Stephen's offense? False witnesses claimed that he had said Christ would destroy the temple and change the religious traditions of Moses. And in many ways, they were right. Jesus' Way was a threat to their traditions. He was a threat to empty actions--sacrifices that didn't mean anything, prayers that were hallow, lives that didn't truly desire a relationship with God. Jesus' Way wasn't going to let the poor, the orphans, or the widows go neglected. His Way came to bring justice, peace, righteousness, and love. By all accounts, it was a threat to their traditions (just as it might be to many of our traditions in the church if we were honest).
I spent almost all of Christmas Day in bed sick. I awoke in the morning with a nasty stomach bug. I was able to come downstairs for a few minutes to be with the family while opening presents. I promptly returned to bed. I didn't get to watch the boys play were their new gifts, I didn't get to read the Christmas story, I didn't get to light the 5th candle on our yule log. I slept until after 4 that afternoon. It was by far my worst Christmas ever (and I know several other families were in the same boat--thankfully I was the only person incapacitated in our family).
Thankfully it was over by that evening, though I haven't had much energy today and have had a number of headaches and soreness. It has not been a fun Christmas.
I know for many people Christmas is a dreaded time of year. They feel lonely. They lost a loved one. There are too many painful memories from childhood. Religion left them disillusioned and disenfranchised. For whatever reason it is far from being "the most wonderful time of the year."
I find it interesting that the day after the birth of Jesus we acknowledge the death of the first martyr in the church. There's this tough juxtoposition: a cute baby wrapped in swaddling clothes who came to bring peace on earth, goodwill, and ultimately life, and then there's this righteous man who followed Jesus and was stoned to death because of it.
Faith has a lot of tough components to it. Most of us don't have to face martyrdom, but its reality is present for many throughout history. And I think martyrs have only been able to face death because of the hope they carry with them. If not, faith is worthless. (Well, not worthless. I think most people would agree that the principles Jesus wants us to live by--like loving our neighbors--still have a lot of merit, even if those people don't believe in Jesus.)
Hope says that this life isn't the way it's supposed to be--that we can make it better, but it will only become perfect on the other side of death. In Heaven there will be no sadness, sorrow, death, pain, or sickness. We will be God's and God's alone. We will be able to grow without the shackles of this world. The old world order will be gone, and a new one--a perfect one--will be in place.
I think that's why, as Stephen was facing death, he was able to say:
- “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
- “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
- “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”