The Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, 26 December 2021
A Sermon on Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60 by Samuel Zumwalt
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60 [ESV] © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 7 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said: … 51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” 54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. The word of the Lord.
HOLY BAPTISM: FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do you remember your line from Christmas Eve? “Christ is born! Glorify Him!”
So, the Christmas of the wider culture is past. Gifts will be returned beginning tomorrow (Sunday), and gift certificates and cash gifts will be used at all the after Christmas sales. On Sunday (Today), many who traveled to be with relatives, will begin their journey back home.
Some, who think the Christmas season begins with Black Friday and consists of only of parties and presents, will toss their trees out today and begin to take down lights that went up the weekend after Thanksgiving. A few may even keep decorations for a New Year’s Eve party, but, face it, for many people around us Christmas is done. For that, we can say, “Thanks be to God.”
The Hallmark Channel Christmas, the Christmas of Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch, the Home Alone Christmas, and Holly Jolly Christmas is blessedly over at last. Now, without further distraction, the Bride of Christ, His Church, can focus without so much dross on the Word who became flesh for us and our salvation. On the 2nd day of Christmas, the Feast of Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, reminds us that the joy of Christmas is linked to the Blood of the Lamb. For those who want the wider culture’s sentimentality and the celebration of plenty, this Feast comes as a slap in the face. To those who only want cheap grace, a Christ without a cross for a culture without sin, the Feast of Stephen says: “Oh, no. There will be blood” and “Christ will indeed die hard… and so may those who have been baptized into His death and resurrection. Remember Stephen, full of grace and power, whom the good religious folk stoned to death for his daring to tell them the truth, saying: “You betrayed and murdered the Righteous One.”
Forty years ago on Christmas Eve night, I walked the halls of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas TX, checking on the staff who were there in that major trauma center amidst the carnage and its aftermath, the prima facie evidence of sin, death, and the devil. There may have been a little less violence that night, but there was still some. There was precious little sentimentality in that place of death. So, remember also Herod, full of himself, who made the streets of the little town of Bethlehem red with the blood of little boys two and under. Remember Paul, who approved of Stephen’s stoning and the persecution of so many Jewish Christians who were confessing Jesus as Lord. Blinded by the Light of the Lord Jesus in glory, Paul had to suffer for the sake of the Gospel and was beheaded after giving his witness to Jesus, yes, before Caesar.
This evening (morning) we are here not out of sentimentality and not out of a sense of needing to make someone happy as is often the case on Christmas Eve. No, we are here to remember that we celebrate the birth of God’s Son Jesus, because only He can save us and all people from sin, death, and the devil by His own suffering and death on the cross.
That Christmas Eve at Parkland, in that place of suffering and death, I was moved to read again the Christmas hymn of Swedish bishop, Johan Olof Wallin, who wrote: “He will, like us, shed bitter tears, will know our needs, yet still our fears and send his Spirit’s power. He will reveal his Father’s will, our cup of woe with mercy fill to sweeten sorrow’s hour. Struggling, suffering, He, by dying, dearly buying our salvation, opens wide the gates of heaven” (LBW #73, All Hail to You, O Blessed Morn). Now that is the antidote to all the Christ-less holiday songs.
Oh, how we need the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, to remind us why the angels sang so joyously that Christmas Eve and why Mary pondered in her heart all the things the shepherds told her. That Babe, the child of Mary, is God in human flesh and only He can destroy the power of sin, death, and evil. Only He can be nailed to a cross and planted in Jerusalem’s garbage dump and be the answer to every bit of hatred, blindness to sin, heartless turning away from the neighbor and so bear all our griefs, carry all our sorrows, and die our death to save us.
When we sing, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the Holy Spirit is not calling us to sentimentality or to a mere celebration of family and every blessing, He is calling us to see why Christ the Savior is born. He is calling us to see why there can be no other Savior and why the idols of our hearts are unable to help us. He is calling us to be faithful unto death as was Stephen, Deacon and Martyr… to confess to this culture that its stiff-necked idolatry murdered the Righteous One of God, His beloved Son Jesus. And, as we see in Stephen’s faithful witness, such a world does not say, “Why, thank you. We appreciate your calling us stiff-necked betrayers and murderers.”
This culture coopts the Christian Church where it can and does its best to silence our witness.
Today, remember Stephen, full of grace and power. Having been baptized into the Lord Jesus’ saving death and glorious resurrection, and having daily received the Eucharist, the Breaking of the Bread (Acts 2:42), Stephen was able not only to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord. He was able to forgive even those who stoned Him to death. Yes, Stephen was faithful unto death.
