By Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD.
Jer 26:1-9(10-11)12-15 Ps 31 Acts 6.8 – 7.2a, 51c – 60 Matthew 23. 34-39
Even though initially I was drawn to the fact that the Church moved the feast of Stephen from December 26th to August 3rd , and I really love to sing the carol Good King Wenceslaus, instead I began focusing on the incredible connections between the life of Stephen and the life of Jesus as recorded by the author of Luke/Acts. Tradition places the authorship of both the Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles as the same person, identified as Luke the physician, possibly of gentile heritage or a Hellenistic Jew. In the Acts of the Apostles it was the Hellenists who complained to the disciples that their widows were being shorted in the distribution of food which led to the Apostles’ raising up deacons to wait at tables including Stephen. This fact might lend some weight to the Hellenist origins argument for Luke.
In years past, the feast of Stephen was commemorated as I said, not in August, but following of Christmas on December 26th. Of course, I went to consult my BCP and the calendar in the front matter pages. The progression of Red-Letter days following Christmas starts with St. Stephen the Martyr, December 26th. On December 27th the feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. The Holy Innocents on December 28th. Then the following lesser days, known as Black Letter feasts: Thomas Becket, December 29th, John Wycliffe, December 30th, and finally, John West, on December 31st. There were good reasons why the Church moved most of these feasts and commemorations out from the week following Christmas, namely, that we could then keep celebrating Christmas without interruptions. This is all quite fascinating, but hardly counts as breaking open the scriptures.
Then I noticed the use of parallelism in the Acts of the Apostle and in the gospel of Luke I really began to find some interesting material. Remember when professors or teachers would ask you to compare and contrast material? What is the author of Luke/Acts trying to help us to see using these similarities in their stories?
Jesus began his ministry in earnest after his baptism with the Spirit followed by his 40 days in the wilderness. Stephen was chosen from among a number who were identified as being full of the Spirit and wisdom. Jesus did great wonders and signs throughout his ministry as did Stephen, although Acts simply records this without elucidating what great miracles Stephen did other than serving at tables. In contrast to the fulsome accounts of the ministry and teaching of Jesus as told in gospel accounts, all we hear about Stephen’s ministry was that he did great wonders among the people. One surmises that Stephen was martyred because through his ministry in both word and example others were becoming followers of Jesus and the authorities in the synagogue grew jealous of him. Similarly in Jesus’ ministry when the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was baptizing more disciples than John, the Pharisees took notice of Jesus (John 4.1-3), and it angered them that people were following Jesus instead of their strict teachings.
People from the Synagogue had argued with Stephen, “but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” The temple police said of Jesus, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!” when the priests asked why they hadn’t arrested Jesus (John 7.45-46). And in Luke’s account about Jesus we hear that, “They were astounded at his teaching, because he [that is, Jesus] spoke with authority.” (Luke 4:32). In both cases people are secretly instigated to bring charges against them (see Matt 26:59).
Stephen in his speech at this trial before the Sanhedrin and high priest recounted the history of the Jewish people beginning with Abraham’s call, through the patriarchs and Moses up to David and Solomon. In Luke’s telling of resurrection encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, Jesus explained the scriptures to the disciples, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, and he interpreted to the disciples all the things about himself.” (Luke 24:27)
In Luke 4, following Jesus’ temptations in the desert, Jesus went to Nazareth, his home town and read from the Isaiah scroll: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ When he finished reading and sat down, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Of Stephen we heard in Acts that all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6. 15).
Jesus said to the congregation in Nazareth, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first the crowds “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But soon they turned and said, “‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” Jesus answered them back, and the crowd angered quickly and “wanted to hurl him from the brow of the hill.” Is this crowd in Nazareth angry with Jesus gracious words, or his good works? In John 10, Jesus speaking with the crowds, so infuriated them that they picked up stones to throw at him. Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ For what good works was Stephen stoned?
As the crowds hurled the stones at Stephen, he prayed, first to Jesus to receive his spirit. Do you hear the echoes from the cross? Luke puts these words on Jesus’ lips as part of the seven last words of Christ, (Luke 23.46): “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’.
Then Stephen then knelt down and cried out in a loud voice to pray for forgiveness for those who were killing him, which parallels Jesus’ dying prayer, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23.34).
The Gospel passage today was taken from Matthew. It comes at the end of one of Jesus’ long tirades against the Scribes and Pharisees, where we hear again and again the phrase, “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” and sometimes, “woe to you blind guides.” In Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, after setting out the history, he began his own tirade calling them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, and forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” Not the most gracious way to win friends, but instead a call to speak the truth and identify injustice where we see it.
The compassion shown by Jesus towards the people puts the Scribes and Pharisees to shame. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Has Stephen’s ministry of loving service also turned jealousy into anger of those in the synagogue who turned against him?
All of us long to be gathered up under the wings of Jesus and be kept safe from all that life sends at us because it would feel good and safe. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, Pilgrim meets people along the road who turn back because they’ll only follow Christ in silver shoes, that is, when it is easy and feels good. But the Christ we know wears workers’ sandals and we are to walk in his footsteps, like the page who walked in King Wenceslas’ prints in the snow. The parallelism used by the author of Luke/Acts is calling us, like Stephen, to walk the compassionate way of Jesus who prayed for forgiveness for others even while dying. How much more should we forgive the slights and injuries we experience from one another in daily life? And how much more should our humble work and acts of love for one another, as deacons waiting tables, be a sign of the Spirit within us? And perhaps, we should reconsider moving the feast of Stephen back to December 26th to disturb our good feelings in the season of Christmas and consider and highlight, compare and contrast our lives with the full cost of following Christ. Amen.