Monday, December 26, 2011

December 26 - Stephen, Protomartyr, Evangelist

Stephen had just been appointed to be one of seven deacons in the Church in Jerusalem. His job was reaching out to the poor, widowed, and orphaned among the Hellenized Jews of the community. Since he spoke Greek as his native tongue--and was himself a Hellenized Jew--this seemed an especially appropriate calling for Stephen. The necessity of having deacons largely came out of a desire to be more transparent with the use of the Church funds. Some had complained about an inappropriate use of money set aside for alms and the leaders of the Church had responded by appointing more deacons like Stephen. This was a great opportunity for Stephen who felt a passion burning within him to offer the Faith to those around him. This same passion is what led him to talk freely with friends and acquaintance as well as preach in the open where anybody could hear. This same passion is also what got him into trouble with the powers.

They insisted that he had blasphemed God and Moses. They drug him before the Sanhedrin and insisted that he be punished. Yet, they had taken time on the way to get their story straight and decide how they would spin Stephen's words and preaching to be blasphemy."This man never stops saying things against the Temple and the Torah..." his accusers began with subtle rage, "we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." They had leveled a charge against Stephen that would indubitably result in his execution if he was found guilty. Yet, Stephen had a response:

"Beloved ones, listen to me. God appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, “Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.” So Abraham did it. After his father died, God had him move from Haran to this very country. God said to childless and aged Abraham: 'This isn't yours, it's your children's.' And God insisted that his descendants would be strangers in somebody else's land, who would enslave and abuse them for 400 years. 'But I will judge the nation that they serve,' said God, 'and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.' Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision--a physical mark of a spiritual condition--and this covenant and its mark continued with Abraham's son--Isaac--and his grandson--Jacob--and his great-grandsons--the twelve patriarchs.'
Then, Stephen rehearsed their mutual history and spoke of Joseph and Moses and how their people had insisted upon bringing along their false gods even as God led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Stephen made his argument: you've missed the point of all of it--you've fallen in love with the words of the story and failed to get the message. He summed it up:

'You stubborn people, you still don't get it! You may have the circumcision--the physical mark-- but you are uncircumcised in heart and ears. You lack the spiritual part that the physical part is supposed to represent. You are always opposing the Holy Spirit, just as our fathers and forefathers used to do. You know the history but you still haven't learned its lesson. You've killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You received the glorious gift of the Law but you've cast it aside for other whims."

So, they drug him out of the city for his death and found a low spot near a wall for him to stay. His accusers went to gather stones and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul--who would become Paul--so that they might better murder the one who dared speak the truth to them. As they were preparing to cast the stones on him (some stones so big they needed two people to carry them), Stephen fell to his knees and cried: "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" They rushed him with a furious rage and began pummeling him with stones. As he died--in a posture of prayer--he cried out: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit and do not hold this sin against them. They don't get it." He died under a pile of stones.

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