May 14, 2017

May14StStephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter 5 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Ian Delinger

This is the only Sunday in the
3-year Lectionary that
St Stephen is mentioned.

The longer text from the Acts of the Apostles which starts with the choosing of Stephen to be a Deacon, and finishes with his death, is read on the Feast of St Stephen’s, which is December 26. But even if December 26 falls on a Sunday, which it did in 2015, the readings for the First Sunday of Christmas outrank St Stephen. Since we do not have a special celebration of our own for our Patron Saint, I thought it would be most appropriate to commemorate him today, even though it is also Mother’s Day.

 

For the whole of the Sunday morning services, I get to see the St Stephen Window while the congregation gets to gaze upon the Good Shepherd Window. The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is universally comforting. We should also take comfort in being watched over by St Stephen.

 

Stephen was the first of 7 Deacons. In the chapter just before the story we heard from Acts, 7 to serve at tables while the Apostles went about spreading the Good News. Stephen is listed first, as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. In addition to his role serving the community, Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people, which, of course, got him in trouble, like many of his other contemporaries. “Some of those who belonged to the synagogue…stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses.” There are a few parallels in the short history we have of Stephen with the end of Jesus’ life. He defended himself in front of the Council, reciting Salvation History, in a very passionate delivery.

 

Stephen ends his speech against the Council with:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

 

They kind of took objection to being called “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears”. Those terms had a bit more bite to them than they do now!

 

It was Stephen’s strength of conviction in Jesus as the Son of Man that compelled him to spread the Good News, even in the synagogues. And that zealous nature is what got him stoned…not in the “back of a ’57 Chevy” kind of stoned.

 

It’s really strange to me to have the Stoning of Stephen alongside today’s Gospel reading. The Gospel reading is chronologically before the Crucifixion; it’s during the Last Supper after Jesus has washed the Disciples’ feet. The context of the Gospel reading is Jesus spending four chapters telling them stuff that just confuses them, but which we now use as pastoral comfort for our Christian faith. Indeed, John 14 is used at funerals: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” The Disciples are confused by this because, to them, they are just having a great Passover Meal. They don’t know what’s coming next. In John 13, Jesus foretells His betrayal, and sure enough, the sound bite just before today’s reading is Jesus telling Peter that he will deny Jesus 3 times before the cock crows. The Disciples genuinely have no idea where Jesus is going.

 

Stephen’s story, on the other hand, is after the Crucifixion. He had been preaching, and then was made a Deacon to serve the community by those same Apostles who not long before were confused by what Jesus was saying. Presumably Stephen was part of the Jesus Movement before the Crucifixion, or was caught up in the euphoria of the Risen & Ascended Lord. His own love of Jesus Christ got him killed. “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” That was not what people wanted to hear. It’s very different from Jesus’ closest friends, as Philip illustrates by stating, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”


If you look at the St Stephen window, you will see that St Stephen is holding a palm frond in his right hand. Since the time of Origen in the 3C, Christians have held the as a symbol of victory of the spirit over the flesh. So the palm because especially applicable to martyrs, the victors par excellence over the spiritual foes of mankind.

 

Stephen is also often seen with a crown. Stephen comes from the Greek “Stephanos”, which means “crown”.

 

The Altar Guild so kindly found
palm fronds upon my request so
that we can each have one, and
we can remember St Stephen and
all the martyrs.

 

The palm has deeper significance than that of a martyr. The Arab interpretation of the date palm tree is very humbling, and I believe it can be applied to the life of St Stephen, what little we know of it. Enrique Rasheed, Muslim Chaplain at CMC, told us about the date palm tree at “Tastes of Faiths”. I went in search of the meaning.

 

The date palm is one of the slowest growing trees, taking up to 4-8 years to bear fruit. The roots of the date palm are nurtured for several years before it becomes strong and firm. Stephen was firmly grounded in his faith in Christ and his vocation to serve the Christian community.

 

Furthermore, date palm trees do not need a forest in which to grow. They are resourceful in and of themselves. This element of what we might recognize as self-confidence was illustrated in Stephen’s speech to the authorities. Though surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, he stood alone in his forceful expression of the message of Jesus Christ, while facing death, himself.

 

Thirdly, Muslims say that we do not grow when things are easy; we grow when we face challenges. The date palm tree grows in hot climates with harsh conditions. Nevertheless, it is still able to bring benefit to everything around it, from its nutritious fruits to its comforting shade. Stephen was an ardent follower of Christ in the harsh conditions of persecution during the Apostolic Era.

 

Lastly, the date palm has a purpose. Stephen’s purpose was to serve, but as to be set as an example for all of us for how strong our commitment to the Risen and Ascended Jesus can be.

Stephen was strong, independent, courageous and driven, like the date palm tree, and hence the palm in his hand. Stephen stood in front of a hostile crowd and shared the message of Christ that we today are so often at unease to share with others who are far less hostile: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen knew in his core that what Jesus said was true: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”


We are called to share the Good
News of the Resurrection of
Jesus Christ. In this far less
hostile environment, let’s do that
– both by our words and by our
 actions. Let us not be like the
Disciples in today’s Gospel
reading, full of doubt and the
demand for signs.

 

We won’t hear about St Stephen and a Sunday again for another 3 years, which is slightly sad for us. St Stephen silently watches over us and watches over this building day-in and day-out. The strength of his conviction of faith, which led him to be remembered as the first Christian Martyr, connects our faith today with the faith of all of those who have gone before us. And in 3 years’ time when we read again that Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”, we can reply, “Of course you do. He’s in the window opposite you.”

© 2017 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Connected Sound - Websites for the Barbershop Community