Tag Archives: martyr

12 Steps of Christmas | St. Stephen, deacon and martyr

Step Two – “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, can be found here.

My heart trusts in him, and I have been helped

December 26, on the Western Christian calendar, is the feast of St. Stephen, one of the first martyrs who witnessed to his faith in Jesus as Lord even in the face of death by stoning.

Stephen’s story, told in Acts 6-7, is about trusting in a new revelation of God. In this case, the revelation is that Jesus himself was God and was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

His witness, the sermon Stephen preached indicting the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders of Jerusalem) for opposing the Holy Spirit, is a reinterpretation of Jewish history that they cannot stand for.

Stephen’s trust in the Son of God and in this new revelation is so complete that he is not afraid to die. He is filled with a power greater than himself.

Higher Power

Many people I have met in AA meetings talk about how difficult it was for them to accomplish  Step Two.

They struggled to believe in, let alone acknowledge the existence of “a Power greater than ourselves” — which (with a capital P, of course) would seem to refer to the God of Christianity, especially of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches so prevalent where I live.

I did not have that particular struggle. As a person brought up in the church and serving for 20 years as an ordained minister, I have always trusted in the existence of God.

But I’m not sure I ever trusted God to “restore me to sanity.”

What really struck me about Step Two was its suggestion that the AA group itself might serve as one’s “Higher Power” as far as recovery goes. The point is, the group has wisdom that I don’t. In that sense, they are greater than I am.

I do well to listen to their counsel, to their stories of “experience, strength, and hope,” to their trust in a Higher Power, as I deal with my own issues.

The wisdom of tradition

There are clear ties here, in my mind, to the traditions of the church and the humility that we might be called to exercise in the face of 2,000 years of the lived experience of the saints.

St. Stephen, the first to demonstrate such a powerful faith, is often pictured holding up a church. Perhaps we are sustained, held up, by the faith of those who came before us.

perseverar-em-Jesus-3We are not the first believers to struggle in our faith, or to suffer because of our belief, or to doubt the presence of God in our lives. We are not the first to face ridicule, or to feel dryness in our prayers, or to question the dogmas that are being pushed on us.

Humility simply means admitting that we might have something to learn from believers who have wisdom that we don’t.

Putting away all earthly anxieties

But more is needed than just learning from the AA group or the church’s traditions if our Higher Power is to  “restore us to sanity.”

What shines through the stories of recovery I have heard is transformed lives. People talk about a whole new way of living that is not based on fear or addiction, but on gratitude and sobriety.

What is even more remarkable is the way people long in recovery maintain their poise even in the face of repeated trials and the need to “keep working the program.” Some even make the astonishing claim that hitting rock bottom was the best thing that ever happened to them.

In the face of struggles and doubts, people in the group “completely give themselves to this simple program” (Big Book 58) which is laid out in the remaining Steps.

It may not be quite the same as facing death by stoning, but practicing recovery — especially coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves will restore us to sanity — seems to call forth from people a willingness to face difficult situations and people head on but without anxiety.

May we, like Stephen, give ourselves completely to this Power greater than ourselves in trust that we will be restored.

Collect of the Day

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.

A Collect for Saturdays

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Continual prayer and reconciliation

Seven times a day do I praise you, *
because of your righteous judgments. 
Great peace have they who love your law; *
for them there is no stumbling block. 
I have hoped for your salvation, O LORD, *
and have fulfilled your commandments. 
I have kept your decrees *
and I have loved them deeply. 
I have kept your commandments and decrees, *
for all my ways are before you.
(Psalm 119:164-168)

James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, is called the Just because of his decision not to place restrictions on Gentile converts (Acts 15:19).

He was an early leader of the movement Jesus started, even though he wasn’t a believer until after his brother died. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter and the 12 apostles, then to about 500 followers, then to James, and then to all of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:7).

Imagine being a leader in a movement your brother started, a bishop in the new church, and remaining faithful to that cause for nearly 30 years after he died.

Imagine being a faithful, prayerful, traditional person — and discovering that your new understanding of God meant relaxing some of the restrictions of your faith in order to welcome more people into relationship with God.

Imagine being such an enduring witness to inclusion that your fellow parishioners throw you off the church roof for your trouble.

How does the example of James invite you to continual prayer?

With whom do you need to be reconciled?

What witness are you called to bear?

Collect of the Day

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 245)

Unshakable witness

perseverar-em-Jesus-3

 

“Look,” he said, “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. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. (Acts 7:56-60)

The Seven — commonly called the first deacons — were appointed by the apostles to ensure that the ministries of care and preaching were extended to the Greek-speaking as well as the Hebrew-speaking Christians (Acts 6). Stephen was not running a soup kitchen; he was preaching the Word. His preaching having landed him in hot water with the council in Jerusalem, he also became the first Christian to die because of his faith.

Stephen is the prototype for those who trust completely in God’s assurance of salvation, who do not even fear death. That unshakable faith is probably one of the reasons that following the naming of the Seven, “the word of God continued to spread, the number of the disciples increased greatly, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Many icons of Stephen show the Church resting in his arms. Stephen saw Jesus face to face, and the Church must forever rest on the unshakable faith of witnesses (martyrs) like him.