Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen, AD 2021

Matthew 23:34-39; Acts 6:8-7:2a; 7:51-60

The problem when we read a great martyrdom account like that of St. Stephen, is that we think we cannot relate, as we have never been persecuted for our faith. Our lives can seem petty and insignificant in comparison. This not true, persecution is not just the glorious death by stoning of St. Stephen or a Bible smuggler imprisoned by communists. Persecution is a spectrum, it is a wide array of attacks by the world which tempt us to abandon or compromise our faith.

Think through your life of faith. Have their been situations when it took courage to speak up, to speak as a Christian to certain people, because you knew you would be ridiculed? Have you been told in a job or other situation to do something that compromised your beliefs? Have you been tempted to not say or do something about your faith because you’d be more comfortable if you didn’t? These things may seem minor, but they are persecution. We know from the parable of the sower that like thorns twisting around good wheat, these seemingly small things can choke out faith and finally kill it.

We know that persecution happens to Christians because Jesus says that it will happen. The prophets, Jesus, St. Stephen, and the martyrs who follow all show that persecution is part of the gospel’s natural course in the world. This happens even under those who are supposed to be the best of the people. The prophets were sent to the Israelites and Judahites, those who had been saved from slavery in Egypt by God, who had been given the law of Moses and knew the true God. Yet when called to repentance these people persecuted and slew the prophets, not wanting to hear the message of God’s Word.

We see then that no one is immune from the threat of falling to temptation of persecution. St. Paul warns not to fall like those who came out of Egypt through the Red Sea and then were destroyed in the wilderness. For even though they knew God’s promise of a land of their own and knew that God had saved them from the Egyptians, all they could see was wilderness. When we give in to persecution, sight takes over from faith. The world works by sight, it shows the difficult circumstances and then promises comfort and release from the difficulties if we just abandon the promise of God. Like the Israelites losing faith in God’s promise of a land of milk and honey and wishing to leave the wilderness and return to slavery and the flesh pots of Egypt.

So it was, as Stephen says, with the Jews, even up to his day, who were a stiff-necked people and resisted the Holy Spirit. They chose to participate in persecution and martyrdom of God’s prophets, even to Jesus Christ himself. As they said when Christ was to be crucified, “His blood be on us and our children!” With persecution, to take the part of the persecutor against God is to take all the bloodguilt on yourself, as Jesus says, from the blood of righteous Abel to Zechariah. Both of these righteous men were killed near altars to God, where sacrifices were made for sin, and instead their sacrifice brought guilt on their persecutors. As Zechariah cried out, “May the Lord see and avenge!

That is the struggle of the Christian facing persecution and suffering, whether he believes in the power of the persecutors he sees, or the power of God whom he cannot see. Whom does the Christian fear more? In the early Christian martyr accounts, there are three kinds of people who go through persecution – martyrs, who die steadfast in the faith; confessors, who are persecuted but don’t die and hold to the faith; and traitors. The word traitor means “hand over,” as they literally handed over the things of the church. Even more, when they faced pressure they handed over their hope of eternal life for a worldly peace. To fall in this way to persecution is like a POW defecting to the enemy while his own army is taking the city. He cannot see the victory, so he loses faith in any rescue.

This is why, in the large spectrum of ways that Christians can experience persecution and suffering for the faith, the martyrdom of St. Stephen and other martyrs is important. Christians remembered these days for a purpose. St. Stephen being the first martyr gives the template for a Christian suffering for Christ, and we see that this template brings great comfort, for the Christian martyr shares in the sufferings of Christ. It is not for nothing that Luke includes so many parallels between the death of St. Stephen and the death of Christ: both were tried before the high priest, both were accused by false witnesses, both were accused for threatening to destroy the temple, both were charged with blasphemy, both commit their spirit while dying, both cry out with a loud voice, both ask the Father to forgive their enemies. To face Christian suffering is just to continue sharing in Christ’s suffering. So you know Christ is there with you.

When we share in Christ’s sufferings we are like the chicks under the hen’s wings. We shall be comforted. For those who participate in martyrdom bring the guilt of the martyr’s blood upon themselves. God does avenge. Christ is mightier than all his enemies. Yet Christ does not ultimately desire the death of the wicked, but that they be saved. He longed to gather and comfort Jerusalem even though they killed so many prophets. How much more will he care for you, when you are persecuted, when you face those times of difficulty and suffering for the faith?

For Abel and Zechariah cried out for vengeance as their blood was spilled near the altar, but Jesus’ blood cries out for pardon as his blood was spilled as the sacrifice for sinners. You can participate in the martyrdom and take the guilt of the blood upon yourself, or you can rest in the blood of the one sacrificed for you. In that blood of Jesus you know that God would do anything to save you, to make you his own. He will not leave you nor forsake you. He has spilled his own blood for you, blood you should be guilty for, but instead cleanses you from all guilt. He strengthens you with his blood in the sacrament so there is no longer any need to fear.

To be prepared for the persecution and suffering Jesus tells us to expect is better than fear. If you prepare, if you are daily strengthened by Christ in the good times, then you like Stephen can be prepared for the hard times. Know the Word of God. St. Stephen was able to confess boldly his faith in Christ because He knew Scripture and what Christ had done. He also knew the truth that God’s promises are greater than any threat of man. Control your passions. St. Stephen set his desires toward pleasing God. There was nothing in this world that would tempt him away from God. The church has traditionally encouraged seasons of fasting to this purpose. If you can normally go without rich food or other luxuries, they are less likely to be a temptation used against you. Be continual in prayer. Give your daily small troubles to God. Always bring your requests to him so you are accustomed to it when suffering comes.

It may seem an odd thing to preach on discipline and suffering so near to Christmas, but the connection is this – God became man to suffer for us, and suffer with us. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! They cry in Psalm 118, before they bind the sacrifice to the altar. Jesus is that sacrifice bound for us, who takes the bloodguilt for all the Old and New Testament saints who were sacrificed for defying the world. Those who oppose him, who cause difficulty for his people will be crushed and bear that guilt forever. And this is all any of us deserve. But for those who believe in him, who trust in his sacrifice, there is no attack of any man that can overcome them. For they see with St. Stephen that Our Lord Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God, ruling heaven and earth. No matter the circumstance, there is nowhere better to be than under the shelter of His wings. Amen.






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