How abrupt! Just when we have celebrated the silent, holy night on the outskirts of the little town of Bethlehem, we wake up the next day to celebrate the feast of Stephen, the first martyr among the followers of the crucified and risen adult Jesus. It may seem like the bad news a sinful history throwing a dark cloud over the good news of Christmas. But that is not really the case. The story of Stephen has its own way for proclaiming the goods news of the consequences of the Incarnation.
What began with the conception and birth of Jesus eventually leads to the victory over the power of evil that issues from Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost and the mission of the post-Easter Church. True, the forces of evil show up again in the resistance to and misunderstanding of the preaching and ministry of the likes of Stephen, resulting in the extra-judicial execution by stoning of this good evangelist.
Ironically, the young man Saul stands at the edge of the crowd of stoners, minding their cloaks. Should we think of him as a guilty by-stander? Luke says he consented to Stephen’s death. But notice how Stephen, even on the brink of this lynching, is empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach and live the gospel. Luke makes a point of emphasizing the way his facing of this death by unjustified execution parallels the way the Lord Jesus faced his own similar death. Like Jesus, Stephen is falsely accused of threatening the temple. Like Jesus, he is wrongly condemned to death. Like Jesus, he is taken out of the city for execution. And as Jesus prayed to the Father, Stephen prays to Jesus, in words that echo Jesus’ own prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Even his final words parallel Jesus’ plea that his killers be forgiven: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
The empowerment of Stephen to so courageously face misunderstanding and rejection unto death is traceable to what commenced on Christmas Eve. God with us in Jesus led to the victory of Easter and a church on mission carried out by people like this first of the martyrs—and like the guilty by-stander Saul, who, two chapters later, becomes one of the greatest exponents of Jesus’ mission ever. When this first persecutor, on the road to Damascus on a search-and-destroy mission, is confronted and commissioned by the risen Jesus, he is transformed into the all-time top promoter of the good news of Christmas and Easter.
The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel promise us that, even in the worst of times, we shall be animated by the same Spirit that enabled Stephen to joyfully live out the good news of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.