Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 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, 58 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. And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Boxing day has always been fascinating! From singing about pizza, “deep and crisp and even” to watching larger families than ours have awkward and often tense family duties to endure following the joys of the 25th. Through getting to know Roger Jones’ musical ‘Wildfire’ the story of Stephen became the fascination instead. Amazing really how memory is aided with a catchy tune but simultaneously can bring the horror of Stephen’s end to vivid life.
We are invited to remember the life of Stephen on this day, December 26th, his Saint Day. Celebrated around the world in so many different ways. In Wales it was ok to beat late-risers with holly branches to bring them good luck; in Austria and Finland ceremonial horseback and sleigh rides were taken and in Germany young men would take part in a drinking ritual called “stoning” after attending church.
But whatever has evolved in traditions, Stephen’s story is deeply moving. His position in the community as they tried to make sense of the Good News of Jesus in their place, the tensions that arose from his preaching and then during and after his stoning, the quiet, by standing presence of Saul.
Have you ever wondered what S/Paul would have thought, after his conversion, about his encounter with Stephen? A “face of an angel” and scene reminiscent of Jesus’ own death but yet immediately we are told persecution broke out that day.
So as we enjoy/endure this boxing day let us remember people of faith who are persecuted for their beliefs. Let us also be sure that we do not standby silently watching while it happens for God gave us a voice to use for justice and peace.
we thank you for the life of Stephen
and his early church community
who met with persecution
as they sought to live their lives worshiping you
in Spirit and action.
we lift before you
all those who are persecuted for their faith in our world.
May you give them strength.
we remember families and individuals who will find today
tough, fraught or disappointing.
May you bring them peace.
we praise you that we are your voice into the world today.
Guide us as we seek to live together in community
and inspire us in all we do.
The Rev’d Carole Marsden is the minister of Cornerstone Community Church in Sedbergh in Cumbria.