8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together[a] at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Today is the Feast of St. Stephen. It may seem strange to celebrate the martyrdom of Stephen the day after Christmas. What does a brutal death by stoning have to do with the little child of Bethlehem? Where is the Christmas spirit? It’s the second day of Christmas, still a time of rejoicing, a time of feasting, a time to praise God for sending His Son into human flesh, to think of this great and beautiful mystery, that our God lived for us even as a baby. But it’s obvious to Christian faith that it’s singularly appropriate to celebrate the martyrdom of Stephen today. God opened heaven to give us His Son, and we see in Stephen that heaven remained open. God descends down from heaven to earth so that Stephen’s spirit can ascend from earth into heaven. Here’s the great and happy exchange of Christmas: God is made a weak little baby, humbled in poverty and laid in a manger. God lays aside His glory and leaves His throne in heaven to share our human woe and bear our sin and pain on this earth. And in exchange we sinners receive His righteousness, we sons of Adam receive the status of sons of God, we mortals receive immortality, and heaven becomes our home. Stephen saw heaven opened and the Son of Man standing up to welcome him into divine joy forever and ever. And what Stephen saw we all see by faith in the Son of God, who first showed His face on Christmas Day as poor shepherds saw heaven’s glory open round about them with angels singing peace from God.
And it’s not as if Christ’s life as a little baby was so pristine and cozy as we often make it look. You just heard Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword will pierce through her soul also. That’s Simeon telling Mary, as she holds her precious little baby in her arms, that this baby will be persecuted and is destined also for sorrow and death. And some months after Jesus’ birth, Herod sends to kill the little child. And this all preaches the fact that the peace on earth that Jesus brings is not some political or financial or economic peace. It’s peace with God. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” that’s what we sing, that’s what the angels sang.
And Stephen, Stephen had this peace. Obviously he didn’t have worldly peace – we just heard how he died a violent death. But he had the peace the angels sang that first Christmas night. And it’s a peace that nothing can take away, no violence, no pain, not even death itself, so long as we have Jesus. Because Jesus is God-with-us, He is peace with God, God smiling on us and welcoming us into eternal glory, no matter how the world rage around us. Simeon sings of this peace in his nunc dimittis, which we sing every Lord’s Day after we receive our Lord’s body and blood. This is his “I’m ready to die” song, a song so joyful that we’ve sung it for hundreds of years after the single most joyous occasion in all the world – that God opens heaven once again and gives us His own Son in the body and blood of our Lord. But it is an “I’m ready to die song,” because if we have Jesus, death itself becomes vapor. Simeon held Life, eternal Life, in his hands. We have this same Life, the life of God, put into our mouths. What can death do to us? How can it even depress us? Our Lord broke through it, conquered it, and now it’s transitory, now God uses it like every other evil thing, uses it for our good, to bring us to Him cleansed of all sin and pain and corruption forever and ever.
So Stephen, who gives a speech before the Sanhedrin, which has the authority to put him to death by stoning, and Stephen knows it, Stephen doesn’t even think about compromising, about denying Jesus, about saving his life for this world. He knows what Jesus meant when he said, “He who saves his life will lose it. And he who loses his life for my sake will gain it for everlasting life.” Stephen has the life of Jesus already, an eternal life that the Sanhedrin and all the devils in all the world can’t take from him. He’s got a peace that the world cannot give. And his very face shows it. It looked like the face of an angel. There are two things the face of an angel must show. The first is absolute conviction of the truth. Jesus describes the angels as those who are constantly looking at the face of His Father in heaven. They are constantly looking at pure goodness and pure love and pure joy and truth itself. They have no doubts, no fears, no question about God’s love, about God’s power, about His control. They see it. And so their face is one of total resolve, total commitment. And that is what Stephen had, because he had the truth of the Bible on his side, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, the truth of the forgiveness of his sins through Jesus’ blood, the truth that had been placed into his mouth countless times and prepared him for everlasting glory. And so his face was like an angel’s face. And the face of an angel is also the face of peace. The Christmas angels sang peace on Christmas. Because they see in the Father’s face His love toward His Son, who has now become a baby, joined the human race, and in that baby they see God’s goodwill, His love for poor sinners and the end of hostility, peace brought and bought by God Himself. And as Jesus says to Thomas, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” He who sees Jesus sees the face of the Father, sees what the angels see, that he really has done this for you, He has so loved you, God is now you Brother. And so the face of Stephen was a face of peace, even in the face of death.
