The Feast of St. Stephen
December 26, 2010
Text: Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
Dear Friends in Christ,
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen...” We all know the old carol. When did he look out? On the Feast of Stephen - December 26th. It is on this day, the day after we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, that we celebrate the first to be killed for confessing Christ.
There is a strange irony that St. Wenceslas of Bohemia would become connected with the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Wenceslas was the ruler of Bohemia for just 5 years in the 900's. In his own life, he’d have been known as a duke rather than a king. Two things conspired to make his brief reign tragic. First, Bohemia was still divided between Christians and pagans. Wenceslas’ mother and brother were both pagans. But Wenceslas was a devoted Christian, known for his piety and his acts of charity. Bohemia was also at a political crossroads. Should it be part of the Holy Roman Empire or should it be an independent state? Wenceslas realized that they could not resist the empire. He probably also saw this as a way of strengthening Christian presence in Bohemia. Wenceslas was murdered by his pagan brother on the steps of a church. He died a martyr. He died because he embraced Jesus Christ. Ironically, Boleslav, Wenceslas brother was defeated by the Holy Roman Empire and was forced to become a vassal of Emperor Otto I. Nor could Boleslav hold back the growth of Christianity in Bohemia. A bishopric was established in Prague during time of Boleslav’s son.
Stephen was likewise a martyr. He died because he confessed Christ. In fact he is the very first Christian martyr in the proper sense of the word. He bore witness to the world for Christ with his very blood. That is what the word martyr means - to bear witness.
Who was Stephen and why was he singled out for such harsh treatment? The congregation at Jerusalem was organized immediately after Pentecost. In that time widows were often left impoverished. There were no jobs for them. They were not allowed to own property. So the church began to make provision for them. This practice would eventually evolve into what we know as the convent, a few centuries later. This led to the first fight in the church. That first congregation had two factions. They were all Jews but some retained their language and customs. Others had adopted the Greek language and customs. The widows who spoke Greek as their everyday language began to complain that they were being shorted in the distribution of food. The Apostles asked the congregation to suggest seven men who could oversee this work and make certain everyone was treated fairly. So seven deacons or helpers were selected. We read in Acts 6:5-6: “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” If you were to examine these names closely you would find that they are all Greek names. So these would have been Hellenic Jews, that is Greek speaking Jews. This was probably done to show that they were committed to the care of the Greek speaking widows.
The deacons were not pastors. They did not conduct the public services of the church. But they did get involved in evangelism, in addition to their care for the widows. The book of Acts tells us that both Stephen and Philip were heavenly involved with evangelism work. We should note that the Deacon Philip is not the same person as the Apostle Philip.
Stephen got involved with what could be called apologetics ministry. This is the defense of the Christian faith over and against those Jews who had not become Christians. Stephen, it appears, was a good Jew who knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards. In this he is much like St. Paul, who ironically was one his opponents. Stephen would debate with Jewish scholars and they could not refute him. So they took him out and stoned him. Stephen, following the example of Christ, with his dying breath asked that God would forgive his attackers.
The date for the celebration of saints is normally their presumed date of death. So this is thought to have occurred on December 26th of the year 33 A.D. - just months after Jesus death and resurrection. Stephen would be the first to bear witness to Christ with His blood.
It might seem odd in the Christmas season to be celebrating a martyr. But we should not think it odd at all. Christ divides the world. At His coming Herod tried to kill Him. Certainly others, had they known, would have done the same. Perhaps even Caesar Augustus would have sent soldiers after Christ had he known of his birth. Christ later said that He did not come to bring peace but to set one against another. This division happened when some came to faith and others rejected the gifts of God. But didn’t the angels sing of peace on earth? Yet, but it’s not earthly peace. Rather, that the peace of God came into the world and into the hearts of all who believe.
Christ came to divide the world. He would divide it by raising some to life in the waters of baptism. Others would refuse or reject baptism and the new life that Christ offers. Sometimes it is those who have the gifts of Christ and cast them aside who become Christ’s bitterest enemies. Joseph Stalin was once a seminary student, studying to be an Orthodox priest.
This is literally a battle between the living and the dead. Christ raises us to life to life as sons of God - that is as heirs to the entire kingdom of His Father. He makes us princes just as He is the Prince. In raising us to life, Christ takes our sins from us. He makes us to be holy and righteous. His righteousness becomes our righteousness. But for those who reject this, they remain dead. They remain in the grasp of Satan. And often they lash out at the sons of God. It happened from the first.
Today is the feast of Stephen. It is a day to remember that some have given their very lives for the Babe of Bethlehem. There has been a great legion of martyrs. And there will continue to be martyrs for Christ, as the world of the dead hates the living and the One who gives life. Today we remember two of them. There was King Wenceslas killed on the door of the church by his pagan brother. Then there was Stephen, killed for defending Christ among those who did not want to hear the truth of God’s Word. These are just two of the many men and women who have born witness to Christ with their blood.