The seventh chapter of the Book of Acts is a nail biter–the first recorded martyrdom of the early Church. St. Stephen was chosen to be the go-to-apostle for that moment in the Church’s history. Why St. Stephen? We understand from the chapter proceeding today’s reading that St. Stephen was a deacon of the infant Church and he was known for being wise, full of faith and the Holy Spirit. It was written of him that he was full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people. In short, a holy man who knew who he was, to Whom he belonged and what he was about. St. Stephen inspires me!
As I considered the reading for today there were some take-aways that I help to increase my own faith as I strive for fidelity to my Saviour. Here are just a few. The interchange between the unbelieving countrymen and Stephen begins with some harsh words:
“Stephen said to the people, the elders, and the scribes:
“You stiff-necked people….”
Not the best way to make friends and influence enemies, right? The problem for the people was what he was declaring about them was not new to their ears, throughout the Old Testament the LORD often referred to Israel as stiff-necked because of their constant forgetting to remember who they were–the Chosen People of God. No wonder these first century Jews were infuriated with St. Stephen’s summation of their actions.
As I think of my life, regretfully, I’m uncomfortably aware of some of my own stiff-necked leanings. There have been times when I’ve been seized by rigid stiff-necked stubbornness; convinced of my own perspective or by hard-heartedness against someone who didn’t align with my way of thinking. I’m not proud of those moments. More bothersome is when I am more often seized by my own posture; when I spend too much effort on looking to the right and to the left, looking behind me–keeping my head down to look at what’s around me. When I choose only to see the distractions around me, I’m too easily flummoxed into inertia and doubt. And what does the LORD whisper to me when I’m stuck in that posture?
” [Lois] Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow springs of life…. Let your eyes look forward; fix your gaze straight ahead. Make a level path for your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your feet away from evil.”
We also see in St. Stephen’s response to the mis-guided accusations of the crowd surrounding him an example for us all when we are locked in our regrets about the past or our fears of rejection or when we are too prideful to change our mind. What did Stephen choose to do? He looked up!
“But Stephen, 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 Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
St. Stephen was so convinced that the LORD’s presence surrounded him that his natural response to the fray around him was to look into the eyes of his Saviour. St. Stephen’s vision beyond the perilous reality led him to where he was headed, and he stayed the course! LORD, help us all!
We know that St. Stephen’s life did not end well by man’s standards; some would even surmise that he failed. However, we know the rest of the story. He joined the many martyred saints because he stood firm on the Truth of history and refused to allow what was happening to him in his persecutions to detract him from that Truth. At the end, St. Stephen’s words live on as a response for the Church as we live in a society that grinds its teeth at Truth with a stiff-necked anti-christ assumption on how life works. In spite of the fear and anger we may feel as we, too, are surrounded by a mad crowd, we must persevere! Is courage to do what is right a challenge for you? St. Stephen’s last plea to the LORD infused him with courage to endure. He had already been filled with the spirit of LORD and he knew his destination was not determined by the crowd. No, Jesus was standing, ready, arms open to receive his spirit!
“LORD Jesus, receive my spirit.”
LORD Jesus, transform our spirits with confidence in the truth that you are waiting to receive our spirits in every moment! We only have to let go of our grip on self-preservation.
LORD Jesus, we desire the faith, wisdom, and integrity of St. Stephen, but you know how stiff-necked we can be about our own ideas, rights and privileges. Forgive us when we’d rather tune into the voices of our society than listen to your Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Would you restore a right spirit within us?
LORD Jesus, when we walk the life of Faith with a wobble from always looking back to what has happened rather than looking forward into Your eyes, help us to fix the gaze of our eyes upon you.
St. Stephen, pray for us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.