Acts 7- Stephen the Martyr





There is a great unity in our readings today.


In Acts we see the church after the resurrection of Jesus. They were marked by the resurrection power of Jesus. They were full the assurance of everlasting life as they followed their master. The followers of Jesus were fearlessly teaching, and their teaching was marked by healings and miracles, which confirmed them as having God’s stamp of approval.

Last week we read about how the members of the church were willing to sacrifice their goods to help those they cared about. They took care of those who were in need among them. At one point some of the Greek speaking widows were beings overlooked. So, the Apostles chose seven men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom to make sure that the needs of the Greek-speaking widows were met. This is where we get the order of deacons. In our reading today we meet Stephen, who was chosen as one of the seven.

Jesus said, 

“'Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
 And this warning comes true as the authorities start to do to the church what they did to Jesus.

The Holy Spirit was acting powerfully through Stephen. Many miracles were being worked through him. Some didn’t like what he was teaching but when they tried to argue against him they couldn’t stand up against his wisdom. … We hear an echo of Jesus’ promise 

“I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:14).
 … This seems to have caught the attention of the authorities. So, they dragged him before the council with accusations that he is teaching against the temple and their customs. … It sounds a lot like the accusations that were put against Jesus.

When Stephen speaks to the council that is accusing him, he speaks about the history of God and Israel. He highlights the people’s habitual rebellion against the movement of God. He is the one on trial, but Stephen is the one who accuses them, saying, 

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).

The council is enraged, and they drag him out into the street and they stone him to death. Stephen finds himself among the prophets he just spoke about. We hear Jesus’ words again ring true in Stephen, 


“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12)
In Peter we read about Jesus being the 
“The stone that the builders rejected”,
 but that stone 
“has become the cornerstone” (quoting from Psalm 118:22).
 Jesus is foundational for what God is building now, even though he was rejected by the religious leaders. Everything is set up to align with the cornerstone. Continuing on with that stone imagery he quotes Isaiah 8:14 calling Jesus 
“A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence.”
 … Jesus couldn’t be ignored. If you ignored him you tripped over him. … Like his master Stephen became such a stone. He was hard to ignore, but like Jesus he seemed impossible to best in a battle of wisdom. 

Stephen’s courage is inspiring. None of us really know how courageous we are until we are tested. We might think we are courageous, but when they start picking up rocks to throw at us, that is when we find out who we have become. And when we look at Stephen we see a person who has taken on the character of Jesus. We read about his last moments, 

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ [Notice Stephen calls to Jesus here] 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.”
 We hear an echo of Jesus’ words from the cross, 
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46- quoting Psalm 31:5),
 and 
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
 … In Stephen we see a person who has become like Jesus.

Stephen has no fear. … I suspect that comes from what he has learned and experienced about Jesus. In our reading from John, Jesus teaches, 

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).
 He saw that Jesus was resurrected. Jesus had defeated death, and he knew that if Jesus promises to bring him through death that he can make it happen. He knew that ultimately, death was a momentary discomfort, but it had no ultimate power over him. As Paul says in Romans (8:18, 38-39), 
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
 … The reality of the resurrection released Stephen from fear of death, and ultimately that gave him courage to speak truth and to live his life.

We see this pattern made a reality over and over in the lives of the martyrs.

I love this quote from St Athanasius (296-373AD). It is from his little book On the Incarnation
"...it is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into Hades, but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power. (xxix.3-5) 
"For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2).
Jesus want us to be free from fear, especially the fear of death. We see this reality in the lives of the saints and especially in the martyrs. As they are freed from fear they are able to live their lives fully, as they follow their Lord. 

This doesn't mean that we are suicidal or careless with our lives, or the lives of others. It just means that we don't have to held back by our anxiety. You are safe in God's hands. You are a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and death and suffering are a temporary reality. So, live your life, boldly and faithfully.

Amen.   

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