a sermon for St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
Matthew 23:34-39 and Acts 6:8–7:2, 51-60
There is a poem by English writer Steve Turner that haunts me.
It is called “Christmas is Really For the Children,” and it goes like this:
Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.
I think it’s that connection that haunts me, and I suppose that may be true for us as we gather one blessed day after celebrating a birth in a manger on this ancient church festival—quite possibly the oldest—to hear of a gruesome death by stoning. My guess is that’s how many of us react today, wondering just how we’ve jumped so quickly from a silent night to a bloody morning, something more reminiscent of Holy Week. Is there a connection between these two, December 25 and December 26? Angels, straw and songs one day, the gift of peace on earth. Then angry crowds, rocks and jeers the next day, the reality of sin on earth. So much for prolonging the good will toward men.
December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, the day that one of the Christian faith’s earliest members was violently killed by a mob after having been seized by the authorities and accused by false witnesses. Stephen had been chosen as one of the first public servants in the church, a position knows as a deacon. He helped make sure that the church’s care for those who were hurting was extended beyond the priests and spread as evenly and fairly as possible. This Stephen is the deacon is where Stephen Ministry gets its name and the focus of its ministry. Our congregation is blessed by the ministry of Stephen Ministers who come alongside of people in need of careful and compassionate listening and prayer. There is solid evidence that the church was remembering Stephen’s martyrdom long before it was celebrating Christmas, so moved were the earliest believers by his ghastly death and his ability to remain loving as he died.
This festival, with its red paraments for the blood of martyrs, forms the first of three festivals that fall, one after the other, on the day after Christmas, and are set together this way on purpose by the church to illuminate the different ways of following Jesus into death and heavenly birth. December 27 is the feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist, the only apostle thought to have died a natural death. December 28 is the day the church commemorates the Holy Innocents and Martyrs, those children who were slaughtered by King Herod after he received the news of Jesus birth, which is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Stephen was a martyr in will and deed, meaning he stood up for his faith in Christ and it got him killed. John was a martyr in will but not in deed, meaning he stood up for his faith, but it never caused his death. The Holy Innocents were martyrs in deed but not in will, meaning they never stood up for their faith in Jesus, but they still died as a result of him.
And so there is the connection: faith in Jesus Christ, who was born a baby and later crucified for his faith in his Father’s kingdom, leads to consequences for each of us. We may be like Stephen, like so many early Christians did, we may end up like John, or we may be like the Holy Innocents, especially if we’re young. Like Turner’s poem suggests, we may have a tendency to sentimentalize Christmas too much just as we may tend to forget that faith in Jesus impacts our lives in ways that usually involve suffering. Jesus himself warns his disciples of this at several points, and at one point as he comes near Jerusalem we hear him lash out at the Pharisees and scribes and other religious leaders of Israel within earshot of many others. His frustration and disappointment at the leaders’ hypocrisy is boiling over.
As he lectures them he explains to them that those who come in love to love are often misunderstood and rejected. Those who are full of grace and power, like Stephen would be, can still received in hostility or, at best, indifference: The church whose efforts at evangelism go unanswered in its own neighborhood. The family member whose invitations to friendship and forgiveness are continually rebuffed by the angry relative. The difficult conversations about social issues that are only greeted with eyerolls, despite calmly they are couched. No matter how gentle and how peaceful some words and actions are, no matter how nurturing the intentions may be, like that of a mother hen, a people in woundedness and darkness are still bound to see it as threatening. And this is especially true if the person’s words and actions challenge the status quo, which Jesus’ and Stephen’s certainly do.
This is very silly, low-stakes example, but I remember once during seminary another first-year student and I were house-sitting for a professor who left South Carolina every summer for the Northwoods of Minnesota. I had to be away for the first two weeks of that house-sitting job, but the other student, a guy named Todd, was able to be in the house. Before I left, I told him approximately what day and time I’d be return, but I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Those were the days before cell phones and texting, so I had to way to let him know when to expect me. As it turned out, I rolled back into Columbia in the wee hours of the morning and I realized that I would be getting in while he was deep asleep. I had tried to leave a message on the answering machine a few hours before but had no way of knowing if he’d gotten it.
Todd was a big guy, athletic and built like a wrestler, and I knew that if I came into the house at 3:00am, which is what ended up happening, it would scare him out of his mind, and he could easily pile-drive me. I was mainly worried about frightening him, especially if he never heard my message. I fretted about this for the last few hours heading into Columbia in the middle of the night, wondering how I could soften my blow. Should I ring the doorbell? Be intentionally noisy downstairs? Be really, really quiet? I felt there was no way to avoid waking him and making him upset. I finally decided I’d let myself in and walk up the stairs and, as much as possible, demonstrate with my face and voice and hands that I’m not an intruder, I’m not armed and I come in peace, and just be prepared for his reaction. Sure enough, as I was walking up the room, I could see him suddenly sit up in bed, and then this look of absolute terror and anger came over him and he began to charge at me to protect himself. I thought he might try to tackle me, but eventually his eyes focused and he came to his senses and realized what was going on.
Jesus tells his listeners that God will send men and women will into the world, into all kinds of relationships, as people of peace and love, but sometimes people are not going to be able to “get focused” on it and come to their senses about them. Jesus words remind us that our baptism compels us to serve all people in the manner of our Lord Jesus Christ. Stephen’s witness shows us that no matter how full of grace and power we may be, no matter how sincerely we devote ourselves to the service of others, we may still be misunderstood. It’s as if the suffering of Jesus is still born out in the lives of those who’ve been united to his body.
So instead of waiting for a re-run of Christmas, we can remember Jesus looks at Jerusalem and senses before he even goes in that his people will not accept him. They will set up false witnesses and give him a sham trial. They will choose to have a murderer freed on the Passover instead of him. He will come in love to love, but his blood will end up on their hands. He comes to love in love, but we still pick up stones and hurl them. And he will still lift up bread and a cup of forgiveness.
The way of love in Jesus will always encounter obstacles and hatred in the world, even obstacles within us. That love which begins in the light of Christmas reaches its true fulfillment on the dark of Good Friday and in the more glorious light of Easter. For this love is a victory love, able to overcome anything, even the deaths of its beloved servants like Stephen. Even the suffering of you and me.
For in that crowd that day, the crowd that hurled stones at him, stood a young religious leader named Saul, egging them on, who was zealous to see the church stamped out right there and then. That angry Saul would later find his own life turned upside down by the glorious light of the Easter Jesus. And he who was once eager to see love drowned, who wanted it stoned to death no matter how lovingly it came, would he himself go on, renamed Paul, to write these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love never ends.”
Aha. That is the connection between Christmas and Easter, between Jesus and the lives of his saints, between God and the suffering of this world. It is love—a love that forgives even as it breathes its final breath, love that sees beyond the darkness of our hearts to the good we are created for, a love that is willing to lie in the manger on Christmas because it has knows the tomb will be empty on Easter. A love that gathers us here this morning. Christmas really is for the children—the children of God, the children of brokenness, the children who need God’s unconditional love.
“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be born for me for you.
Hail, hail, the word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.