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St Stephen

17 December 2021

2 Chronicles 24.20-22; Psalm 119.161-168; Acts 7.51-end; Matthew 10.17-22

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ONE good thing about decades of liturgical revision has been a higher profile for the Old Testament at the eucharist. Sometimes, though, it makes for difficulties, and this is one such case. When Christians made the decision to receive the sacred writings of Judaism as their own, they did so because of (among other things) prophecies fulfilled and truth perceived there.

Paul’s letters witness to the difficulties that they must have had in making sense of how the old and new covenants fitted together. When we measure 2 Chronicles 24 against Acts 7, we should be in difficulties, too. Instead of seeing the Old Testament fulfilled in the New, it is (apparently) flatly contradicted. Zechariah was stoned to death, and as he died he cried for vengeance against his killers. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was also stoned to death — but he cried for forgiveness for those who were attacking him. We need to remember that stoning is a form of corporate killing. It can happen spontaneously (like lynching). Confirmation of the seriousness of the blasphemy charge against Stephen is to be found in the fact that stoning effects killing without touching.

If we take the Old Testament seriously, we have to admit that within it there is legitimation of the individual will for vengeance. Paul argues against individuals’ avenging themselves, but he still regards vengeance as proper for God (Romans 12.19). The thirst for justice (including the punishment of wickedness) is natural and understandable, but Paul and Stephen — like Jesus before them — follow “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12.31).

One difficulty that I have with Stephen is how rude he is to the people he is arguing with. “Stiff-necked” is an Old Testament insult: he has borrowed it from the Exodus story of the golden calf. So is “uncircumcised” (Leviticus 26.41). Both refer to arrogant apostasy of a kind that requires punishment and repentance. This is not the way to win over his opponents to the side of Christ: Stephen does not adopt the Pauline method of becoming all things to all people, so that, by all means, he may save some (1 Corinthians 9.22).

Indeed, that seems to be a long way from Stephen’s purpose. Luke puts his own interpretation on Stephen’s death, highlighting division between Jewish authorities and Greek-speaking diaspora Jews. Stephen does not attempt to be conciliatory, or to win them over. His sole aim is to convict them of wrong: of failing to recognise the hand of God at work in recent events. No wonder he enraged his enemies. No wonder that they covered their ears to stop themselves hearing the “blasphemous” words that he was pouring out in the ecstasy of his vision.

Stephen’s way of dying makes up for the insults and intransigence. The vision is God’s affirmation that his cause is righteous, while his two prayers (to be accepted by Jesus, and for forgiveness for his killers) cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4.8). He, the first martyr, is a perfect example of sainthood: flawed, but faithful; not bland, but beatified.

The Gospel for St Stephen’s Day seems to be a simple endorsement of the message in Acts: that Christians will suffer, and be judged unfairly, and endure martyrdom for their faith. The words of Jesus himself confirm that where he is to tread, disciples may one day follow. Luke’s approach to the Holy Spirit at work among the first Christians gets some confirmation here from Matthew, when Jesus reassures the Twelve that they do not need to be worried about finding the right words when they are being judged. The Holy Spirit will give them the words: the Father himself will speak through them.

Here at last is a glimpse of the Christmas message: not the big one (incarnation), but the one chiselled from the granite face of hard human experience. At Christmas, we need more than ever to ask the Holy Spirit to guide our words, and we need to follow what the Spirit prompts us to say. The last two Gospel verses are a warning of what can happen when families fall out under pressure. Love can turn into bitter hatred (or festering resentment). So, it is vital to ask the Spirit’s aid, and listen to the Spirit, and speak kindly, even when it costs us dearly. Not saying what you think can sometimes be a heroism as pure as any martyrdom.

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