On the Feast of Stephen
By Pastor William Cwirla
is St. Stephen’s Day. You know that from the popular Christmas carol:
“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen.” That’s
December 26th. And so the color is red instead of the usual Christmas
white, not to match the Christmas poinsettias, but to match the blood
of Stephen, the Church’s first martyr
a matter of fact, two of the twelve days of Christmas are martyrs
days. Today, the feast of St. Stephen, and December 28th, the feast of
the holy innocents, on which we remember the baby boys of Bethlehem who
died under Herod’s sword for no other reason than they resembled
Jesus. This is no coincidence. The coming of Christ always brings the
cross and opposition.
Baby of Bethlehem has fists clenched in blood. He is the world’s great
war-Lord, God’s enmity maker, the devil’s head crusher. The Revelation
depicts Him as rider on a white horse with robes dipped in blood and a
sword coming out of His mouth. This Baby from Bethlehem is destined
for blood, and so there is a very close connection between the Christ
Child and the first Christian martyr.
The eastern Orthodox sing this hymn on St. Stephen’s day:
Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh
And became our guest.
Today His servant is stoned to death
And departs in the flesh:
The glorious protomartyr Stephen.
Stephen is offered to the King
As a living sacrifice.
For today he departs in the flesh
To God Almighty who came to dwell in the flesh
Completing his combat in honor
For the sake of Christ.
comes with a cross. The wood of the manger is never far removed from
the wood of the cross. Both preach the same thing: “He came to His
own, but His own did not receive Him.” The Messiah is a rejected
Messiah. He is the rejected Savior. The cross and Christ always go
together. You can’t have one without the other, and any Christ without
a cross is not the genuine article.
didn’t volunteer to be Christ’s first martyr. He had a fairly mundane
job in the congregation at Jerusalem making sure that the Greek widows
had enough food. One of the things the early church did was provide
care for elderly widows who had no family to take them in. The church
in Jerusalem was composed of Hebrews and Greeks. And, as inevitably
happens, there was tension between the two. The Greek widows were
complaining that the Hebrews were being given special treatment. And
so the apostles directed the congregation to chose seven Greek men of
good standing to take make sure that the Greek widows were cared for.
Kind of a board for social ministry. Stephen was listed first among
them. He is sometimes called the church’s first deacon. And if all
deacon Stephen had done for the rest of his days was take care of
little old Greek widows, he probably would have lived a long, happy
life without much trouble.
Stephen was filled with grace and power of the Holy Spirit. He did
many great wonders and signs. And he spoke with such wisdom and power
that the Jews who debated with him couldn’t keep up. That’s when the
trouble began. Works of mercy won’t get you in trouble. You might
even get a Congressional medal of honor or a Nobel peace prize. But
preach Jesus, and the cross is sure to be right there with you.
preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Now that alone
probably wouldn’t have stirred up too much trouble. But it was the implications
of what he preached that created the stir. You see, if Jesus truly is
the Christ, the Messiah, and if by His dying and rising He has won
salvation for the world, then the religion of Israel was
fulfilled. The temple sacrifices were fulfilled. The Law of Moses,
with its rules and regulations, was fulfilled.. And that’s what got Stephen in trouble.
at the charges against him. “He is speaking against this holy place
(the temple) and the law (of Moses).” Most everyone will tolerate a
“live and let live, don’t ask don’t tell” approach to religion. What
you believe is true for you, what I believe is true for me. Moslem,
Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Christian – whatever, so long as it keeps you out
of trouble. You can even claim that your religion is exclusively true,
as most respectable religions do. But preach that God was uniquely in
Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins
against them, that Jesus alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the
sin of the world even before the world has the good sense to ask to
have its sins removed, and the world will pick up stones.
a curious thing. Persecution in the book of Acts and in the
Revelation, comes from two places – religion and politics. Religion
and Politics are the two great enemies of the good news that God has
redeemed the world in the death of Jesus. Who tried to kill Jesus when
He was a baby? King Herod. Who ultimately killed Jesus? Religion and
Politics. The chief priests and Pilate. Who are the two beasts in the
Revelation? Again, Religion and politics.
