On Saint Stephen, pt 1

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 27), 2020.

In my sermon for All Saints’ Day I preached that God desires His Saints to have a living relationship with us, and He desires we have a living relationship with the Saints. That the Church recognized this is why the phrase “I believe in the Communion of Saints” was seen as necessary to the Apostles’ Creed, which from ancient days has been the profession of faith at a person’s Baptism. We therefore, in being baptized into Christ’s Body and incorporated into Him, are at the same time baptized into living relationship with the Saints through Christ. And so continually responding to the fact of our Baptism, which is the life of mature Christianity taught by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, invites us to reflect on our relationship with the Saints, and to develop a devotion to the Saints, even one or two Saints who we might find particularly teach us the Gospel of Christ.

I went on to say that, at least by my lights, perhaps the most poignant example of everything it means to truly be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world is Saint Stephen the holy Deacon. And so what I am beginning today is a series of sermons in which, through reflecting on the appointed scripture passages, we seek to find how these describe Saint Stephen’s commitment to Christ, as an example to all of us—a great example within the great cloud of witnesses that is the Saints.

Stephen is the first Martyr of the Church recorded in the New Testament. His saint story is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6, 7 and three verses into chapter 8. He was among the first Deacons of the Church, which is where his story begins in Acts chapter 6. The Church discerned a need for Deacons because the Twelve Apostles needed help. Having the necessary devotion to prayer and the ministry of the Word—meaning the study of scripture and the liturgical celebrations both Office and Mass—meant they were not able to serve the poor as the numbers of the poor demanded. At this point there is not yet the threefold division of Holy Orders—Bishop, Priest, and Deacon—that developed certainly by the early 2nd century, if not by the late 1st century. But even at this twofold division of Holy Orders we see that the ministry of the Deacon comes out of the ministry of the Bishop. The Deacon extends the hands of the Bishop, hands that reach to the poor, the lonely, and the widowed. The Deacon, in a very real sense, leads the ministry of the laity. Lay Christians, too, are to extend with love the hands of our bishop toward those in need of the Gospel.

Undoubtedly this ministry of Stephen and the other six Deacons included what is generically called “preaching.” That is, not preaching in the liturgical sense but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes. This sort of preaching could have risen to what we would call teaching, catechesis, even formation. But prior to that, Stephen’s preaching would be first and foremost his sharing with others the truth of Jesus Christ being the Son of the Father Almighty, spoken by Moses and the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the truth of His crucifixion as the revelation of personal salvation through Christ’s Resurrection. This preaching by Stephen is described in Acts as wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke. We have an extended account of his preaching, in the defense he gave in front of the council of Jews after Stephen was accused, falsely of course, of blasphemy against Moses, the Law of Moses God, and the holy Temple itself. All of Acts chapter 7 is given over to it.

It is a remarkable account, one that might draw us to ask, how on earth did he give such an account? How was he able to do it, given that he was facing sure death, sure stoning? Who among us would be able to give such glorious witness of the faith under such imposing circumstances?

The means to do so is actually what Our Lord Jesus is getting at in his parable of the ten maidens, and specifically with his teaching about oil. Stephen is an imitation of the five maidens who were wise in taking with them flasks of oil. Oil in scripture is a symbol of sacrifice, such as when Saint Mary Magdalene pours all of her most precious oil upon Jesus to anoint Him. She is described as anointing Jesus for burial, and so she is already suffering with Jesus, which is what compassion means: suffering with. Sacrifice, compassion are what oil symbolizes, but also prayerful listening to God, which again is Mary Magdalene’s example of choosing the better part, sitting at the feet of God, listening to Him: which for us means listening to God through Scripture. Just as having oil means the lamp can light up, so as by reading Scripture God lights up and reveals Himself as the scripture is opened.

All of which is to say that Stephen understood that the life of following Christ is a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ revealed through Scripture—indeed, a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ Who is the Crucified and Risen One revealed only through Scripture. We see how deeply Stephen had drunk of Scripture in Acts 7 and his glorious defense, which is the whole of salvation history through the Old Testament retold by the Light of the Resurrection. One cannot just do that without giving one’s life over in sacrifice, compassion towards Christ, and deep prayer with Scripture. All of which is what Jesus means when He says, “Watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread.