It isn’t nearly so cozy and cuddly as the Nativity scene, but this is how the Christmas story goes. Not only for the Christ Child and His holy family, but for His Prophets and Apostles, His wise men and scribes, His deacons and elders, pastors and teachers, and all of His disciples, His Christians.
It is also the story of your Baptism into Christ, whether you die a martyr’s death or live a martyr’s life. The stones may be real or metaphorical, but they will hit you either way if you belong to the Righteous One, and they will hurt. His afflictions are many, His tribulations great. His Cross is deadly, and His tomb a strange bed for the Lord of Life.
Then there are the stones that you hurl at Him and at His beloved, out of jealousy and spite, with envy and resentment, or for the sake of pride and competition: When you do not help and protect your neighbor, but hurt and harm his body; when you do not guard his interests or defend his name, but conspire against him, or simply turn your back on him and consign him to his suffering and his desperate need. Perhaps you merely stand by and watch, condoning his murder by your silence, keeping the coats of his killers, and giving thanks that you are not the one under attack.
Your life in the world as a Christian, under the Cross, is not so neatly and easily categorized as good or bad, right or wrong. It is by God’s grace that you are a Christian, a son of God in Christ, anointed by the Spirit of the Lord; whereas by your birth from Adam you are sinful and unclean.
For your faithfulness you are stoned, whether by the world in its wickedness, or by the far greater perversity and blasphemy of those who consider themselves to be pious and righteous, who count it a service to God when they kill you.
And in your own sinfulness, you are the one hefting rocks in your hands and taking deadly aim at the children of your own God and Father, your own dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
We do not find such ambiguity in St. Stephen, the First Martyr of our crucified and risen Lord, but only because the record of his life and death is the witness of Christ Jesus, in whom there is no ambiguity nor uncertainty. Stephen, too, was a child of Adam by nature, but by grace he is a child of God, who strengthened and sustained him in the one true faith.
You are right to marvel at the faithful witness of the martyrs; and none of them are more faithful than St. Stephen, who demonstrates the righteousness of God in both his bold preaching and his gracious prayer of forgiveness. You are right to marvel, because this faithful witness of the holy martyrs is a testimony to the faithfulness of Christ.
That is the story of Christmas, of Christ and of His Christians, from the New Testament throughout the history of His Church on earth, even to the present day around the world.
The story of Christ, of His Life, His Cross and Resurrection, is written, lived, and confessed in the story of His disciples, the story of those who are baptized and catechized in His Name. They are faithful, because He is. They live and die, and they shall rise again, because He has done so for them, and He does so in them, unto the life everlasting.
He did so for St. Stephen, and He does so for you.
The ambiguity that you experience in your mortal life, in your heart and mind, in your thoughts, words and deeds, and in all your members, is resolved by the work of the Cross, which is God’s good work of repentance, unto divine eternal life in Christ Jesus. The Cross puts to death the old Adam in you, while it also conforms you, in body and soul, to the Image of God, the incarnate Son.
The Cross therefore brings you through death into life, in and with and through Christ Jesus. At the same time, it becomes a faithful witness to the same Lord Jesus Christ, the Crucified One, in what you do and say and suffer in His Name.
It is not a matter of trying hard to make such a witness of yourself. In the history of the Church, those who have sought to claim the glory of martyrdom for themselves have fallen far short when it came down to it, and have denied the Lord in the face of actual torture and death, thereby shaming themselves and blaspheming the Name they presumed to confess.
But, no, you should instead work hard and make a conscious and conscientious effort to do those things which God has given you to do. Do your duties faithfully and well. Then, in faith receive and bear and suffer the Cross that He lays upon you in His love for you. For within your vocation as a Christian, in the offices and stations to which He has called you in your life on earth, He will be with you, to bless you, to guard you and keep you, to preserve your faith and life in Him.
Thus, whether you live or whether you die, you are the Lord’s.
The shape of such a Christian life, as in the case of St. Stephen, is a confession of the Word of God. You speak with confidence what the Lord has spoken. If you are not a pastor or preacher, still, your words and actions as a Christian are a proclamation of Christ and a confession of the Name of God, with which He has named you in your Holy Baptism.
