Tag Archives: Stephen

In the temple and house to house

[The council] were convinced by Gamaliel, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and [house to house] they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:39-42)

It seems to me that this passage is a pretty convincing place to locate the beginning of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Every day …

… in the temple and house to house …

… those who were considered worthy
to suffer for the name …

… did not cease to teach and proclaim.

The apostles were flogged, and they rejoiced.

They were ordered not to speak, and they did not cease to teach and proclaim.

Here’s an example of their proclamation, a song we still sing at Morning Prayer more than 2,000 years later:

A Song to the Lamb Dignus es
Revelation 4:11, 5:9-10, 13

Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.

And so, to him who sits upon the throne, *
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, *
for ever and for evermore.

As we continue reading the next few chapters of Acts, we will see the apostles appointing seven deacons to serve the needs of the Greek-speaking believers as well as the Jewish believers. The song they sing is for “every family, language, people, and nation” — for the whole kingdom of priests.

The deacon Stephen’s preaching — not his table service — gets him stoned to death. He is the next one to be “counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 7:60).

The violence against all of the believers is mounting.

Saul begins to follow the church, persecuting the believers. As they are “every day in the temple and house to house,” so he is “ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women” (Acts 8:3).

But “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4). Eventually even Saul is “counted worthy to suffer for the name,” and his conversion leads him to travel widely, entering house after house again, only this time to form churches.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, Christ the Lamb.

Worthy are you, when you suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. The church thrived and grew when the going got tough. Even today, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian).

Mideast Egypt The Christian Vote

A blood-spattered poster of Jesus Christ is seen inside the the Coptic Christian Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria (CNS).

Worthy, too, are the priesthood of all believers, those who sing the Lord’s song “every day in the temple and house to house.”

Worthy are you, when you proclaim the good news of Christ not just at church, but also as you go about your daily life.

A Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

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.

The password that opens the heavens

Yesterday, several members of our deanery went to the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin to see an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible.

The Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten and hand-illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine abbey since the invention of the printing press. It represents 15 years of work by a team of calligraphers and artists under Donald Jackson in Wales and a Committee on Illumination and Text at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The exhibit at the Chazen Museum includes actual pages from The Saint John’s Bible and a display of the calligraphers’ tools, including hand-cut quills and tools for applying gold leaf. There is a video documentary about the process of creating the Bible, and an example of a full-size “Heritage Edition” bound in oak boards and rich leather.

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One of the most arresting pages in The Saint John’s Bible is the frontispiece to the Gospel of John. I own the reproduction volume of the Gospels and Acts, so the featured image for this post is a closeup of that page.

Donald Jackson uses gold leaf to signify God, and the figure of the Word made flesh shines brightly from the cosmic background (based on images from the Hubble telescope) behind him. The art underscores the way John connects the coming of Christ to the account of creation in Genesis.

Verses from Paul’s hymn in the letter to the Colossians appear to the left of the figure:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers —
all things have been created through him and for him (Col. 1:15-16)

The keyhole along the left edge of the image reminds me of the sermon I heard in Munich on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. We attended the Eucharist with my wife’s Tante Barbara at her neighborhood church, Maria Trost.

Sermon at Maria Trost Kirche, Munich

Sermon at Maria Trost Kirche, Munich

The priest spoke of this opening passage of John’s gospel, describing Jesus as not just the “word” of God, but as the “password” whose coming opens the heavens to human beings.

Stephen, he went on to say, was one of the first who knew the password, who exclaimed as he was being stoned, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56).

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In the introduction to his companion book Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible, Michael Patella OSB, chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text, writes:

Readers should not be surprised if they find that their engagement with The Saint John’s Bible opens their imaginations, hearts, souls, and intellects to new ways of conceiving God. In addition, they may also find themselves entering a deeper relationship with God (xiv).

The Saint John’s Bible is a beautiful, sacramental expression — in ink and gold leaf, vellum and leather, word and image — of the “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus,” as today’s Epistle reading suggests.

May meditating on its words and images, and on the Word made flesh whom it reveals, open the heavens to you, too.

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.