St. Stephen: The Protomartyr

· Biblical,Deacon

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 and death 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 Early Days of the Church

The first martyr was St. Stephen, and we read about him in the book of Acts in chapters 6 and 7. Here is his story.

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 soon became a problem.

A number of the converts to the faith were Greek-speaking Jews. These men and women were called Hellenists from the word Hellas which is the name for Greece. These converts complained to the apostles that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.

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Solving a Problem of Service 

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 might have thought, 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. 

The Deacon who defended the Faith 

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 refute the claims of the Christians.  Eventually, 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 very long explanation of salvation history which starts with Abraham and ends with his proclaiming that the members of the council are the murders of Jesus. (Ac 7:2-53)

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The Reaction to Stephen's Defense 

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.) 

The members of the council did not need Herod. They did not need Pilate. They were 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.

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The Importance of Forgiveness 

Do you remember the time when St. Peter asked our Lord how many times he should forgive someone? 

If you picture the encounter, you can almost see Peter looking at the other disciples as he asks Jesus, "As many as seven times?" (Mt 18:21) Peter might have been thinking, as well as the other disciples, that forgiving someone seven seems fairly generous. Jesus probably surprised them all when He replied, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." (Mt 18:22) 

"Whoa!" they must have thought.  "Wait a minute. That is a whole lot of forgiving!" If you do the math, that is 490 times! How is that possible?

The Unmerciful Servant 

Then, knowing their thoughts, Jesus proceeds to tell the Twelve the story of the unmerciful servant. You probably know it well. (Mt 18:21-25) 

If you recall, at the end of the parable, the servant was punished by the king because as the king asked, "Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" (Mt 18:33) The answer, of course, is yes, indeed, the servant should have shown mercy to the second servant.

The servant who was forgiven his massive debt by the king owed a tremendous sum of money--somewhat like owing millions of dollars. Yet after being forgiven all of that, he refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him about the equivalent of what a day laborer would earn in one hundred days. It was not insignificant, but compared to what he had been forgiven, it was not much. 

Stephen's forgiveness of his murderers is the type of forgiveness that Jesus was calling Peter to give, and this is the type of forgiveness that He is calling you and me to give. We need to be prepared to forgive even those who would unjustly put us to death. And if we are called to forgive someone who would kill us, how much more so should we forgive someone who has done something far less than murder?

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Feast Day (Memorial): December 26th

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