Feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr
By Jane Williams
A Reading from Acts 7:59-8:8
59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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. 1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
Stephen is the first Christian martyr and sublimely illustrates the saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In his death, Stephen still has the courage to be a disciple and imitator of Christ. As the stones batter him, he cries out, as Jesus did on the cross, words of trust in God and of absolution to his murderers. In Luke’s account of the crucifixion (Luke 23:46), the dying Jesus commends his Spirit to the Father; Stephen entrusts his to the Lord Jesus (v. 59). In death, Stephen’s certainty about Jesus is manifested with extraordinary power: Jesus is the face of God, the one who will receive us at the end into our true home. Just as Jesus cries out for forgiveness for the ignorant and vicious human race for whom he came to die (Luke 23:34), so Stephen, his disciple, also calls for mercy on the crowds. Pain and injustice cannot turn Stephen’s gaze from Jesus, or change his character away from his chosen path of Christ-likeness.
As a result of Stephen’s death, the little Christian community is beaten, imprisoned, exiled, but never turned from their faith. Instead, their persecutors are unknowingly giving the disciples a chance to fulfill Jesus’ command in Acts 1 to bear witness to him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The mission of the Holy Spirit bursts its local bounds as Philip heads into Samaria and unleashes the gospel.
Dr. Jane Williams is McDonald Professor in Christian Theology at St Mellitus College. She is also an editor, a sought-after public speaker, and is involved in promoting theological education in the Anglican Communion. She is the author of a number of books, including The Art of Advent (SPCK, 2018).
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Academy of Classical Christian Studies, Oklahoma City, Okla.
The Diocese of Northern Indiana