St. Stephen, Martyr December 26, 2021
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-61
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said:
“Brothers and fathers, hear me …
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 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, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at [Stephen]. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into Heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
In the Name of Jesus.
A life of strength or a life ineffective; a life of success or one of weakness; a victorious life in control, or one of being roadkill at the side of the road—which would we choose?
What kind of life does our Lord give us? He gives us to look at Stephen. Scripture speaks of Stephen and power. Acts 6:8:
Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
Who wouldn’t want to be described with those words? But then we turn to look again at Stephen, and it’s a different story:
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at [Stephen]. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
What to do with this contrast between a victorious life and a life of suffering?
We can speak of the victory we have through Christ Jesus, and then we find ourselves also having to speak of the utter weakness in which we find ourselves entangled every week.
We can’t get a loved one to come to Church to receive the gifts of Jesus—if we can’t even do that, it’s weakness.
We can’t seem to rid ourselves of thoughts of retribution. Someone has done us wrong, and they really should have to pay a price for it—that’s only fair. Why can’t we be done with these thoughts of retribution and instead have thoughts of kindness and mercy? If we can’t even do that, it’s weakness.
We find ourselves in shame by a past wrong done against us, by someone who has taken advantage of us—if we can’t even be done with the shame, it’s weakness.
What are we to do with this contrast between the victorious life and the life of weakness, suffering?
When the Lord makes a man his own, the Lord sets that man out into the world is weakness.
This life belongs to us by the Gospel.
The Gospel is that Christ Jesus willingly shed the blood on the cross to atone for all sinners, to justify us before his Father. The Gospel is that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, brings his cross to us in Baptism, making us his own. The Gospel, then, is the life of victory. Victory over sin and death. Victory over the devil and the accusation in our consciences. Victory over the shame we are covered in, over the guilt for our own sin. The Gospel is victory in Christ. The Gospel is the power of God to save sinners.
But the Gospel won’t look like victory in our sinful world. The Gospel won’t look like victory to our sinful flesh.
It looks like utter weakness.
The weakness of an innocent man hanging on a cross. Of innocent Stephen, who belongs to the victory of the forgiveness of sins and life-everlasting—Stephen, having rocks thrown at him by evil men who are killing him.
The Gospel looks like a Christian, any Christian, every Christian, you, me and our families, going through life with affliction, with pain, with doubt, with stumbling around trying to figure out how to handle some problem effectively but not knowing how—the Gospel looks like a Christian living anything but a victorious life … yet knowing that he or she belongs to the Suffering Servant of the cross, and by the One on the cross, all sin is forgiven.
The Gospel is the power of God justifying the sinner, bestowing the Holy Spirit, rescuing from sin, death, and the devil, so that the sinner now belongs to life and is at peace with God.
The Gospel is the power of God to rescue out of death into life, but when the Lord gives the Gospel into our lives, when the Gospel cleanses the conscience and creates the heart of faith, to sinful flesh it appears as weakness.
Stephen the Martyr!
In the church year, his day comes the day after Christmas. One day the church is hearing the heartwarming account of the Christ child, and the next day, the account of a saint stoned to death.
Martyr is simply the Greek word meaning “witness”—one who bears testimony.
Stephen bore witness to the Gospel. The Lord gave Stephen’s life as a testimony to Jesus Christ crucified, to sins forgiven by the blood of the Son of God—for this Gospel, Stephen was martyred.
Which tells us something about the Christian life, about our own lives.
We would want to think that our own lives are given to be victorious Christian lives. Impressive testimonies to the power of God. Who among us wouldn’t want this?
But we are marked by the Gospel. And the Gospel is not the Word of God to crush people, to overpower, like rocks being thrown at Stephen; but the Gospel is God speaking in kindness and grace, speaking a Word not to crush and destroy, but to comfort, to forgive, to bring hope and give life.
The comfort is … sins forgiven. The hope is the sure and certain confidence of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Our lives are given in witness of that!
We have been taken up by the Lord and given his Name in Baptism.
We are given to eat and drink the Body and Blood of the cross according to the Word and promise of Christ Jesus, the Suffering Servant, and our lives belong to that.
We live lives still in this sinful world, still in our own sinful flesh, and according to our flesh, we will never be anything but sinners before God.
But at the same time, we are given our life of faith, our life breathed into us by the Gospel, our life which knows only the Word of Christ and his gift of righteousness. In this life of faith, we will never be anything but righteous and holy before the face of God. That’s what the blood of Jesus does.
So we consider Stephen, our brother in the faith. Also our brother in suffering—though we have not been called upon yet to suffer the martyrdom he did. He is also our brother at the Lord’s Table. For even as we are at the Lord’s face at the Lord’s Supper today, so Stephen is at the Lord’s face at the banquet in Heaven.
We know that even as we live in our sinful flesh, our life of faith lives from the Gospel. And even as we are afflicted—though not as Stephen when he was being stoned—even as we are afflicted, we, along with Stephen, find our life in the Word of all sin forgiven.
We give thanks to our Lord for placing the saints before us as testimonies of his gift of faith and in witness to his Gospel of everlasting life. And as we see those who have sinned against us, we know that we, along with Stephen our brother, are given to speak to them in grace and mercy, praying to our Lord,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”
For the Lord to whom we pray has not held our sins against us.
In the Name of Jesus.