St. Stephen, Proto-Martyr

Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59

Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke. … When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

I don’t think it’s by accident that the Church celebrates the day after the Solemnity of the Incarnation the feast of the first martyr.

Jesus became one of us, one with us, in order to free us from the chains of sin and slavery. But that freedom doesn’t come without a price. Yes, Jesus offered the sacrifice that satisfied the justice required of our sins with His life of perfect obedience even unto death. Yet His followers, we who embrace Him as Lord and who desire to live according to His gospel, have a sacrifice to make, as well. The truth is, the world demanded Jesus’ death because it would not tolerate a life lived in perfect obedience to the will of the Father. The same is true for those who faithfully follow Jesus – the world will not tolerate them.

There are several countries today where being a Christian is near synonymous with bearing a sentence of persecution or even death. China. Iran. India. Afghanistan. Nigeria. North Korea. Libya. In most countries where Christians face persecution the culprit is Communism or an extremist form of Islam (some religious scholars regard the “extremist” form of Islam the true Islam). Islamists will not tolerate Christianity because they see it as heresy and an afront to the truth of God revealed by Muhammed. Communism will not tolerate Christianity because they see it as an alternative source of meaning for people’s lives other than the state. Attacks by Islamists have spread to the West, with churches in France being vandalized and burned and Christians being attacked.

But in the West Christians are mostly facing a different kind of persecution. Few are marked for death, but many are marked with lawsuits and career-ending cancellations. There is in England a Catholic woman facing criminal charges for praying quietly in her head too near an abortion clinic. There is in Finland a Lutheran woman on trial for making public statements affirming orthodox Christian morality on homosexuality and marriage. There is in Idaho an Evangelical college professor whose career was almost destroyed because he dared challenge feminist ideology. And, of course, there is in Pennsylvania a Catholic father who was arrested for defending his son against a verbal assault by an abortion clinic escort. The message is clear: accept without question the social agenda of the extreme left, or you will pay the consequences.

The persecution of Christians in Islamist and Communist countries is largely founded on opposition to what Christianity teaches. This is also true of the West, but the opposition in the West is more founded on the actions of Christians, and not simply on their beliefs. Islamists and Communists will seek to destroy a Christian because he or she is a Christian. It is Christian doctrine that is perceived as the threat. In the West, opposition to Christianity is founded more on what Christians are inspired to do based on their faith. Many secularists in the West are perfectly fine if someone wants to be a Christian or call him or herself a Christian, so long as their Christian faith doesn’t inspire them to act in ways that challenge the accepted secular orthodoxy. I recall being told of an order of priests who were members of a peace and justice coalition. Other member organizations of the coalition expressed their opposition to the pro-life movement. When the priests explained that they, too, were pro-life, the response was that they were acceptable because, while they said they were pro-life, they didn’t actually do anything about it!

The message is clear: you can believe whatever you want, just keep quiet about it.

Christians must stop being quiet about it. Silence implies consent. Stephen was not silent, and his proclaiming the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ is what got him stoned. But it is also his glory. It isn’t enough just to celebrate Christmas. We must be willing to live it – to live the presence of Christ in us by virtue of our baptism. Our willingness to stand strong and speak boldly the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ will almost certainly raise opposition. But it will be our glory.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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