Friday, December 26, 2014

St. Stephen - Martyr

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54-60).

I never particularly understood why St. Stephen’s day was the day after Christmas. Superficially, it seems like there must have been some leftover saints and a need to celebrate their “days” by the end of the year, sort of like getting a last minute tax deductible expenditure in before the new year. I’m sure that’s not how this happened, and there is some perfectly logical explanation of why these saints are remembered on these particular days. I have, however, neither the time nor the inclination to do the research. I am still fat and lethargic with Christmas ham.

Directly after celebrating the Savior’s birth on December 25, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen (Dec. 26), St. John the Apostle (Dec. 27), and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28). December 29 is the feast day of St. Thomas Beckett, who was assassinated on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Saint Anysia of Salonika, a martyr of the 4th century, is remembered on December 30. Anysia’s delightful story begins with her birth to a wealthy and pious Christian family in Salonika (modern day Thessaloniki). The legend of her martyrdom states that in 304 AD, a Roman soldier apprehended her as she was on her way to services. Discovering she was a Christian, he beat her, and intended to drag her to a pagan temple to sacrifice to Roman gods. When he tore off her veil (a reminder of her vow of chastity), she spit in his face, and he murdered her. Rounding out the year we have St. Sylvester on December 31. St. Sylvester was a pope whose claim to fame is being mentioned in the forged Donation of Constantine, according to which Pope Sylvester was offered the imperial Roman crown by a grateful, newly converted Emperor Constantine, which he refused. Sylvester is credited with lots of other actual good things, which you can read about here.

I like celebrating St. Stephen in such close proximity to the birth of Our Lord Jesus though. He reminds us what the point of Jesus’ birth was, and just how hostile an unbelieving world is to the message of the Gospel. When he is taken into custody and brought before the Sanhedrin, he wastes no time arguing with his captors, or pleading for mercy. St. Stephen, when given the opportunity to speak, preaches Law and Gospel, using the condensed story of God’s salvation history given in Holy Scripture. To the stiff-necked, unrepentant people about to murder him, St. Stephen preaches law:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? The even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51-53).

This sermon is reminiscent of St. Peter’s address to the crowd on Pentecost. Both men are addressing Jews who have received God’s Law, but are not believers in Christ. Why does St. Peter’s sermon turn out so much differently than St. Stephen’s? Was he a better preacher? Perhaps he was able to relate to the crowd better by meeting them where they were at and not speaking in terms of antiquated doctrine or outdated worship styles. Maybe he wore hipster glasses.

What the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom illustrates when compared with St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon is the difference between repentance and faith, and sin and unbelief. It shows us that God is responsible for saving us though the gift of faith given through the means of his word, and we are responsible for our damnation by rejecting that gift and resisting the Holy Spirit. Faith comes to us as a gift, through the means of God’s word and sacraments. Unbelief comes from us. God’s Holy Spirit works when and where he will through those means. Man’s sinful mind is hostile to God. Perishing and being dead in transgression, the message of the cross is foolishness to men. Natural man does not, and cannot, submit to God’s Law.

This should take a lot of weight off of us Christians. It is not up to us to convert people. That is God’s job. He does that though the preached word, through the waters of Baptism, and in Christ’s body and blood given to us to eat and to drink in the Lord’s Supper. God will use his means of grace to accomplish his purposes. Therefore, we can be bold like St. Stephen and simply proclaim Law and Gospel, without worrying whether or not we have packaged it effectively.

We celebrate the Christ child’s birth looking forward to his death for our sin on the cross, and his glorious resurrection. Knowing this we can, with the same faith that St. Stephen had, preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus to a fallen, sinful, and hostile world, and God will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, save sinners.