The Martyrs and St. Stephen
First Sunday After Christmas
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60, Matthew 23:34-39
(Also can be used and adapted to Easter 5A, Acts 7:55-60)
Today, as you know
very well, is December 26th but what you may not know is
today is St. Stephen’s Day. Today is named after the first
Christian martyr whose story is told in the sixth chapter of Acts.
A martyr is a
person who dies for his or her belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus said
that no greater love has this than a person lays down his life for
his friends and Jesus himself gave his life on the cross.
Today is a trilogy
of three important Christmas dates and stories:
December 26th which commemorates St. Stephen and
his martyrdom. December 27th which commemorates St. John
the Apostle who was martyred on an island called Patmos. December 28th
in which we commemorate the little children two years and under who
were slaughtered by the evil King Herod.
December 28th is called the Feast of the Holy
Innocents. So we have
three consecutive days during the Christmas season, December 26th,
27th, and 28th during which we can easily
preach on the theme of martyrdom.
It is important to
connect both the death and birth of Jesus Christ together. It is
important that we don’t separate them. There was a pastor in my
hometown of Jackson, Minnesota who had a wonderful illustration that
we cannot separate the birth of Jesus from the death of Jesus. This
pastor would take a manger which had been especially made for him by
a carpenter. The carpenter had constructed the manger in such a way
that the manger could be taken apart and reassembled into the shape
of a cross. So during the children’s sermon, the pastor would
start with a wooden manger and by the time the children’s sermon
was over, that manger had become a wooden cross. It was a powerful
visible image that the cradle transformed into a cross. … We
Christians know that we cannot separate the cradle from the cross.
We cannot separate the merriment of Christmas from the martyrdom of
the cross. We cannot separate December 25th from the rest
of the year. The manger and martyrdom always go hand in hand.
So today I would
like to briefly tell you the story of St. Stephen. The setting is
the city of Jerusalem in about the year 30. The story of St. Stephen
is found in the book of Acts, chapters six and seven. Stephen was
chosen to be the head of the deacons. He was a very good man and the
Bible also says that he was full of both the Holy Spirit and love.
The early Christian community chose him to take care of the money.
This money was to be used to take care of the widows, orphans and
poor people. In every good story and in every normal human
situation, a conflict arose, and a conflict arose around St.
Stephen. A group of Jews were very jealous of Stephen and they
plotted and instigated to have Stephen killed. They made false
accusations against Stephen and they brought him to a trial in a
Jewish court. Stephen finally stood up and made a long speech in his
own defense and that speech goes on and on in chapter six. His
speech is so long that it takes more than two pages in our Bible to
hear the history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and the other
Old Testament heroes. Stephen recited a history of Jewish people
being disobedient to God. All of a sudden, in verse fifty-one of
chapter seven, it all changes. All of a sudden this long, disarming
speech gets nasty and Stephen says: “You stiff necked,
inflexible people. You people are hard hearted and your
hearts are not soft to God. You people have wax in your ears
and you don’t hear the words of God. You people, your
fathers persecuted the prophets, and now you betrayed and killed the
Messiah. You people, you are the ones who killed Jesus.”
Well, Stephen’s bluntness made everybody mad when he said, “You
people.” He had said, “You Jesus killers. You prophet killers.
You worship your religious traditions and interpretations more than
God.” Well, to make a very long story short, these Jewish leaders
took Stephen outside and threw him into a pit and started to throw
stones at him. This was the normal way the Jews executed people:
throw that person into a pit and throw rocks until that person was
dead. As Stephen was dying, he moaned the words which have been
remembered for two thousand years:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
These were the same words that Jesus spoke from the cross when Jesus
gave that powerful sermon from the cross and forgave his executors.
Instead of hatred for his killers, Stephen was like Jesus and prayed
for their forgiveness. Anther rock was thrown and then another and
soon Stephen’s body was silent and lifeless and Stephen became the
first martyr of the church.
Today, I would like
a make a few observations about martyrs.
Martyrs die because
of their love and faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Today, martyrs are
getting bad press because of the martyrs of the fanatical Muslim
terrorists that bombed the Twin Towers and claim to be martyrs for
their faith. There is an enormous difference between a crazed
terrorist and a true martyr. A crazed terrorist kills other people;
a true martyr dies so that others might live. A false martyr takes
the lives of others and kills innocent people. A true martyr is just
the opposite of a false martyr: a true martyr dies because they
offer themselves as a living and loving sacrifice for Jesus Christ
in order that others might live.
Martyrs for the
Christ have always been part of our Christian heritage. The cradle
is always connected to the cross. Christ is born in us so that we
are willing to die that others might live.
Greek word for martyr is the word “martyrea” from which we get
our word, “witness.” Martyr is the same Greek word for witness.
The Bible says, “You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea
and to the ends of the earth.” That is, you are to be my martyrs
in Jerusalem, Judea and the ends of the earth. A witness is a person
who speaks for his or her faith in such a way that the person may be
killed for expressing their faith.
