St Stephen’s day is the day after Christmas, so he doesn’t often get much attention! This was my sermon last year from the first Sunday after Christmas, where we focused on the first Christian martyr. Cheery stuff – but there is a reason why we have one after the other!
In the Star Trek series and films if you see an actor wearing a red uniform you know that they’re highly unlikely to make it past the first fight scene. They’re there basically to show that things are dangerous for the main heroes, by being killed by the villain of the week.
St Stephen might feel a bit like this; he appears in chapter 6 and by chapter 7 he’s dead! However, he’s rather more important than that. He gets pretty much those 2 whole chapters to himself, and his sermon in Acts 7 is one of the longest that Luke gives us in the whole book.
So, for those of you who enjoy watching fantasy series and film, Stephen is a bit more like watching Sean Bean. You know it’s rather unlikely that he’ll make it to the end of the series, but he’s still a main character, someone who will play an important role in the film, both in his life and in the repercussions of his death.
In the Church’s calendar, St Stephen’s day was yesterday, the day after Christmas Day. It’s the day that the Church has chosen to remember the Church’s first martyr. It might seem a bit of a shift from celebrating the birth of God’s Son, to remembering the first Christian martyr, but there’s very good reasons why we move from one to the other.
So, let’s have more of a look at Stephen and what he did. A month or so ago we looked at the seven deacons who were appointed to make sure that the widows of the Christian community were properly looked after. It was one of those times when the new church had to wrestle with organisations and committees and rotas in order to make things work properly. Well, one of those deacons was Stephen.
But, things fairly quickly don’t go as planned. Stephen has obviously been doing more than simply distributing food. That usually doesn’t get you into trouble with people. They tend to be grateful that you’re doing it rather than them having to. Instead, Stephen has clearly been talking about why he’s doing what he’s doing. And that’s where things often get more difficult isn’t it?
The former archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero is quoted as saying “When I give food to the poor they call me a Saint, when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist”. He stood up to the military junta then controlling Salvador and was martyred whilst celebrating communion in 1980. He spoke out against oppression, spoke out for the poor and the marginalised, spoke about God’s love and the radical difference that made. Romero said:
Some want to keep a gospel so disembodied that it doesn’t get involved at all in the world it must save.
Christ is now in history.
Christ is in the womb of the people.
Christ is now bringing about the new heavens and the new earth.
Stephen is, as we heard, performing signs and wonders and speaking with wisdom. He’s not doing this on his own though. He is filled with God’s grace and power, he is given wisdom by the Spirit. That’s the other side of the challenge to speak up about what we’re doing and why. It’s the challenge to seek God’s grace and power, God’s wisdom. To ask God to give us those gifts, and as we do so to seek to use them. It’s the challenge to offer all of ourselves to God, the adventure of finding out where that will lead us.
Christ is now in history, embodied and part of our world precisely because of Christmas. And this is unsettling and uncomfortable and calls for commitment.
And so we seek to domesticate Christmas, tame it, make it simpler and easier to deal with. Christmas becomes for the children, for families, for tradition, for feasting and presents. St Stephen’s Day becomes Boxing Day, the day of going for a walk or shopping in the sales.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about denouncing all these things as bad and wrong. It’s more a question about have we got the balance right? Have we had our focus shifted by the expectations of ourselves or others? As we’ve sung: “Long has the world fought the song of the angels.”
But Stephen won’t be silenced. He won’t be tamed and so he is dragged before the religious leaders, the same religious leaders who had conspired to have Jesus killed. Stephen is dragged before the religious leaders on trumped up charges and accused, more or less, of the same things that Jesus was accused of. And we all know how that ends. The cross of Easter casts its shadow across Christmas.
Stephen knows how this is probably going to end and preaches the sermon that lasts for most of chapter 7. It’s well worth a read, not least because he shows how the Old Testament was leading up to Jesus. Stephen describes how God had worked through and with Abraham and Moses in quite a lot of detail and then whips through Joshua, David and Solomon. So far so uncontroversial, as far as his listeners are concerned. There was probably even some puzzled looks as Stephen talks about their shared past; surely he’s just condemning himself?
But, then comes the plot twist, the sting in the tail. Stephen turns on his listeners. “You stiff-necked people!” You have not kept God’s law, you have resisted the Holy Spirit, you have persecuted the prophets. And, most importantly, you have betrayed and murdered the Righteous One, God’s Chosen One. It is you, says Stephen, who should be in the dock, not me.
Jesus, God himself, was born into the world to heal and redeem the world, to bring God’s creation back into his kingdom. We rightly celebrate that on Christmas Day. And then St Stephen’s Day gets us to think about what that looks like. It stretches our understanding. It shows us the need for forgiveness, the challenge to forgive. It shows us that heaven has opened and that Jesus is standing at God’s right hand praying for us.
Stephen sees the end of the story as his earthly story is coming to an end. He sees in heaven, that is, in God’s kingdom, what the birth of Jesus promised. That Jesus has brought our humanity to God’s throne and is there helping us and waiting for us to enter into his kingdom. Christmas Day is the start of an unstoppable change. And so Stephen, as Jesus did, prays for forgiveness for those who are killing him.
Is that, I wonder, more of a challenge to us than Jesus doing it? We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that what Jesus did was unobtainable perfection, rather than something that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we should be seeking to do ourselves. But Stephen shows us that it is part of what we should be seeking to do. To forgive others, to be released from the pain that they continue to cause us. And God knows that’s hard. He died on a cross to do it. But God knows that it’s worth it. And he longs to help us as we seek that release.
It’s also a challenge as to how we think about heaven. Stephen, we’re told, ‘fell asleep’. He’s definitely dead, but he’s also waiting for the resurrection when he and, we pray, we will be raised to new life, in new bodies on a new earth. Jesus’ birth shows us how seriously he takes creation and our physical bodies. Jesus’ resurrection shows that they will be part of the new creation as well. Let’s hear that challenge and take seriously the challenges of looking after ourselves, looking after each other, and looking after the creation which God has given to us.
We need to care for ourselves, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Our discipleship, our following Jesus, includes all of those things. And, yes, I hear the challenge to myself in those words. We are called to care for one another. To care for our brothers and sisters in Christ, here in this church and around the world. To pray for those being persecuted and martyred, as we do through Open Doors, and to seek to support them. We are challenged to care for the parish of Hartshorne, for the refugees and those enslaved, and challenged to do something about climate change, of seeking to be better stewards of God’s world.
Stephen didn’t do all of those things himself. And nor should we try to, individually. But this Christmastime, let us seek to hear the call of glory, to see the glory of God in our own lives. The promise of Christmas, which Stephen saw, was that in unexpected places, in unexpected ways, God’s glory breaks in and shines. And that’s true for us too. Let us seek what God’s call of glory looks like for us. And as we do so, let us tell others of God’s glory, let us show others God’s glory and let us enjoy the wonder of God’s glory as it shines this Christmastime and for evermore. Amen.