The people of the lie, the devil’s own brood, can wrap themselves in the mantle even of the Church. As with those in the Sanhedrin, the council that put Stephen to death outside the city, there are those religious folk who love all the rituals and words that can be twisted to their own purposes. But by their fruits you will know them. A culture without sin wants only a Christ without a cross, a Christ who is no threat to them. In short, a Christ who causes no offense and leaves people just as they are. Such a lie when it is exposed will rage and murder with impunity, as it did Stephen, then James, and finally Paul. But their rule on earth is only for a season.
On this 2nd day of Christmas, let us remember Stephen’s faithfulness unto death, and ask ourselves if we might be so faithful with the help of God the Holy Spirit. Or, whether we, like Paul, will have to be shaken to the core of our being in order to be called from our silence in the face of evil and, yes, even our own passionate complicity with the culture of death around us.
On Christmas Eve, we sang, “Be born in us today.” With empty hands, the baptized come to the table where the Lord Jesus has promised to be. We come to receive not mere benefits or not a little reminder of what He has done for us once upon a time. No. We come to receive Jesus, as He promised, actually in the Breaking of the Bread and the sharing of the cup. He enters into our mouths and, then, is carried into every cell in our bodies. There, He comes to reclaim what is His own and to be born in us today. We are His Body. We are His Bride. We are His Church.
While the culture cleans up the detritus from its Christmas without Christ, day after day, His Church celebrates that God has come down to us to save us and all who will gladly receive Him.
So, say it again. “Christ is born! Glorify Him!”
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
Holy Baptism: Faithful unto Death
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr, St. Stephen, who died praying for those who killed him: Strengthen us to imitate his goodness and to love even our enemies; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 267).
Acts 6:8 “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.”
St. Bede the Venerable [Late 7th – early 8th century British monk and ecclesiastical historian]: “The Greek word Stephen means ‘crowned’ in Latin. In a very beautiful way he anticipated by the portent in his name what he was about to experience in reality… In Hebrew, however, his name means ‘your norm.’ Whose norm, if not that of the subsequent martyrs, for whom, by being the first to suffer, he became the model of dying for Christ?” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts, 72).
Acts 7:56 “…Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
St. Ambrose [4th century Bishop of Mediolanum (Milan, Italy)]: “Jesus stood as a helpmate; he stood as if anxious to help Stephen, his athlete, in the struggle. He stood as though ready to crown his martyr. Let him then stand for you that you may not fear him sitting, for he sits when he judges… He sits to judge, he stands to give judgment, and he judges the imperfect …” (86).
Acts 7:58 “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him…”
St. Bede: “The Lord too, who ‘chose’ us ‘out of the world’ for his heavenly kingdom and glory, suffered outside the gate, like Stephen, who, as though he were a stranger to the world, was stoned outside the city. For he had no permanent city here, but with his whole heart he sought the city to come. And, in accordance with the vicissitudes of events, the martyr directed the gate of his pure heart to heaven, while the stiff-necked persecutor stretched out his hands toward the stones” (87).
Acts 7:58 “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul”
St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “Notice with what accuracy he narrates all that concerns Paul, to show you that the action was divine. After all this, not only did Paul not believe, but he even sought him with a thousand hands. This is why it says, ‘And Saul approved of his killing’” (87).
Acts 7:60 “… Lord, do not hold this sin against them….”
St. John Chrysostom: “This is the boldness of speech that belongs to a man who is carrying the cross. Let us then also imitate this. For although it is not a time for war, it is always a time for boldness. Boldness of speech is success; anger is failure” (87).
- Am I as bold as St. Stephen for Jesus Christ who dwells in me? Will I be faithful unto death?
THE LORD’S PRAYER (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.
The Second Petition
Thy kingdom come.
What does this mean?
The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.
How does God’s kingdom come?
God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
- Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.
- Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
- Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend what it might look like for God’s kingdom to come in your lives this week.
- Consult Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 186, for the daily lessons for the Christmas Day and following (Year Two) and read them daily before offering your prayers on behalf of your family, the world, our nation, our state, and our local communities.
- Reflect on the speed and manner in which you typically pray the Lord’s Prayer. Now, slow it down to carefully say each petition thoughtfully. Meditate daily on this week’s introduction.”
- Because there is no Sunday School on December 26 or January 2, take a little more time to discuss one or more of the lessons read in worship on these Sundays. Take your bulletin home (or leave it in your car) as a reminder to read and discuss the lessons and then ask what God the Holy Spirit is calling you to do this week. To whom is God sending you?
- If you are not yet a member, register for the New Disciples Class on January 29 at 9 a.m.
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”