Who was this Stephen? He was a Christian, one of the many Greek-speaking Jews who came to faith in Christ, either during Jesus’ own lifetime or shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. His name is as Greek as it gets – Stephanos, which means Crown. He was one of seven men who were assigned to make sure that the Greek-speaking Jewish widows got their fair share of the food the Church was handing out to Christians in need. Back then, if a wife lost her husband and her own children couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of her, the church would step in. Not the government, by the way, the church. And that’s still the church’s job today. We care for our own. If our members are in need and their family either won’t or can’t help them out, then we step in and take care of them, because we’re a family, children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, closer than blood relatives because we are bound together by Christ’s blood. And all of our confession of the faith is useless, empty words, hypocrisy, if we don’t love one another. As St. John says, “My little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” So Stephen’s job was to take care of this distribution to widows. Part of the reason we observe days of saints is so that we can learn from them how to behave like Christians. And Stephen shows us at least this, that Christians shine with Christ’s love, and so care for His people. This is Jesus final commandment to His disciples, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
But Stephen teaches us much more. Because his love extends not just to the bodily needs of his own people, but to the eternal and spiritual needs of even his enemies. His is not the love, say of the Salvation Army, which will broadcast all it does for people’s bodies with shelters and programs and so forth, but then openly promotes Marxism and transgenderism and homosexuality and refuses to help people out of their spiritual slavery. That kind of love is no love at all in the end. No, Stephen loves and takes care of people’s bodies because he loves them whole, body and soul, because Jesus loves us whole, body and soul. Poverty and homelessness Jesus knows, experienced them himself, and he tells His church to help those in bodily need, but Jesus knows far more. He knows the sins that separate us from God, because He has borne them Himself. Jesus helped the body of the adulterous woman by keeping the stones from falling on her, and then he cared for her soul by forgiving her and then saying, “Go and sin no more.” So Stephen cares both for doctrine and for life. For what saves us from sin and for what makes for the good life on this earth. Because in the end they’re the same. There is one Jesus. He’s not divided. And His love, Christian love, is a love for body and soul, life and faith.
Stephen spent his time at a synagogue, one that Greek-speaking Jews would go to, because the services were in Greek, and Stephen would argue with his fellow Jews about the Bible. He was convinced, probably because he had seen Jesus risen from the dead with his own eyes, but most definitely because the apostles and hundreds of others had seen Jesus dead and risen from the dead, and so he was convinced that Jesus was the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Born in Bethlehem, born of a virgin, of the line of Judah, the suffering servant who laid down His life for the sins of the people, the Holy One whom God did not allow to see corruption in the grave. And this meant that all the sacrifices of the Temple pointed to him. And it meant that Jesus was the true temple, the true access to God, the true door to everlasting life, the true sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. And that meant people would no longer need to come to Jerusalem to worship God, but as Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. But the hour is coming and now is here when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” So that now in Casper, WY, the Father is present with us and names us His children, coheirs with Christ, through Baptism and gives us His Holy Spirit. And we rely on nothing else – no ceremonies, no works of our own, no cutting away of our flesh, nothing, but Jesus, who is present with us always to the end of the age with all that He lived and died to win for us, in His word and sacrament.
That’s what Stephen preached and for this they killed him. But he died in peace. He had what no one could take away. What a wonderful story. It’s not a sad story at all. Stephen wasn’t sad. No, this is a Christmas story. Stephen saw heaven opened, because Jesus opened it on Christmas. Stephen saw the Son of Man standing in heaven, the Son still a man, a man forever, God united with man in one Person, reigning in heaven, so that man now belongs in heaven, belongs with God, that’s what Stephen saw, just as the shepherds saw heaven opened and God in human flesh on Christmas Day. Stephen committed His spirit to Jesus just as Simeon did when Jesus was still a baby. And Stephen didn’t die in despair or in hatred, didn’t die cursing his enemies. He died blessing them, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” he said, give them the joy you have given me, the joy of believing and knowing the truth they now rage against. Because Stephen knew this was happiness, that he was the happy one, he who was being stoned, whom powerful people hated, who was soon to die, he was the happy one, not those exerting their power and their will, not those who would survive him, but he for whom Jesus had died and lives and for whom Jesus now opened heaven and eternal bliss forever. And God answered Stephen’s prayer. He gave the joy of knowing Jesus to Saul, who stood by and approved of Stephen’s execution, but would later confess that he considered all things, all riches, all his own righteousness, all his own reputation, all things as dung in comparison with having Christ Jesus.
And this is the peace and conviction of Christmas. You don’t need anything else. You have Jesus. God has become a man. He is your Brother. He’s opened heaven to you. Your Creator is at peace with you. Only stand on his Word without compromise like Stephen and God will give the increase, both in this life and in the life to come. All worldly pomp begone, to heaven I now press on, for all the world I would not stay, my walk is heavenward all the way. Amen.