Scripture: Lectionary 274. 4/4/24. Acts 7:51-8:1. Psalm 31:3-126.96.36.1997.21. John 6:30-35
Tragic words end the first reading from Acts, “Saul concurred in the act of killing.” This same person will have such a turn-about experience through an encounter with the risen Christ that he will be a light for the nations and will be revered in our tradition as the Apostle to the Gentiles. His new name through Baptism will be Paul. It is Stephen who is martyred while Saul sees this happening and stands by while the Spirit-filled Stephen dies. We have already learned that he is one of the deacons chosen to minister to the widows who spoke only Greek. He became a servant to the poor of Yahweh, he was a servant of the servants. His name will be remembered in our tradition as the “proto-martyr” that is, the first one to shed his blood as a martyr for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We celebrate his feast in the sanctoral cycle on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. The birth of Jesus is foreshadowed in the Cross through this commemoration of one who was the first to die for Jesus. We have learned that the Holy Spirit is one of the strong themes within Luke’s Gospel and even more so in the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen from the first moment he appears in Acts is said to be under the guidance and power of the spirit (God’s Holy Spirit). This will continue in his serving the widows, taking care of the poor, then preaching to his own people and their leaders who will put him to death saying that he blasphemes and is trying to negate or talk down the Torah. What is of the Spirit cannot in anyway take down or speak against the Holy Scriptures (the Torah or Law of Moses). Stephen’s long sermon is entirely a recalling of the texts of the Hebrew Bible and applying them as promise and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. Since his words of wisdom cannot be overcome, physical might is used against him and he is stoned to death.
In our passage we see that Stephen is a Christ-like figure that carries on the message of Jesus and imitates his life even in his death .He prays, “ Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Jesus says upon dying “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Stephen like Jesus forgives those who put him to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen thus mirrors Jesus and the call to be his servant as a deacon who preaches, serves the poor, and has the courage to testify to the Resurrection—the conviction of a believing Christian.
Our Psalm and its response confirm what Luke is telling us about the spirit of Stephen. We pray it, too, “Into your hands, O Lord, I entrust my spirit.” We know that spirit is the breath of life (see Psalm 146:4); Stephen entrusts his life into God’s hands. He is truly righteous, a saint, and the proto-martyr. Jesus tells us, “I tell you, if anyone openly declares himself for me in the presence of men, the Son of man will declare himself for him in the presence of God’s angels.” (Luke 12:8). We also hear the echo of Jesus in these words of Paul, the convert, “No greater love does one have than to lay down his life for his friends.” May we keep the memory of Stephen’s heroic life in mind throughout the hours of this day. Amen. Alleluia. Alleluia.