Take Up Your Cross Daily
Jesus calls us to follow Him. But following Him is not a stroll in the park. In fact, Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross daily and follow Him if we are going to be His disciples. (Lk 9:23)
There is no mistaking what Jesus meant went He referred to "the cross". In first century Palestine, the cross meant one thing only--dying a painful and cursed death at the hands of the oppressors of Israel. If you were carrying your cross, you were taking your own instrument of torture on your shoulders to the place of your execution.
Today, of course, when we see the cross, we can also think of the triumph of Christ who died on the cross yet rose again three days later. Through His death, we now have the opportunity to enjoy eternal life and freedom from sin, and so, the cross has become a powerful symbol of the love of God for us.
For the early followers of Jesus, His words about taking up your cross meant being prepared to die. If you wanted to be His disciple, you had to be prepared to die like He did. And that was a reality that it would not take the early Church too long to experience.
The Apostles Have a Dilemma
The first martyr was St. Stephen, and we read about him in the book of Acts in chapters 6 and 7.
After Pentecost, the followers of Christ steadily grew. These new believers were living in common and sharing what they had with one another. However, there became a problem.
A number of the converts to the faith were Greek-speaking Jews. These were called Hellenists from the word Hellas which is the name for Greece. Many of these might have been Jews who came from the Diaspora. Perhaps they had come to Jerusalem for the the Feast of Pentecost and had been part of the group of over three thousand who were baptized after St. Peter's powerful sermon.
Or, they might have been like a number of the disciples who had come from Galilee where it was common for Jews to speak both Greek and Aramaic. In either case, these Greek-speaking Jews were part of the burgeoning early Church that was growing first in Jerusalem.
However, there was a problem. The Greek-speaking Jewish converts to the Way complained to the apostles that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. As the community of believers grew, there were more needs to be met. They shared everything in common, and they cared for their own. One way they helped those in need was to provide a daily allocation of food for widows.
As you can imagine, widows were in a tough spot in those days. Men, typically, earned the money. When, a wife's husband died, she needed help from her adult children or other relatives. Otherwise, widows did not have any place to turn for assistance. The young church addressed that need by providing food for the widows.
The apostles, of course, wanted to correct this problem, but it brought up a type of administrative issue that they wanted to nip in the bud. The apostles thought to themselves, today, the issue was the daily distribution. Tomorrow, it would be something else. Either way, it would take the apostles away from preaching the Good News.
The solution was simple. The apostles appointed seven men to take care of this particular issue and similar ones which would inevitably arise. Once the men were selected, the apostles prayed over them and laid their hands on them. These were the first deacons as we would call them.
A Very Gifted Deacon
One of these deacons was the very gifted and holy Stephen. St. Luke describes him as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit." (Ac 6:5) Stephen, not only helped solve the issues with the daily distribution, he was a powerful witness to the faith. He performed miracles and he was a champion apologist in his ability to defend the faith against those who tried to debate it away. Stephen became too much for those who were sure that this new Way and following Christ was wrong.
These opponents of Christ could not overcome Stephens' wisdom and ability to explain the truth of the Gospel so they lied about him to get him in trouble. Based on the testimony of some false witnesses, Stephen was charged with the same crime as his Lord--blasphemy--and brought before the same council to be tried. When he was given an opportunity to speak in his defense, Stephen gives a long explanation of salvation history which starts with Abraham and ends with proclaiming the members of the council as the murders of Jesus. (Ac 7:2-53)
Prepared to Die
As you can imagine, that speech by Stephen did not go over very well. These teachers of Israel were not about to be taught by this Greek-speaking Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. And, they were not going to be called murders who were stiff-necked, uncircumcised in the heart, and resisters of the Holy Spirit. (Stephen called them all of those things.)
This time, they did not need Herod. They did not need Pilate. This council was going to take matters into their own hands. They grabbed Stephen. They dragged him out of the city. And they proceeded to stone him to death. Then, just like his Lord Jesus, Stephen forgave them when he said, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." (Ac 7:60)
This, too, is part of carrying the cross. It is from the cross, that Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Lk 23:34) Jesus forgave those who put Him to death. And, St. Luke who also wrote the book of Acts, makes that connection by recording what Stephen did. He followed his Master by forgiving his murders while they were putting him to death.
Stephen's forgiveness is the type of forgiveness that Jesus was calling Peter to give when He told him to forgive seventy times seven times, and this is the type of forgiveness that He is calling you and I to give. We need to be prepared to forgive even those who would unjustly put us to death. And if we are to forgive someone who would kill us, how much more so should we forgive someone who has done something far less than murder?
Did you enjoy this story about St. Stephen? Sign up to receive a free saint story every week via email.