While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. --Acts 7: 59-60
In this period of the Twelve Days of Christmas, we come across stories such as the one of Stephen, thought to be the first martyr and certainly one of the first deacons of the Church. He was one of seven who was deputized by the apostles simply because they couldn't do all of the 'hands on' work that was required in those early days, most especially paying attention to the widows among the Greeks as well as the Jews. Stephen was chosen for being full of faith and the spirit. And it was this commitment and witness that led to his public stoning.
When I first became aware that Stephen was a representative of the office of deacon, it made me think: "Oh, so that's what happens to those in the diaconate!"
OK... so they don't usually get stoned to death. But a work of a deacon is one which, as best as I can figure out, is that of the unsung hero. They occupy this place between being "clergy" and "laity". All priests have to go through a period where they are in the "transitional" diaconate before they are made priests in the church. Some in the priesthood remember what it is to be in this role of being in the trenches with the people in the servant mode, and they carry it forward into their new life as the administrator and preacher. I've always appreciated priests who don't lose that part of their calling. They always seem to be the most real people to me.
Stephen's death also marks a major moment in the history of Christianity because of the witness of Paul (called Saul) to his stoning. Saul was encouraging of this violence and made it his mission to persecute people who were followers of "The Way." I have often wondered if watching this death and seeing Stephen turn his face to God and call out for God to have mercy didn't have an unconscious effect on his enemy. Could this event have penetrated a portion of Saul's soul? Was death Stephen's ultimate act of bringing the love of Christ that much closer to one who hated the followers of Christ? It's not explained that way in the Scripture, but I often wonder if that wasn't part of the unspoken context of Luke including this note about Saul in the story of Stephen's death.
Given the news out of Nigeria yesterday where Islamic extremists bombed five churches during Christmas Day, remembering the martyrdom of Stephen and his untold effect on Paul may be a good thing to contemplate before we call for revenge and reprisal. Justice must be served by the civil authorities in that country. But the justice that comes from above needs to be left for God to mete out. Ours is to ask for that justice to come to those who have been attacked.
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.--BCP, pg. 816