December 26, 2016
by George Butterfield
Creighton University's Law School Library
click here for photo and information about the writer

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr
Lectionary: 696

Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Psalms 31:3cd-4, 6 and 8ab, 16bc and 17
Matthew 10:17-22

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Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. He was one of the deacons in the church in Jerusalem. Luke records the story of Stephen’s preaching which led to his death.

Jesus said that the time would come when his disciples would be called on to give witness before the authorities. The word witness comes from the same word from which we get the word martyr. A martyr is one who gives witness to the faith even unto death. Jesus predicted that there would be martyrs. “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.” If this is the case, how are we to live?

First, Jesus cautions us to “[b]eware of men.” Other humans will persecute you for your faith and this does not exclude close relatives. Most people who convert to following Christ as an adult or who grow up in the faith but get serious about it as an adult have experienced this. Close friends, family members, or colleagues wonder what has happened to us and they react. Perhaps the reaction comes in the form of snarky comments or an unspoken exclusion or parents who assure you that they are praying that you will see the light and return from the error of your ways. This is certainly not death by stoning but it can take its toll. Jesus assures us that “whoever endures to the end will be saved.” Living for Christ is indeed a marathon and not a sprint.

Second, Jesus assures us that we need not worry about what we will say when we are called upon to give witness, that the Spirit will speak through us and that it really will not be us doing the speaking. Saint Stephen demonstrated this in his preaching. Those who wished to debate him “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” He was filled with the Holy Spirit. Debates against the Holy Spirit are destined to fail. So, unable to refute what Stephen said, they killed him. Yet, Stephen kept his focus on Jesus. He saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He asked Jesus to receive his spirit. He endured to the end.

As a deacon, I have learned the value of Jesus’ teaching. For example, when preparing for homilies, I have learned to “beware of men.” I used to put a lot of trust in what was said in commentaries or what I came up with out of my own experience. These are not bad resources but we should be cautious. Let us trust more in the working of the Holy Spirit and less in our own ability, thinking, knowledge, or experience. Recently the Holy Spirit gave me an illustration in the middle of a homily, one that I had not prepared to use. After the homily, a person told me how much that illustration meant to them. Of all the things I had prepared to say, the one thing I did not prepare is the very thing that drew them closer to Jesus Christ. Whether it is preaching, teaching, or simply talking with a friend, trusting the Holy Spirit to give you the right words builds great confidence. I can personally testify that the Holy Spirit has never let me down.

Beware of men and trust the Holy Spirit, even unto death. Saint Stephen understood this. This is why we celebrate him today.

Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, pray for us.

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