Every year it strikes me, as if for the first time. On December 25 we celebrate the wondrous story of the birth of Jesus. We meditate on the coming of the Prince of Peace. We gaze adoringly at the crèche, at the Holy Family – the love between Mary and Joseph and their beloved child.
But the very next day, on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day, the peace and joy are shattered by this horrific story of the stoning to death of Stephen. The juxtaposition is jarring, but it is right. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is born into a world of beauty and goodness, but also of ugliness and evil and violence.
And today, having just celebrated Easter, with this church still full of Easter flowers, Easter hymns and Alleluias, we hear again the horrific story of the stoning of Stephen. The juxtaposition is jarring, but it is right. For the Risen Lord Jesus still bears the marks of his crucifixion on his broken hands and feet. The Risen Lord speaks words of hope and life to a world which is still broken by evil and violence. We know this is true.
Yet, however much we may know it to be true in our heads, our hearts reel and shudder at the terrible events which took place yesterday at the Boston Marathon – a day of such good will, with runners and families from all around the world, and an event which this year was run in memory of the children who were killed in the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook – a beautiful day shattered by cruel violence.
In our worship today, we will pray for those who lost their lives, and those who were severely injured, and for those caring for them and healing them in the hospitals here in Boston. We pray for them and commend them to God’s love and mercy.
We live in a world which is broken and violent, and yet we are here today to affirm our Easter Faith, that the persons with the gun, the bomb, with violence in their hearts, do not have the final word. We affirm with St. John, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.(Jn 1:5) Our Easter proclamation, our Alleluia, is that Christ has overcome the power of darkness and of death and is risen and alive, and that life will always have the last word.
The story of the martyrdom of Stephen has always moved me. I think it’s the juxtaposition again of Stephen’s beautiful innocence and the angry men who tried him. As Stephen spoke it says, “All who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”(Acts 6:15) “But they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” Hurling stones at the face of an angel. Innocence and vicious brutality juxtaposed.
But I don’t believe that was the end for Stephen. The most beautiful image I know of the resurrection is the one which the Orthodox church worships with. The icon of the resurrection is of the risen Lord standing at the entrance of hell, whose gates he as just broken with his cross. Christ is standing, upright and majestic and putting out his hand and grabbing the arms of those below, and hauling them up to life. It is a wonderful image of salvation and one which I prayed with as I read the story of the martyrdom of Stephen.
There is one line in the whole of the story which really stands out for me. And it is this: As Stephen was being dragged out to his death we read, “He was filled with the Holy Spirit and gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Look! He said, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”(Acts 7:54-60)
They are almost the same words that Jesus said before the High Priest. But Jesus, as in the Book of Daniel, and as in our creeds, talks about the Son seated at the right hand of the Father. But Stephen sees Jesus standing – standing upright and majestic, as in the icon of the resurrection. Standing, by his beloved child Stephen, standing to strengthen him, standing and I imagine reaching out his hand to grasp Stephen and draw him up to life. As Stephen dies, he utters those words, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit,” and Jesus reaches down and lifts him up to life, life eternal.
There are few stories so violent and horrific as the story of the stoning of Stephen. And yet in the midst of so much evil and darkness, Stephen’s face shines like an angel as he looks up to his Savior who reaches down and raises him up to light and life.
As we gather together this evening – the body of Christ, in this place, we remember the terrible events of yesterday, and we pray. We pray for those who died, those who are wounded or grieving. We pray for caregivers and responders. We pray for those who are fearful or angry. We hold them all up in our hearts before the Lord – but we also look up, like Stephen – up to the one who promises to reach down and raise each one of us up to light and life.
And it is that life, won for us on the cross, which sustains us, and gives us hope that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Rom 8:38)
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