Above: St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
Image Source = David Monniaux
The First Christian Martyr
Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15 (New Revised Standard Version):
At the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came from the LORD:
Thus says the LORD: Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word. It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings. You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently– though you have not heeded– then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.
The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying,
“You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, “This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant?”
And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.
Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying,
It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.
Psalm 31:1-5 (New Revised Standard Version):
In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60 (New Revised Standard Version):
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say,
We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.
They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said,
This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.
And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Then the high priest asked him,
Are these things so?
And Stephen replied:
Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!
But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed,
Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice,
Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
When he had said this, he died.
Matthew 23:34-39 (New Revised Standard Version):
Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.
“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! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Stephen was among the first seven deacons, set aside for “waiting tables” and other socially useful functions, such as caring for widows and other vulnerable people, so the surviving Apostles could focus on other responsibilities. (Thus the Sacred Order of Deacons came to be.) Yet Stephen’s social work did not get him into trouble; his preaching did. Thus he became the first Christian martyr, a witness to which was one Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, who, in time, took the Gospel to the Gentiles. And part of the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom was the voluntary scattering of Jerusalem Christians beyond that city, and therefore the spread of Christianity outside the holy city.
There is an old saying: “The blood of the martyrs waters the church.” It holds true in this case, the first of many. St. Stephen was the first of a line of martyrs (literally, “witnesses”) whose number increases each day. And history contains a pattern respective to these martyrdoms: They do not wipe out the presence of the Gospel there. Rather, they increase it.
In one parable Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, which produces a pesky bush (a glorified weed, really), the spread of which people cannot halt. The Kingdom of God will go where it will, regardless of what we mortals try to do about it. Thanks be to God!