A few things about
don’t keep their faith private. Martyrs are people who “don’t
know better” but they open their mouths and often at the wrong
times. They refuse to keep their mouths shut, and therefore they get
into trouble. Martyrs get killed, not for their convictions, but
for expressing their convictions. There are all kinds of people
who have beliefs in Christ and beliefs in Christian values and they
never get hurt at all. The key is to keep your mouth shut and you
won’t get hurt. Keep your mouth shut and nobody will bother you.
But as soon as you open your mouth about Christ and the
Christian faith, that is when you will start becoming a martyr. It
is the same Greek word for both witnesses and martyrs and both have
a lot in common: both open their mouths for Jesus Christ. So Stephen
had this problem, as did all martyrs, of not keeping their mouth
shut and keeping silent about their Christian convictions.
There is a story
about a famous martyr in the ancient Christian faith. His name was
Ignatius who was killed by the Emperor Hadrian in the year 107 CE.
The Emperor Hadrian insisted that Ignatius bow and pray to his gods
who helped him win a battle for Rome. The Bishop Ignatius refused
and instead opened his mouth and defied Hadrian.
“What you call gods are no better than devils. There is only one
God, the true God who created heaven and earth and his Son Jesus
Christ our Lord.” As all good prophets do, Ignatius didn’t keep
his mouth shut and was killed for publicly speaking the truth about
God and Christ. Ignatius got in trouble, not because he had
religious convictions but because he expressed clearly and
forcefully those convictions, not to the believing church but to the
The same theme
continues in our world today. You don’t get in trouble for being
silent; you get in trouble when you speak the truth publicly. Not so
long ago, I again read a book by Jacobo Timmerman who was a Jewish
man. He lived in Argentina from 1976-79 and the Argentina military
junta was killing many people. Jacobo Timmerman was a Jew and he
opened his mouth and wrote a book, entitled, ‘PRISONER WITHOUT A
NAME, CELL WITHOUT A NUMBER. In this book, he vowed that he would
never again be silent about evil in his world, and because he was not
silent about evil in the Argentina government, the military took
him and persecuted him and put electrodes into his fingers.
He made a vow: never to be silent about his faith and values
again. … In other words, if you don’t want to be a good witness,
just keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut, be a good
Christian, and don’t tell anyone what you see and feel and don’t
worry, nobody will step on your toes.
Recall the old
Soviet Union for a moment. The good Lutherans living up in northern
Russian kept their mouths shut and got along with the Soviet
dictators. The Russian Orthodox Church burned their incense and lit
their candles and wore their golden chasubles, kept their mouths
shut about the Soviet dictators, and the Soviet government left them
alone. These groups were an aging nuisance for the Soviets. But not
the Jehovah Witnesses and the Baptists in the Soviet Empire. The
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baptists refused to register their
churches with the government and were outspoken critics of the
Soviet Union. When you speak out against the government, you awaken
that government’s anger and power and punishment. Play it safe.
Keep your mouth shut and you will never be a martyr.
That was true in
South Africa, especially in the early days of people rising up
against the racist policies of apartheid. Steve Bilko was a young
medical student was very critical of the South African government
and its position on apartheid and separation. I love the title of
his book, “I SAY WHAT I LIKE.” When you say what you like to a
hostile and powerful government, you get killed and Bilko got
killed. He was another martyr in the long history of martyrs in the
We need to mention
Bishop Romero of El Salvador. He could have been a nice, plain,
Roman Catholic Bishop and kept his mouth shut about atrocities
committed by the ruling military junta. If he would have had any
brains, he just would have kept his mouth shut and nobody would have
bothered him at all. But he would get in the pulpit and criticize
the government in front of everyone in the church. One Sunday
morning, when the Cathedral was full and he was celebrating the
Mass, a shot rang out and splattered the body and blood of the
Archbishop so his body and blood joined the body and blood of our
Lord Jesus Christ on the altar. He could have been a good Catholic
and remained silent. Nothing much happens to you if you remain
silent. But a witness and a martyr is a person who is willing to
speak out against the injustices of the world because of Jesus
Of course, we need
to recall Pope John Paul of Vatican fame who spoke out against the
Soviet injustices against Poland. And so we read the biographies of
his life and we hear the fascinating story of how the government of
Bulgaria arranged for his assassination along with the influence of
the KGB and Andropov who was president of the KGB at that time. And
so Pope John Paul was almost killed for speaking out against Soviet
policies against Poland and his health never recovered after that
assassination attempt. Nobody would have shot at him if he would
have kept his mouth shut about the injustices that he saw.
So the first
characteristic about Christian martyrs from centuries past and today
is that they opened their mouths and spoke the truth about Christ
and the social injustices that surrounded them.
characteristic of martyrs on this martyr’s Sunday is that they are
willing to switch from the third person to the second person. From
the “they” to the “you.” In Acts 7, Stephen’s speech is
really boring and it goes on and one and one about Jewish history
and their heroes of history until chapter seven, verse fifty one and
he changes suddenly and says, “YOU!” You stiff necked
people. You hard hearted people. You people with wax
in your ears. You people who betrayed Jesus. You
people who killed Jesus. You people who worship your
religious traditions. You Jesus killers. You.” The
word, “you,” is a very powerful word and it changes everything.
