In an earlier reflection, we have stated that ‘witness’ is an important idea in St John’s Gospel. The idea of witness repeats itself in the lives of the saints. During Christmas week we celebrate the feasts of John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and specially today -- the feast of the ‘first witness’ – St Stephen.
For this is what all the saints are: witnesses to God’s love in Jesus. Some of them gave their lives for this. We call them martyrs, the Greek word for ‘witness’. Stephen was the first martyr in the Christian Church.
As the small group of disciples in Jerusalem increased in numbers, the apostles looked around for help in the practical tasks of the community. They chose seven young men as helpers or ‘deacons’. Stephen was the first of these.
He was a gifted speaker, was Stephen. He had been a student of the rabbis, and so was well versed in Jewish history; he was also familiar with Greek culture as he was born outside Palestine. Having received the Lord Jesus into his life, he was determined to share the good news to all who would hear him. “Full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, he entered into arguments with Jewish theologians and bested them. Time and time again, he proved that Jesus was the true messiah, and with examples from Jewish history he showed how Israel had waited expectantly for his coming. This, his opponents were not prepared to accept, and they hated him for it.
After a particularly heated argument in the synagogue, the anger of his antagonists knew no bounds. They dragged him out into the courtyard and stoned him to death for blasphemy. One of those who watched him being lynched was a young rabbi called Paul. Stephen’s death brought about Paul’s conversion. Truly, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.
The book of Acts presents Stephen as a Christ figure: as Jesus was convicted of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, so was Stephen. And as Jesus died, forgiving his enemies, so too Stephen’s last words were: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen is the first of a long line of men and women who committed their lives to Christ, and considered it a special grace to die for him. Ordinary though most of them were, one thing marked them out -- the spirit of Jesus had transformed their lives. And they were proud to witness to Jesus with their deaths.
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