model for all diaconal ministry.  The deacon, Stephen, certainly channels the risen Christ, and Stephen’s words of “wisdom and the Spirit” are not understood by those around him.  It is not his service that gets Stephen into trouble, but rather his preaching and confession of faith.  His death points out the difficulties in the Jerusalem church, as it struggles to organize itself for a mission to both Jew and Gentile.  Stephen becomes the protomartyr, the first of many martyrs to come. 

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What do you understand the work of a deacon to be?
  2. What is Stephen’s great vision in the reading?
  3. Have people ever reacted against you when you spoke as a Christian?

Saint Matthew 23:34-39

Jesus said, "Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, `Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

Most of this text is unique to Matthew, who structures a series of Invectives or Woes against the Scribes and Pharisees.  In doing so, he has Jesus respond to the entire spectrum of Judaism at the time.  This reading is largely from the Seventh Woe, which anticipates the suffering and death of Jesus, and by extension, of Stephen as well.  Especially moving in this reading is the comparison of Jesus to a mother hen.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Do you ever image Jesus as an angry man?
  2. What is his anger all about here?
  3. Are you ever an angry Christian?  Why or why not?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


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