“The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith...
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.“
Acts of the Apostles 6:7-15
It is Eastertide! The Church draws our attention to the early days of her actions recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. I like the word Eastertide, for indeed, we witness the tide that changed the world: the Tide of Christ and his Church flowed to the shores of every place the Spirit of God sent the disciples. As the tide flowed, we read of men and women becoming the first saints of The Church. In today’s reading, we witness the courage and wisdom of St. Stephen before he becomes the first martyr of the Church.
Likely, we will not have to endure the extent of subterfuge against us or the persecution and martyrdom St. Stephen faced, but we each face daily circumstances that may be unjust, where gossip and slander against us test our courage as we swim against the tide of gossip and slander. The small sacrifices we make each day for the sake of love for our LORD are sometimes referred to as martyrdom of the self in that we learn to love our LORD more than our self-interest. What can we learn by observing St. Stephen’s character that will spur us on in our swim against the tide of the culture around us?
Stephen was a man of integrity. The Church recognized that he was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. When we choose to empty ourselves of every shred of self-interest, we make room for the presence of the Holy Spirit. I’m learning that if I am going to receive the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, I have to let go of my notions and ideas of how life should go for me and for those I love. I have to let go of the fear of what others may plot against me for my faith. St. Stephen may have expected life to turn out differently for him, but we observe that he was a man whose inclination toward Jesus motivated his responses and actions toward his persecutors.
LORD, my self-interests are often motivated by my obstinance and fear of rejection. And self-absorption sometimes drives me into overweening pride. I desire integrity so that my inner person prefers you and your will for me.
St. Stephen was wise, and the synagogue officials were envious of him and outraged by the Spirit with which he spoke. He was not attached to his reputation or proving his worth to others or defending himself against lies about him. He knew who he was as God’s child, and his eyes fixed on standing firm in that truth and responding to others from that truth.
LORD, free me from self-protection. Guard my tongue; I desire that all the words of my mouth echo the Truth, Beauty, and Godness of The Faith. I can waste a lot of words on a lot of stuff that doesn’t matter. I can use words as weapons for my insecurities. But I desire that you fill me with understanding so that what I say or don’t say is motivated by the wisdom of your Spirit within me.
We learn from the next chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that St. Stephen, amid the stoning that would cause his death, “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The testament of those last moments of his life here on earth revealed the LORD’s faithfulness to him; St. Stephen had received the truth of Christ in his heart and mind; he stood up for the truth about Jesus, now Jesus was standing up for him, waiting to receive him into his presence.
LORD, I desire to fix my gaze on your glory. When I am frightened by the threats around me or the pain I endure, will you lift my chin to look you straight into your eyes? I desire to live in the confidence that you receive my spirit as I choose to remain confident in the truth that you are with me always, no matter what causes me fear.
St. Stephen was a forgiver. His last words echo Christ’s words from the cross, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” I’m tempted to cling to injustices and stew in resentments and regrets. I’m tempted to keep mental lists of grievances.
LORD, empty my memories of what others may have done to hurt me; may I only desire to forgive them and will their good. Would you give me emotional amnesia of offenses that can free me to center my heart and mind on you?
St. Stephen, pray for us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be world without end.