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Lindemann on St. Stephen

by revalkorn ~ December 10th, 2010

Again, just in case . . .

SAINT STEPHEN THE MARTYR’S DAY

December 26

A full set of Propers is provided for this day. The Introit seems to lend strength to the belief that the Church at an early date deliberately appointed this Martyr’s Day to counteract the influence of paganism and originally did not relate it to Christmas, that it is, in fact, older than the observance of the Nativity. Princes spoke against St. Stephen, and the wicked waited to destroy him. But in standing firm and being loyal to Christ he was blessed, as are all who keep His testimonies, all who are undefiled and walk in the Law of the Lord. The Collect is unusually long though consisting of one sentence. Its source is plainly the account of the Epistle. The Gradual, too, is most appropriate and direct. The Holy Gospel is the close of our Lord’s farewell sermon before leaving the temple never to return. It brings His prophecy of the treatment to be accorded by Jerusalem to the Prophets, wise men, scribes, whom the Lord would send, among them St. Stephen.

The Introit. “Princes also did sit and speak against me; the wicked waited for me to destroy me. Help Thou me, my God, for I have kept Thy testimonies. Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the Law of the Lord.”

The Collect. “Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of Thy truth we may steadfastly look up to heaven and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of Thy first martyr, St. Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to Thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to help all those that suffer for Thee, our only Mediator and Advocate; who livest,” etc.

The Epistle (Acts 6:8-7:60). It is possible to establish a close connection with Christmas. The Holy Gospel seems to lend itself less readily to this purpose; therefore the suggestions offered below are based on the Epistle.

The Gradual. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. Alleluia! Alleluia! I see the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Alleluia!”

The Proper Sentence. “Alleluia! Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad before the Lord, for He hath made known His salvation. Alleluia!”

The Gospel (St. Matt. 23:34-39).

The Proper Preface. “For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, Thou hast given us a new revelation of Thy glory; that, seeing Thee in the person of Thy Son, we may be drawn to the love of those things which are not seen.”

SERMON ON THE EPISTLE

The story of a martyr’s cruel death seems utterly out of harmony with the general spirit prevailing at Christmas time. The bloody picture is apt to drive all joy from us. But it only seems so at first glance. The Savior is not shown lying in the manger, weak and poor. Yet we see the same Jesus, standing at the right hand of God in glory. We do not see angels coming down from heaven, as in the Nativity story. Instead, heaven itself opens to receive in triumph the first of that multitude who gave their lives in defense of the faith. St. Stephen is a shining example of the glorious and wondrous power and effect of faith in all who accept and receive Christ as their Savior, of the happiness of all who have had Christmas come into their hearts. Faith in Christ, his Savior, gave St. Stephen the courage to confess Him joyfully even when facing death and to suffer a violent death because of his confession. We meditate on:

The Glorious Effect of Faith in the Savior Who Has Come into the World

This power is threefold:

I. Faith prompts a joyous confession even in the face of a bloody death
II. Faith sees the open heaven and the glorified Savior at the right hand of God
III. Faith conquers all fear of death and transforms it into a triumphant entry into heavenly glory

I

“Stephen, a man full of faith.” The message of Christ had effected not merely a passing emotion. The first spark of faith had become a great fire that caused his whole heart to glow. Although not an apostle but a distributor of gifts, his faith prompted him to confess Christ publicly. Hostile Jews disputed with him but could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke. He was arrested and brought before the Council. Fearless, he was filled with such joy that his face was like the face of an angel. Though he knew the consequences of his testimony before the bloodthirsty judges, his faith did not waver. When he boldly accused them of betraying and murdering the Righteous One, they were enraged, stopped their ears, cast him out of the city, and stoned him.

We see in St. Stephen the glorious effect of faith, of Christmas grace. When the grace of faith fills the heart, confession must follow, even before the hostile world. We saw this effect in the shepherds, who made known the saying which had been told them. Aged Simeon bore witness when his eyes saw the Lord’s salvation. The prophetess Anna spoke of Him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. If we believe in Him who was born for our salvation, we, too, shall be willing and ready to confess Him though it may cost our life. We shall say: For me God became man; the Christ Child is mine; salvation is my Christmas gift; at His manger He took from me the guilt and burden of sin. made me God’s child; I am now His brother and an heir of eternal life. Of such a Savior I need not be ashamed. I shall confess Him, even though I be ridiculed, hated, persecuted, killed. The early Christians were thrown to the wild beasts, burned at the stake, yet they confessed without fear or horror. The Christmas joy in my heart they cannot take away or touch, and they cannot extinguish the heavenly light. My Christmas Treasure, Christ and His grace, is beyond the reach of all and everything.

II

In the story of St. Stephen we see more that Christmas grace can bring about. Even here he saw heaven open above him and his Savior at the right hand of God. “He, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into 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.” This was an inconceivably great wonder, so great that no mortal, no believer, experienced the like before or after St. Stephen. Yet the wonder here was not that the heavenly glory opened above him or that the glorified Son of Man stood by the faithful witness in his extremity. The wonder was that St. Stephen was permitted to see all this while still on earth for the strengthening of his faith.

We must not say: Of what benefit is it to us that this holy martyr had this wonderful experience? Who are we in comparison with him? We must not conclude that heaven opened above him but is closed over other faithful witnesses; that the glorified Savior was near to him but is far from others. What St. Stephen experienced here is given to all the faithful, only invisibly. They see it all in the mirror of the divine Word and the Holy Sacraments. Heaven is always open to all believers and never closed. The Savior is never far from any of His faithful, ever ready to help and encourage and strengthen every believer.

III

The story of St. Stephen teaches us still more regarding faith. It conquers all dread of death and makes of it a triumphant entry into heavenly glory. When his persecutors surrounded him like bloodthirsty beasts and hurled stone after stone on him, St. Stephen’s courage did not forsake him. He did not plead for mercy. Standing erect like a victorious hero, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The Lord, in whom he believed, is still the Rock on which he stands. Fearlessly, joyously he faces death. There is no request that the Lord Jesus deliver him from his enemies, that he be preserved from death. There is only the confident petition that his Lord will receive him after death. His only concern is the soul of his murderers. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” This is his last word. The story ends: “When he had said this, he fell asleep.” The mighty Savior, in whom St. Stephen put his trust, has transformed death into a sleep for His faithful. St. Paul speaks of the believers who had died as having fallen asleep. Our Lord Himself applied this term when Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus had died. When St. Stephen’s mangled body breathed its last under a hail of stones, he fell asleep. Angels carried his soul home. Angel choirs welcomed him, and the Lord gave him the crown of glory.

Not all believers will partake of glory in the same measure. Those who have brought many to righteousness and witnessed their faith with their own blood will be given special glory. But all believers will enjoy one and the same salvation. All the faithful will see God and their Savior face to face, all will receive the crown of life, all will spend eternity in blissful communion with the angels and the elect.

This is the faith that overcomes the world. Jesus, who was born into this world for me, is my Savior until death.

He brings me to the portal
That leads to bliss untold,
Whereon this rime immortal
Is found in script of gold:
“Who there My cross hath shared
Finds here a crown prepared;
Who there with Me hath died
Shall here be glorified.”

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