Saul Persecutes the ChurchThat day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Philip Preaches in Samaria4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5Philip went down to the city* of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah* to them. 6The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. 8So there was great joy in that city. Acts 7:59-8:8
The day after Christmas has several names or nicknames, like Boxing Day which was a holiday for house servants in England and when they were given boxes of food and clothing by the people they served. Most of us remember it as the feast of Stephen, although a lot of us have no idea who Stephen is. Just a hint: it isn't Spielberg or King.
After Jesus death and resurrection, the church (or the body of Christ on earth) continue to grow. The disciples and their apostles were stretched trying to meet the needs and guidance of those who looked to them and still find time to preach, teach, heal, and travel. The decision was made to do what Moses' father-in-law had suggested to him, namely to delegate. Seven men were chosen to be those delegates. Among their jobs was making sure that everyone had a fair share, keeping order, keeping records, and anything else that needed doing. Today we call them deacons, although that designation didn't come until later. Still, we consider December 26, a day commemorating Stephen, one of those helpers, as also a celebration of those who have and who do serve in the order of the diaconate.
The reading give us a testimony of the effect that Stephen had on the early church. He was preacher and a remarkable healer as well as his other duties. He touched the lives of many people, but, as always, there were people looking to not just discredit him but to chip away at the foundation of the entire Jesus movement and cause it to collapse. Stephen was hauled before the authorities on charges of blaspheming God and Moses. When asked for his defense, Stephen gave an eloquent speech tracing the salvation history that we also trace at the Great Vigil of Easter. Many heard it and were converted, but the people who needed to be impressed remain unconvinced. Authorities sentenced him to be stoned to death for his insolence and blasphemy. Standing guard over the pile of cloaks of those who were so eager to throw stones was a very righteous Pharisee named Saul. The stoning of Stephen may have left him unmoved, but God had other plans for him.
We sing a Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen." Wenceslaus was a 10th century Bohemian duke later named a king by a Holy Roman Emperor. He was noted for his piety and good works. The story is that on the day after Christmas, a very snowy one, Wenceslaus called a young page boy to accompany him and carry gifts of food, wine and fuel to a poor man who lived a league or more (2-1/2 - 4/1/2 miles) away. Wenceslaus forged his way through the deep snow, making a path for his page to follow.
There is no historic record of such an event in Wenceslaus's time, but it is a tale that has been passed down for centuries.
The carol concludes with, "Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now would bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing." The very moral lesson that the song proclaims is one that is as relevant today as it would have been in the 13th century and earlier. Wealth and rank do not always mean privilege; there is an element of responsibility that is included in this in which many wealthy and or high-ranking people seem to forget.
Stephen gave because (a) it was his job, and, (b) his faith in God led him to do what was right. He had been given gifts by God and it was his job to use those gifts to benefit others rather than himself. Stephen died defending the reason why he did what he did and preached what he preached. Even in death, he spoke of a greater kingdom that he could see even as the stones claimed him.
In our world, people are still being stoned. Usually victims are charged with sins/crimes against the faith. Women are stoned for adultery even in the case of rape. Men are stoned or beheaded for blasphemy against God, or a group's conception of God. The same religion which allows stoning also teaches kindness and generosity to the less fortunate. Christians are not exempt, although there stones are words of hate and disapproval as well as judgments made in favor of the rich and against the poor. Perhaps we need a Wenceslaus to show us the right way, or a Stephen to show us in view of Christianity based on love, service, and favor to those in need.
So why did Wenceslaus go outside? He had no choice. He saw someone in need and his Christian duty made him go out, no matter how daunting the weather. Stephen may not have any Bohemian blood, but Wenceslaus certainly carried something in his that made the two act in accord. The Spirit of God does not respect rank or privilege. That same Spirit guided Stephen and Wenceslaus to do what was right. Now it is up to us.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 26, 2015.