Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On the Other Side of Christmas

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Rembrandt
Even though it's not technically connected with Christmas, yesterday -- the first day after Christmas -- is the day many of Jesus' followers for centuries commemorated the execution of Stephen, the Christian Movement's first martyr. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Stephen is remembered here, but it serves as a none-too-subtle reminder that the Messiah wasn't born to bring us bright baubles and candy canes; this is serious business.

Let's rehearse what happened here. The powers-brokers back then were not terribly happy with Jesus' early followers. Stephen was one of the major exponents of what we stood for and, as the story goes, when his opponents couldn't out-debate him they simply accused him of "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." In short order Stephen was "seized and brought... before the Council," (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 verses 11 - 12).

In his defense Stephen delivered a long and rather blunt speech showing point by point that his people had an abysmal record of obeying God and now had capped it off by crucifying their own Messiah. His listeners did not take it well:
When those in the council meeting heard this, they became very angry. They were so mad they were grinding their teeth at him. But Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. He looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God. And he saw Jesus standing at God’s right side. Stephen said, “Look! I see heaven open. And I see the Son of Man standing at God’s right side.” 
Everyone there started shouting loudly, covering their ears with their hands. Together they all ran at Stephen. They took him out of the city and began throwing stones at him. The men who told lies against Stephen gave their coats to a young man named Saul. As they were throwing the stones at him, Stephen was praying. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He fell on his knees and shouted, “Lord, don’t blame them for this sin!” 
These were his last words before he died.
(Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 verses 54 - 60, ERV)

One may fault Stephen for tactlessness but not for lack of courage. Jesus offered his people a revolutionary way to be rescued from Rome, rescued from sin, rescued from failing repeatedly to fulfill the mission God had created them for. Even at this late date, when they had utterly failed to recognize their Messiah and turned him over to the Romans for a hideous execution, Jesus' offer still stood. Israel could still fall in behind their King. Stephen saw his duty clear and decided his best shot at shaking up the august leaders of his people was to rub their noses in the truth of what they'd done.

It got him killed, with many more to come.

On this day we are reminded that the line of martyrs with Stephen at its head has by no means come to an end, as dozens of Jesus' people are blown up in Egypt for celebrating his birth. Meanwhile in China Christians are routinely kidnapped and tortured.

In the comfortable, hermetically sealed western world we inhabit it's easy to assume the days of Christians being martyred for their faith is long past, that it may have happened back in "barbaric" Roman times, but not today. It's particularly easy when we are warm and full from the traditional holiday buying binge.

The Feast of Stephen helps us remember right after Christmas that that's not quite the case.

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