December 26, 2021

Stephen, the first martyr, what can he say to us?

A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt

Acts 7:51-end

A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt

Sunday 26th December 2021: St Stephen’s Day

Acts 7:51-end

Stephen, keep quiet…Stephen – will you just shut up! We’re in enough trouble as it is, if the Romans hear you we’re all doomed as agitators! Remember what the Romans did to Jesus. And that Saul person, he’s already after all of us who follow the Way of Jesus because he thinks we’re blasphemers. We’ll be in even more trouble if we get thrown out of the synagogue. Yes, we know you’re a devoted Jesus person, but let’s just keep our heads down and get on with what we’re doing, worshipping quietly and safely trying to do what Jesus taught us. Don’t make waves, Stephen, please!!

Isn’t it usually the truth – people who are members of a particular movement, or enthusiastic religious converts, or who get obsessive about a cause want to convince everyone to come round to their way of thinking and join them in action.  And are usually intensely provocative, irritating, objectionable or obstructive in accomplishing their purpose.  Think of Greta Thunberg, or Extinction Rebellion, or Mother Teresa. Or the determined women protesting at Greenham Common, if your memories go back that far. Even if we, as outsiders, might agree with their aims, their way of going about getting authorities and people to change is frequently disruptive. Very challenging to those in authority. And we can’t all be like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who sadly died this morning – someone who publicly lived out his Christian faith and never tired of campaigning for justice and truth.

St. Stephen seems to have been no exception to this habit of being irritating. The Acts of the Apostles is the only place we find out anything about him. We remember him today, commemorating him as the first follower of Jesus to be killed, for blasphemy, for standing up and loudly saying that the Jewish leaders persecuted and rejected Jesus, the one sent by God; just as they rejected all the other prophets God sent. He was accused primarily of two things: that he had declared that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that he had changed the customs of Moses. Oooh – change – we all know how religious authorities are very unhappy about change.

Here’s an intriguing question: why does the Western Church celebrate this saint the very next day after the major Christian festival of the Incarnation – Christmas. In many Christian traditions it’s been observed on December 26th or very close to it since 415. Surely we would think his story is a post-Resurrection story, belonging to that time somewhere after Easter, and during the explosion of activity as the baby Church drew in followers. That’s where Stephen pops up in the New Testament. Well…there can’t be a resurrection without first having an incarnation. God as a human being, sharing our life, can’t die without having been born in flesh first.  The connection between birth and death is essential. We could say that Easter actually begins at Christmas.

The shepherds were witnesses to the power of God in the incarnation and Stephen was a witness to the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus. By having both stories one after the other in the Church’s year, it reinforces this essential connection between God’s actions in birth and death which might otherwise be watered down if they were separated by months in church. Going straight from a somewhat fluffy pastoral scene of the Nativity straight on to the brutality of a martyr’s stoning may not make much logical, intellectual or liturgical sense, but it does work, theologically.

I’ve always wondered about why Stephen is singled out as being so important in the life of the Church. Stephen wasn’t one of the original 12 apostles. He didn’t hold any major position of authority in the infant Church; even though he’s named as one of the group of 7 deacons – meaning servants – who were chosen to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community. Although he’s named as the first Christian martyr, there were many others who came to the same sticky end in the decades following the Resurrection and establishment of the new Christian movement.

But there’s some interesting parallels between Jesus and Stephen. The author who put together both Luke’s Gospel and Acts links them in several ways. The trumped up charges of blasphemy laid against them. Both were brought before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders, to answer these charges; and both met a painful public end. And has Jesus forgiving the ones who kill him just as Stephen does.  However,  where Jesus said nothing in response to his accusers, Stephen has a lot to say. Could Stephen possibly be seen as the living example of what Matthew’s Gospel illustrates, especially as many scholars believe that Luke and Acts were written after Matthew?  ‘They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you….. You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’

Perhaps Stephen’s importance is symbolic, rather than factual, having something to do with his willingness to say what he believed to be the truth (as he saw it) rather than be quiet and stay safe. And to put his convictions into action himself instead of loading responsibility onto others. As we can see from various people who have made a difference in the world, speaking up and taking action both take courage – and are usually crucial for changing things. And maybe this is what we’re meant to learn from St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone who dies for their faith.  But the price of dragging bad things into the open and helping to change what we feel to be wrong, to challenge established injustices, or what we believe has to be done to bring the Kingdom of God closer, could be as high as death. It’ll almost certainly involve persecution, or ridicule, or discrimination at some point.

We need to discover for ourselves what price we would be willing to pay. I’m not sure I would have Stephen’s courage, or determination or faith. Maybe none of us feel we could do the same as he did, however much we believe we’re called to bring about change for good or witness to the truth.  Perhaps the best we can do is to demonstrate that what we believe in our hearts we will show forth in our lives, as one popular prayer goes. Or to offer God our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice, to be sent out into the world in the power of the Spirit, to live and work to God’s praise and glory. All we can really do is try our best, and to know that however small we feel our contribution might be, we’re all part of God’s purpose for creation. We’re entitled to make waves and be irritating if we need to. So….let’s get on with it!

Leslie Spatt 2021
















Subscribe to our Newsletter

Enter your details below to receive the St Mary's weekly newsletter.

Get in touch

If you want to know more about St Mary's, contact the clergy or for another enquiry, please use the Contact Us facility below.

Contact Us