What is the Christmas hymn you hear every year?
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
The hymn is about Winceslas I, a Checz king who helped the poor in his country even during winter months. The Feast of Stephen, of course, is when? December 26th.
That begs the question, who is Stephen? He is the main character in today’s reading from Acts. He was chosen and ordained by the apostles themselves to be one of the first Deacons.
We live in a day where our resumes are extremely important. What is our experience? Where were we educated? What degrees do we have? What are our references? It’s not what you know, but who you know. This whole process is agonizing for me and a bit narcissistic! But it’s got to be done. I would challenge you to think of a different kind of resume. Since we’re in Easter season, I might call it a ‘resurrection resume.’
Stephen had a heckuva ‘resurrection resume.’ The Scripture says he was full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, and that he was (charis)matic–that is, gifted of God and full of God’s power. So much so that miracles were done at his hands. The book of Acts is a vast document which has important speeches by its two stars: Peter and Paul. But Luke reserves his longest speech for a little known Deacon full of the Spirit, Stephen.
For Luke, a strong symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit is someone who opens their mouth and speaks truth. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us when he was explaining the Scriptures?’ So say the two on the road to Emmaus when Jesus opened their minds to understand the Law and the Prophets. Stephen does the exact same thing. Top on his resume was his knowledge of the Scriptures.
But it is a knowledge that is unconventional. It is seeing and understanding the Scriptures in a new way–or at least being able to see what was not obvious on its face. The religious leaders knew the story of Abraham, Moses and Solomon just as well as Stephen. But Stephen was able to get to the heart of the Tanakah and see it as a huge signpost to Jesus–the Son of Man and Son of God.
Abraham was important because he was father Abraham. All of the promises of God about the people of God are represented by Abraham, especially in terms of the land of promise. Yet Jesus transcends Abraham–hence Jesus transcends the land. Moses was the representative of the Law–the Law which gave the people of God their identity. The Law that showed them the heart of God–yet nothing showed the heart of God more than his Son Jesus.
Solomon is a representation of the Temple. The Temple was God’s footstool, his throne. The presence of God was palpable in the Temple. Yet, as Stephen says, no place can contain God. Yet God is very much contained in Jesus Christ. He is now the Temple of God.
Stephen’s words were from the Scriptures–yet they were words no one wanted to hear–because if they heard them the way Stephen preached them–they would have to change their lives. I hope that you don’t miss the real radicalism that is in the Scripture. Here’s one–‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who harm you.’
That’s radical stuff. More than ever our world needs a different vision of how to live and we conduct ourselves. You may or may not like Jim Wallis. But he has recently coined one of the most intriguing terms, ‘Conservative Radical.’ He writes this:
Maybe what we need is a new paradigm altogether—we might call it “the conservative radical.” To be conservative means to be rooted—in a tradition, in faith, in core values. To be radical also means to be rooted (“radical” stems from the Latin word “radix,” which means “root”), which gives one a consistent perspective on the world. So these two—conservative radical—may not be contradictory but in fact deeply complementary.
While Wallis is talking mostly about the political process, I would argue that this kind of thing can only come from the people of God, the Body of Christ. The Bible makes us radical and counter cultural. It talks about sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage and all of the ‘family values’ kind of thing. But it also gives a radical nature of the world–go back to the words of Jesus. Love your enemies, rejoice when people speak bad of you and when they exclude and revile you on account of the Son of Man–rejoice and be glad!! Do good to those who hate you.
Even the Old Testament is one of the most radical documents. The prophets railed against the people of God because they worshiped as if everything was great–yet their worship was perverted because they were observing the feasts of Israel, yet at one and the same time they were negligent of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
The content of Stephen’s sermon caused his hearers to consider one important thing: we are dead wrong about everything that we hold dear. If Jesus is the Son of God, if Jesus is risen, everything changes. One of my favorite historians was Jaroslav Pelikan–a deep writer on the history of the Church who taught many years at Yale. He wrote with the insight of a historian, yet with the passion of a faithful Christian. He died of cancer a couple of years ago. On his deathbed he said this: ‘If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.’
The religious leaders who heard Stephen’s sermon had a choice, repent and change everything, or go on doing what they were doing and eliminate Stephen. They chose the latter. They chose to ignore Stephen’s words, they refused to see the Scriptures in a different way.
More than ever we need to see the Scriptures radical documents for our time. They tell us about God, but they also bring us face to face with this God. They tell us stories of Jesus, but if we allow them we can hear the radical call to follow him, no matter what we have to leave behind in the process.
There is one last entry in Stephen’s resurrection resume. Though his radical preaching of the Scriptures got him stoned, he was full great love. What were his last words? ‘Do not hold this sin against them.’
This is love of the radical sort. This is a love that loves whether the other deserves it or not, a love only Jesus can give–a love of the most radical sort. Stephen’s words should remind you of Jesus’ words, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
This is the kind of love that doesn’t ignore the wrongdoing of the other, it is loving despite their wrongdoing. In Stephen’s case, it was a love for the ones killing him. This is incarnational love of the highest sort. If loving cost us our lives, could we do it? Love of Christ and love of neighbor?
I read recently of a 19th century Belguim saint named Father Damien. He was one of the first missionaries to Hawaii. Now that sounds great to me but there was an island in the 19th century called the Island of Molokai. This was no resort island but a colony for lepers. But Fr. Damien felt the Lord wanted him there not only to preach Christ but to serve the lepers in a most radical way. The island itself smelled of rotting flesh and was full of contagion. One writer says that he:
“Built homes for the people, made coffins for the dead, and grew food for the hungry. He worked tirelessly among a people who were not his own and who had an illness he did not have.”
He constantly knocked on the doors of Rome for them to send supplies and to be advocates for his new brothers and sisters in Christ.
Then one day, after a hard day of work, he was soaking his feet in a pot of hot water, and he could no longer feel them. He had so wanted to relate to his people that he allowed nothing to separate him from them. He caught the disease and died at the age of 49. His day is April 15. When you are panicked about taxes on Tuesday, remember Fr. Damien!
Only a biblical radical would live and die this way. This is the resurrection resume of so many of the saints of God. No fanfare. No riches. No ‘man or woman of the year’ awards. Only Christ at the right hand of God cheering them on, like Stephen.