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Stephen, full of power and grace

One of my favorite hymns of the holy-day cycle is “When Stephen, full of power and grace” (The Hymnal 1982, 243). When our world seems to be rushing headlong into violence, both religious and political, Stephen’s story in the hymn sets an inspiring counter-example for Christians.

When Stephen, full of power and grace, went forth throughout the land,
He bore no shield before his face, no weapon in his hand,
But only in his heart a flame and on his lips a sword
Wherewith he smote and overcame the foemen of the Lord.

It has been fashionable for some decades to downplay the title “Church Militant” because of its implications about violence. But this verse puts the phrase in its proper context: we wrestle not against flesh and blood, after all. Stephen here represents the spiritual version of Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples, “Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs” (Matt. 10:9-10). What might it mean in our lives to go out into our world not with shields up and on red-alert, but vulnerable, open, and willing to be hurt?

When Stephen preached against the laws and by those laws was tried,
He had no friend to plead his cause, no spokesman at his side;
But only in his heart a flame and on his eyes a light
Wherewith God’s daybreak to proclaim and rend the veils of night.

Companionship is one of the greatest gifts of God. A spouse, a best friend, or a mentor makes life’s journey easier and more pleasant. But would we be as tenacious toward the Kingdom of Heaven if we had no companion? Discipleship can be a lonely business – but it is also a business that comforts the lonely and rewards the single. Our churches love to be seen as “family churches.” But in the end there is no way to follow Christ except alone. The early church was often a church for the single person: this needs to be recovered.

When Stephen, young and doomed to die, fell crushed beneath the stones,
He had no curse nor vengeful cry for those who broke his bones;
But only in his heart a flame and on his lips a prayer
That God, in sweet forgiveness’ name, should understand and spare.

How would this play out on social media? Look at your Facebook feed, those Instagram memes: how many imitate Stephen’s attitude, which itself imitates the prayer of Christ on the Cross? Christians are not called to vengeful violence or ultimatums. “We’re all loving here – and if you don’t like that, then get the heck out!” is not an attitude we are called to emulate. Drawing lines in the cultural sand is important and the Church ought to do it, but we must never forget the love of God that reaches over those lines and breaks down dividing walls by means of the Cross.

Let me, O Lord, thy cause defend, a knight without a sword;
No shield I ask, no faithful friend, no vengeance, no reward;
But only in my heart a flame and in my soul a dream,
So that the stones of earthly shame a jeweled crown may seem.

This verse always stops me in my tracks. Would I ask this, going in to a life of vocation to the priesthood? Can I ask it of him now? O Lord, give me every disadvantage, every difficulty, every hardness. Send me out with no tools, no friends, no worldly hopes of vengeance or reward. Put me among the hateful, the violent, the diseased, the unstable. Only grant me to know you, and your word to be spoken through me, that the world might know you.

John Thorpe’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Stephen (1476). It is in the public domain. 


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