Do you remember
another great “you” story of the Bible? It is the story of King
David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. King David was up on his balcony and
looked down at the neighboring veranda and saw a gorgeous woman
there. He lusted after Bathsheba passionately. He arranged for her
to come to him and he made love with her. Bathsheba got pregnant. So
what did King David do? He arranged for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah,
a military man, to be sent into battle so Uriah would be killed on
the front lines of attack. But the prophet Nathan saw through King
David’s schemes. The prophet Nathan came to King David and told
the king a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep.
King David said, “The rich man should be killed.” And Nathan
said to the King: YOU ARE THE MAN. Wow. What an indictment
against the king. You. Nathan had the guts to use the word,
“You.” He spoke the word, “you,” directly into King
That’s what all
prophets do. They have the guts to move from the safety of the third
person, they, to the second person, you. They point their fingers
and say, “You…are the guilty one.”
The same was true
of Martin Luther King Jr. He had the guts to stand up in Alabama and
Georgia and talk about visible and invisible racism and its ugly
heads. You could go to the North or to the lovely north in Seattle
and say the same things and people would say, “”How progressive.
How insightful. How moral.” But soon as the prophet says, YOU. You
are the guilty one. The speech then changes from progressive thought
into attack on our character. Prophets attack our sinful character
and its slimy side.
characteristic of a martyr is not only what they say but when
and where they say it. For example, back in the Soviet Union
during the Stalin era, if I declared that I was a Christian, I could
be killed for it. If I said the same thing in the United States,
nobody would be bothered at all. It is not just what you say but
when and where you say it that makes for martyrdom. If you talk
about Christ and social justice in church among believing friends,
nobody gets too upset about it. But in certain situations and
certain epochs of history, you can get killed for saying the same
A martyr is not a
person who checks the wind of public opinion. A martyr is not a
person who checks the percentage of people who are for a nuclear
freeze and then determines what he or she will say. They don’t say
to themselves, “I will check the wind of public opinion and then I
will make my pronouncement.” It is not only what is said that is
important but when and where it is said. That person has the guts to
go against culture. That person has the guts to go against public
characteristic of a martyr is that they are willing to die. They
don’t want to die, but they are willing to die for Jesus Christ
that others might live in justice and freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
didn’t want to die, but he decided that Hitler was an insanely
cruel man who plotted to conquer the whole world and force his
dictatorial Aryan policies around the globe. Hitler needed to be
stopped. Bonhoeffer was arranging for Hitler’s assassination, and
Bonhoeffer was discovered and martyred. He was killed and a martyr
is willing to die for justice, freedom and Christ.
The same was true
of Sir Thomas More. Do you remember the story of King Henry the VIII
who wanted to get rid of his wife and marry another? As I recall,
Martin Luther did not really condemn the English king for his
infidelity, but Sir Thomas More did. There is a fabulous and famous
play entitled, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, in which Sir Thomas More
directly and publicly confronts King Henry the VIII for his marital
infidelity and his government corruption. Sir Thomas More was killed
for that. Martyrs are.
One of the most
inspiring martyrs I have known through the media is Jean Donovan.
How I love her story. There was a TV special about her entitled, THE
ROSE OF DECEMBER. She was a lay person, a Roman Catholic missionary
from England. She was a
larger, strong boned woman, in her mid-twenties. She was drawn to
the orphans of El Salvador when that country was a mess. She went
down to El Salvador and gave her life to the orphans there, living
in one particular orphanage. She went back home to England for a
wedding and all of her friends said to her, “Stay here Jean. Stay
here because if you go back you will be killed.” She had to go
back to El Salvador, to her orphans. She did. She got off the plane,
into a van, drove outside of town and her vehicle was ambushed by
renegade soldiers. She was raped, killed and her body thrown into a
grave. Jean Marie Donovan was another one of thousands of martyrs
for Jesus Christ.
believe passionately in Jesus Christ. These martyrs believe so
deeply that they are willing to die for their faith in Christ and
their consequent moral values. These martyrs don’t hide behind the
safety of silence; they move from the safe “they” to the
personal “you;” they speak God’s Word when and where it is not
safe to speak the truth; and they are willing to die for the truth
of Jesus Christ.
Martyrs inspire us.
Martyrs encourage us. Martyrs lift us up so that we are more
committed to Jesus Christ. You see, today is December 26th.
But it could be December 27th or December 28th.
All these date in the middle of the Christmas season are the same.
These dates are all about martyrs, those men and women through the
centuries and today who believe in Jesus Christ, who do not remain
silent but pay the price for speaking openly. These martyrs remind
me that we can never separate the cradle for the cross. The wood of
the cradle becomes transformed into the wood of the cross. Even in
this festive Christmas season and the beginning of the Jesus Story,
we cannot forget the end of the Jesus Story about the cross and