Readings: Psalms 116; 149, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8
In Western Christian tradition, the day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s day. Stephen was the first deacon of the church, as well as its first martyr. False charges of blasphemy led to his death by stoning. Stephen’s story seems like an abrupt shift in tone from the Christmas story, but is it really?
The story of Christ’s birth has been sentimentalized and sanitized through centuries of carols, Christmas pageants, and whitewashed nativity scenes. Familiar and comforting now, the story was originally a radical one with unlikely characters and their equally unlikely circumstances. Christ’s birth heralded the beginning of a religious and political revolution, achieved through his own death.
When Stephen was appointed deacon, it was a risky endeavor. The Roman empire did not grant Christians the same religious latitudes as it did Jews. Like Christ, Stephen was falsely accused and was condemned by Jews rather than Romans. And like Christ, he asked for God’s mercy on his executioners.
We Western Christians can barely conceive the fear of being executed for our faith. Our squabbles with our culture occur because we fear losing our monopoly on power, not because we are being crushed by occupying forces. After Stephen’s execution the remaining apostles, though they were scattered and their homes were being ransacked, continued spreading the gospel. We boycott businesses that don’t meet our agenda and slap Jesus fish on our bumpers (without fear of persecution) and think we’ve served the Gospel.
We should give thanks we can freely exercise our faith, rather than exploit perceived slights to support our persecution narrative. In countries where Christianity dominates, the group we should be most critical of is ourselves. Christ, Paul, and the apostles preached to a church in danger of being wiped out before it began. Now we are more likely to do the stoning than to be stoned.
A strong faith understands the gospel is something to be proclaimed rather than something to be defended. Even when we are persecuted, we are victors not victims. The path we begin following at Christmas does not end with us assuming power, but confronting it.
Comfort: You are responsible for sharing the Gospel, but not for enforcing it.
Challenge: Pray for those who persecute you … but first be sure you’ve accurately identified them as persecutors.
Prayer: Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word. (Psalm 119:17)
Discussion: Have you ever played the victim, only to realize later you were not?
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