To-day is St Stephen’s day. St Stephen is the first Christian martyr and he didn’t die of overeating. Instead he is stoned to death having enraged the pious and the orthodox by his works and his words. Why celebrate him to-day? Perhaps as a counter to the excess and good cheer of the day before. It is important to remember the dark side. Whenever we think of the stable we should also think of the cross. It’s possible to sentimentalise the stable but it’s quite impossible to sentimentalise the cross.
The background to Stephen’s story is trouble in the chapel. Stephen although a Jew is Greek speaking. He’s got a Greek name. He has friends and companions with Greek names. These Greeks had a more cosmopolitan outlook than the old guard. They felt they were treated as second class, pushed aside, their spiritual gifts ignored. Attempts to calm things down by giving them jobs didn’t succeed. Stephen’s fate is sealed when he is accused of challenging the central place that the Temple had among both the Jews and the first Christians. At this stage the Jews and the Christians had not separated into two separate and antagonistic communities.
Stephen is framed and brought before the Council on a capital charge. His death is preceded by a long sermon. In this sermon he describes Israel’s history in considerable detail. He lists Israel’s various acts of faithlessness in the past and he accuses his hearers of failing to respond to God’s saving acts in the present. “As your fathers did so do you”.
There is no invitation to believe the good news and be saved. He simply tells his hearers that they have betrayed and murdered the righteous one, he means Jesus of course. It’s almost as if he wants to invite the to murder him. They are not slow to take advantage of the invitation and proceed at once to his execution.
His death is the death of the righteous prophet. He is said to be full of the Holy Spirit-he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God-and as he dies he forgives his murderers using words that recall Jesus’ own words. “Father forgive them for they not what they do” It is all rather splendid.
But is it wise? How appropriate is it to pray for the forgiveness of others when you provoked their sins in the first place. A sermon that provokes its hearers into murdering the preacher seems to me to be doubly ineffective-not only is the congregation left without hope its situation is gravely worsened. They now have blood on their hands.
This is what moralists call an occasion for sin. An occasion for sin is an invitation to sin-like leaving your car unlocked, or your back door open-or driving your relatives into a state of fury and exasperation by being difficult. For many people and in many ways Christmas is itself an invitation to sin. That’s why the government runs an anti-drink driving campaign at this time of year.
Stephen’s sermon seems to me to be an occasion for sin. Well that’s as may be but I am sure that such a point is very far from the author’s intention. The author of Acts presents the heroes of the faith as making a public profession of their beliefs regardless of the consequences. St Peter, St Paul and Stephen all make long speeches in Acts in defence of the faith and all suffer the consequences. There’s a sense of necessity about all this. In the same way Jesus’ own death was necessary. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s truth.
Stephen’s sermon lacks something in terms of pastoral sensitivity but then it is in a sense a speech from the dock and he would have known that his number was up. In any case he redeems himself in my eyes at least by his act of forgiveness. This echoes Jesus’own words of forgiveness from the cross. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s word.
The essence of God’s truth is that all should turn to him and be forgiven. God has compassion upon all but especially upon the poor, the outcast and the lost. Having accepted forgiveness for ourselves we should have compassion on others and work for their acceptance as well. So Jesus’ prays for those who crucify him and Stephen prays for those who stone him to death. But I expect that not all the first Christians would have admired Stephen’s
heroic death. They might not even have been entirely sorry. I can hear them now. He was a nice lad but he would go on so. You mustn’t upset people; whatever the cause. Don’t rock the boat.
And what has all this to do with Christmas. On the face of it not a great deal. Yet it is appropriate that Good King Wenceslas should have looked out on the Feast of Stephen and had compassion upon a poor man. The author of Luke/Acts would have been pleased. And it is also right to be reminded to-day of the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to bear witness no matter what.
That act of looking out is important. Christmas is far too much about looking in, shutting the door, excluding those who are not ours. Stephen wanted to look out beyond the cosy inward looking world of the synagogue. Wenceslas looked out from his cosy castle and had compassion on the poor. That’s what St Stephen’s day and Boxing Day should be about.
Looking out, bearing witness to the good news that is for all whether they are “ours” or not that is what this feast ought to be about. Facing up also to the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to walk the way of the cross whatever happens.
As Simeon said to Mary:
Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against. (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.