Lord Jesus, Receive My Spirit
Stephen, the first martyr for Christ was a Hellenistic Jew, described as a ʺman full of faith and the Holy Spirit.ʺ He was one of the first seven men selected by the Church in Jerusalem to distribute food to the poor, a position that would later develop into the order of deacons. Other than this, we know very little about the man, except for how he lived the last hours of his life, and how he died.
He must have been a very intelligent man, a man who could speak beautifully, with the authority of one who has the confidence that comes from both knowledge and a deep faith. He was known for engaging his fellow Hellenic Jews from all over the Mediterranean world in public discussions about teachings of Jesus. His was not a limited knowledge either. We see how expansive his knowledge was when he is dragged before the Sanhedrin charged with blasphemy. He spoke for a long time before them, giving a long, passionate dissertation covering the history of God’s covenant made with his servants Abraham and Moses. We can imagine the noble members of the Sanhedrin nodding their heads in agreement with all of it, mesmerized by Stephen’s knowledge and his eloquence. And those who came as witnesses against him, ʺcould not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.ʺ (Acts 6:10)
As Stephen drew to close to the end of his speech before them, his voice rose and he said to them, ʺYou stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?
Like all hypocrites who have had their hypocrisy shown to them as in a mirror, they rose up against Stephen. They became blind with fury against him. At that point Stephen looked up to heaven and said, ʺBehold I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.ʺ Hearing this they rushed at him and dragged him through the streets and out of the city. There they began to stone Stephen. Among them, a leader really, was a young man named Saul. As they picked up their stones they removed their cloaks and laid them before this Saul, who watched and supported all that was being done to Stephen, believing him to be a blasphemer and a heretic.
As the stones struck Stephen he called out, ʺLord, receive my spirit.ʺ The stones struck him with such force that he fell to his knees and he spoke his last words on this earth. And what powerful words they were, so full of grace, so true to the full message of Jesus. Indeed his last words echoed Jesus’ last words. ʺLord, do not hold this sin against them.ʺ Then Luke says of Stephen, ʺ…when he said this, he fell asleep.ʺ Beautiful, isn’t it.
Stephen was not one of the 12. He was a man more like us, except maybe that his faith humbles us. It is the source of his courage and his wisdom. He was not afraid. He knew who Jesus was. He believed in Jesus and all that he taught. Jesus and his message was more valuable to him than even his own life. It is this kind of faith that we are called to again today. We, too, must be well educated in our faith as Stephen was in order to address the attacks on it that are becoming both more frequent and more angry with each passing year. But our faith must be rooted, as Stephen’s was, in a deep, loving, faith-filled commitment to forgiveness. We can not hold the accusations, or the attacks of our accusers against them. That judgement belongs to God alone. We must love Jesus so well as to be able to forgive those who trespass against us, for they may not know what it is that they are doing. Jesus taught us that wisdom from the Cross. More will be drawn to God by this faith-filled behavior than by anything else we could do. Let us pray for such faith every day. If we open our hearts to Jesus, we can believe that he will generously fill us with such faith. Thanks be to our loving God.