Such a confession has for its heart and center the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, who is God our Savior in the flesh. In you it is repentance, and for your neighbor it is manifested in love and forgiveness. It is love that speaks the truth forthrightly, but with gentleness. It is love that serves sacrificially, even unto death, but no less so in day to day life. It is love that turns the other cheek, even against hard rocks and sharp stones, and forgives those who trespass against you. That is the way of Christ, for you and for all, which we see exemplified in His servant, St. Stephen.
It is truly meet, right and salutary that we should remember St. Stephen and his faithful example; for so has the Holy Spirit through St. Luke remembered the story for us in the Holy Scriptures. And it is right that we should give thanks and praise to God our dear Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, for this blessed holy martyr.
His example should not only prompt you to thanksgiving, but also to ask: How is it that Stephen was so faithful, even in his suffering unto death? How was he able to confess so boldly in the presence of his accusers, in the face of those who hated him so much and wanted to hurt him so badly? How could he die so peacefully, despite such a painful death? And as he was dying, how was he able to pray so graciously for those who were throwing stones at him?
The answer is given by the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Christ Jesus. St. Stephen was strengthened and sustained by the same Gospel that he confessed and preached to others. So are you.
His mortal eyes were given to behold a special revelation of the risen Christ, and by faith in the Gospel he not only saw but he believed that His great High Priest, His Savior and Lord, had risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven. Hence, that same heaven was opened to St. Stephen, too — as it is, also, to you. Death and the grave would not be able to hold him, no more than death could hold Christ Jesus. Neither shall death be able to hold you in its grasp forever. Even dead and dying, yet you are alive in Christ, and so shall you be, unto the life everlasting of body and soul.
By your Holy Baptism, you have already been crucified with Christ, and dead and buried with Him. And by one and the same Holy Baptism — into His Cross and Resurrection — daily are you raised with Him to newness of life through His free and full forgiveness of all your sins. Your life on earth is therefore a daily martyrdom, which is simply the working out of your Baptism until it is finally and fully consummated in the death and resurrection of your body. Already your life is hidden with Christ in God.
His Body is the true Temple of God, even as He tabernacles with you in His own flesh and with His own holy and precious Blood. You enter that Temple via Holy Baptism, and you abide in that Temple, before the throne of God both day and night, within the fellowship of His Church on earth.
For the same eternal Liturgy of your merciful and great High Priest, by which He serves all His saints in His Kingdom, He also administers here for you at His Altar.
His heart’s desire is to gather you here to Himself; to enfold you in His embrace; to shelter you under His wings; to surround you round about; and to fill you with Himself and with His Holy Spirit, with His own flesh and blood, with His forgiveness of all your sins, with His grace, mercy and peace, and with all the power and glory and blessing of His indestructible life.
Would you be gathered to Him, and would you behold Him at the right hand of the Father, where He ever lives to intercede for you in love? Surely He has opened heaven to you, but do not gaze up into the sky to see it or find it. Rather, open your ears to hear His Gospel, and open your mouth to be fed from His hand.
What you behold with your mortal eyes are mortal men, an altar of wood, vessels of metal, and mere bread and wine, all within an earthly house constructed by human hands. But these ordinary earthly things are clothed with a hidden majesty by the Word of the Lord, who speaks, and it is so.
Mortal men are filled with the Spirit of God, with the power and wisdom of Christ, by their call and ordination to His Office of the Holy Ministry. For His Word and promise attend that Office.
The wood of this Altar, like that of the manger and of the Cross, bears the very Body of the Son of God. And at His Word, the chalice becomes the New Testament in His Blood.
This man-made building, likewise, sanctified by the Word of God and prayer — though it could not contain the One who holds the heavens and the earth in the palm of His hand — yet, it is His House, His Holy Place, His Temple on earth as it is in heaven. Not only that, but He who upholds all things gives Himself into your hands, upon your lips, and into your body, so that you also are a Temple of God. As you live in Christ, so does He live and abide in you, in your body and soul.
He was and is St. Stephen’s righteousness and holiness, his bold courage, strength and confidence, his faithfulness in life and death, and his Resurrection and Ascension to the bosom of the Father, the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens.
Dear Christian, the same Lord Jesus Christ is all of that for you, as well, both now and forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.