and Politics love each other. Religious leaders are always cozying up
to the politically powerful to push their agendas. And political
leaders are always schmoozing the religious to co-opt their influence.
do Religion and Politics hate the Gospel? Because they both promise
what only Jesus delivers. Politics holds out the promise of utopia, an
ideal kingdom. Call it what you will: a New Deal, a Great Society,
Camelot, a new world order. It’s all the same thing. Better living
through the exercise of political power. “Vote for me and I’ll make
your life will be better. Trust me.” But the truth is that the
kingdoms of this world, including our own, are all passing away. There
are serious cracks in the foundation, and one day the walls will come
tumbling down like Jericho’s. And in the end there is only one kingdom
that stands forever, and its King is Jesus, and His kingdom is already
established. We don’t do it. He’s already done it. It’s finished.
Religion holds ways to deal with God on our terms, sacrifices to win God over to our side. But Jesus is the Priest of His own sacrifice.
How do you bargain with a God who does it all Himself, who becomes man
and dies and rises? You can’t. It’s finished. The curtain of the
temple is ripped in two from top to bottom. Nothing we do reconciles
us with God. God is reconciled in the death of Jesus. Period. End of
discussion. All you can do is believe it.. And that’s why religion
hates the Gospel. The cross of Jesus yanks the plug on religion.
at who threw stones at Stephen. They were fine, respectable, religious
people, the Sanhedrin, religious leaders who thought they were doing
God a favor, standing up for the truth. Look at who was supervising
the whole thing: Saul of Tarsus. Now there’s a Gospel twist for you.
The man who approved the stoning of the first Christian martyr later
became the greatest apostle to the Gentile world. Who says God isn’t
subversive? He makes the archenemy an apostle! That’s a perfect
illustration of what Stephen preached. God used the rejection of the
Jews to work the salvation of the world. Listen to it again. God used
Israel’s rejection , not her cooperation but her constant
resistance and rejection of her own Messiah to work the salvation of
the world. That’s why Religion hates the Gospel. It totally rules out
our cooperating with God.
his martyr’s death, Stephen resembled Jesus on the cross. He saw
Jesus, standing at the right hand of God. He prayed to Jesus. “Lord
Jesus, receive my spirit.” He prayed for those who were killing him.
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Oh, that the Lord would
grant each of us such joy! To see Jesus glorified. To trust him not
only with the little things of our life but with the big thing of our
death. To die praying for the forgiveness of those who have hurt us.
buried Stephen with great grieving, it says. Saul went on a rampage,
going from one house church to another, dragging off men and women off
to prison. Quite a difference from the signs and wonders of Pentecost
Day. And I believe that this is precisely Luke’s point in the book of
Acts – the church in the world remains a militant church, always under
attack from within and without. And in her weakness, and suffering,
and martyrdom God is mighty and active because weakness, suffering, and
death is the way of salvation. After years of trying to wipe out
Christianity in Russia, Josef Stalin once said, “The Church is like a
nail. The harder you drive it, the deeper it goes.”
say “Merry Christmas.” And by that we mean, “may your steaks be thick
and your roasts juicy. May your glasses be filled with good wine. And
may there be many presents under your tree, and a warm fire in your
fireplace. And may your house be filled with friends and family.”
Well and good. Nothing wrong with being merry. Just don’t confuse it
with Christmas joy. Merry you can have with a good bottle of wine. Joy comes only with the Christ Child.
there is a deadly-serious joy that comes with the birth of the Christ
Child, a joy that runs so much deeper than holiday merriment. The
red-stained joy of dying to live in Christ. Of seeing Jesus in His
glory. Of being received by Him to a feast that has no end. Of
forgiving others as you have been forgiven. This joy is yours not
simply at Christmas time but every day in your Baptism and especially
every Lord’s Day when Jesus’ death and life become your food and drink.
May the Christ Child fill you with the joy of St. Stephen.