In a couple of weeks I’ll be marking my six-year anniversary here in Bordentown; six of the best years of my life. I arrived here straight out of seminary and about a week after pulling up with all my worldly possessions stuffed into my old Volvo station wagon, I was ordained a deacon. For six months, if you remember, I was Deacon Matt; Benjamin Paixio still calls me that, and I like that, because even when I was ordained a priest, I didn’t lose my diaconal ordination – I’m still a deacon, with all that comes with it. We heard quite a story about deacons today in our lesson from Acts.
His name, a play on the Greek for crown (stephanos), was Stephen. Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that “The early Christian congregations, like the Jewish synagogues, had a program of assistance for needy widows, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews (who were sometimes considered less than full-on, non-diaspora, Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jews) in the Jerusalem congregation complained that their widows were being neglected.” They took their concern to the Apostles, and the “apostles replied: “We cannot both preach and administer financial matters. Choose seven men from among yourselves, respected, Spirit-filled, and of sound judgment, and let them be in charge of the accounts, and we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” The people accordingly chose seven men, including Stephen, and the apostles laid their hands on them.”1 And so the Church ordained her first deacons.
Of the seven, Stephen was the most well known. He bordered on infamy, actually, because of his fiery tongue, and some scholars speculate that the Church picked Stephen to be a deacon so that he would talk less and administer more.2 But St. Luke tells us that Stephen was full of grace, full of power, and full of the Holy Spirit; and as we all know, the Spirit has a tendency to not shut up, even when you want him to. So Stephen, presumably taking a break from serving the widow and the fatherless, opened again his mouth.
Fifty verses. Fifty verses out of sixty of the seventh chapter of the book of the Acts is just Stephen talking. He talked about the history of his people, the Temple sacrifices and the efficacy thereof, he talked about the rejection of their Savior; he talked about how Jesus died for our sins, and then he died for it.
And so today we have St. Stephen, Deacon and Proto-Martyr, the first to die for the Name of Jesus. Stephen ended up a martyred, killed for the faith he proclaimed in Jesus, a faith so strong that he actually forgave his killers before He died.
We’ve hit on this before, but the word martyr comes from the Greek martys, means witness. Stephen, being the proto-martyr, gives us an idea of what martyrdom, being a witness for Jesus, looks like. One, martyrs don’t keep their faith private; you can’t witness to something without somehow expressing that witness. Second, martyrs don’t mind making the conversation personal; witnessing to the power of Jesus is often a you and me type thing, personal and interpersonal. Third, martyrs are willing to give up everything for the sake of Jesus, because having a savior like Jesus is just worth more than having anything else. A witness like that can be a dangerous witness; Stephen died for being such a witness.
St. Stephen, deacon and martyr; he lived a life of service, of evangelism, of bearing witness to Christ in deed and in word. The scary and wonderful thing is that we too are called to this life; we won’t all be deacons, but we can all serve the Lord and each other, serving especially the most vulnerable around and among us. We won’t all be called to full martyrdom, to die for the faith, but we are all to be witnesses, to tell each other and the world what Christ has done for us and through us, so that the love and grace and power we have found in Jesus might be had by all people. St. Stephen pray for us, that following in your footsteps, we might be worthy of the promises of Christ.