On the Feast of Stephen:
Many people will tell you doctrine doesn’t matter. What matters, they say, is what you do, not what you believe. “Deeds not creeds” – that’s their doctrine! So you can’t escape the question of doctrine: but we are right to ask, what deeds are produced by our creeds. The Christian creed affirms that Jesus is both God and Man. At the heart of this doctrine of the Incarnation is God’s gratuitous love for sinners. It’s the idea that though we turned away from God, God did not turn away from us; and he gave his Son to be made man, to be born of the Virgin Mary, to die and rise again for us, so that we might share in his Sonship. Stephen, the first martyr, whose feast falls on the second day of Christmas, is an outstanding witness both to this creed, and to the deeds it engenders.
Stephen appears in Acts 6, in ministry to the needy in the congregation; and as a bold witness to the gospel, formidable in debate with its opponents, who had him arrested on false accusations of blasphemy. At his trial, Stephen did not back down from his claims, but made a searing indictment of those who rejected the Messiah. At the end of his speech, Stephen, “being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God’”. The place of Jesus at God’s right hand, is the place of authority; it means he is the mediator of God’s power and kingdom to mankind. These words infuriated his listeners, who lynched him. Even when they were stoning him, however, St. Luke tells us that “he was calling upon God, and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’”. What Luke is emphasizing to his readers is the astonishing content of Stephen’s prayer. Not only is Stephen himself praying to the man Jesus as one prays to God alone, he also addresses him as Lord, a title Jews reserved for God; and asks for him to receive his spirit, an action only God can take. In the first century Judaic context, this testimony was explosive. Pagans might confuse Creator and creature, and ascribe divine honors to a man, but it was unthinkable that a devout Jew would do so. Only the strongest evidence could have compelled testimony like Stephen’s, and it reflects a conviction that emerged very quickly after the death of Jesus and without any evidence of disagreement about this point among Christians. The only possible explanation for this radical unanimous shift is the resurrection of Jesus. For it belongs to one who is a man to die, but it belongs to the one who is also God to rise from the dead (Romans 1:3-4). If Christians like Stephen were confessing Jesus as God as well as man, even at the cost of their own death, it was because he died and rose from the dead. Stephen was content to suffer and die for this faith, because he believed fervently that the one he had died for was greater than death; and that the one he prayed to was able to hear his prayers, and answer them.
There is no question then about Stephen’s creed, and its convicting power. It is the doctrine of the Incarnation that moves Stephen to bear fearless public witness to Christ, and to suffer persecution and death for his sake, confident of future vindication in the resurrection. But it also moved him to love and pray for his persecutors. As they were stoning him, Stephen was praying earnestly for them on his knees, and with the loud voice of empowerment by the Spirit, he was saying, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. It’s an echo of Jesus’ own words on the cross – Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do – with this difference, that as Jesus prayed to God as Father, Stephen is praying to Jesus as Lord. In the following chapters of Acts, we learn how Stephen’s prayer is answered, when Saul, who was named as present and complicit in his death, and who was a ferociously zealous persecutor of the church, was called on the road to Damascus into the service of Christ, and became a fervently zealous preacher of the gospel. Stephen’s prayer was not unheard, and his faith and witness in Jesus as Lord was not in vain. But we need next to consider why it moved him to prayer for his persecutors.
(To be continued)
The photo is public domain from WikiArt.org and shows a fresco entitled “St. Stephen Being Led to his Martyrdom” by Fra Angelico. This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to the Rector Gavin Dunbar