An amazing aspect of the Spirit's leading of the church is evidenced in the fact that the day after the celebration of Jesus' birth the church celebrates and remembers the death of the first martyr, St. Stephen. He is universally recognized as such by all sectors of the church. In early Christian practice this day began a series of daily remembrances of the various martyrs of the faith. The purpose of this has been to "insure that a sharp edge always remains on what it means to be a witness for Christ. Stephen shows that Jesus' command at Acts 1:8 (You will be my witnesses) might mean direct conformity to Christ in death. To witness to Christ might mean to die as a sacrifice to powers who try to squelch prophetic voices" (Lester Ruth in For All the Saints, 34).
The story of Stephen is a powerful one. In Acts 6 Stephen is one of the seven chosen to serve as deacons, so that the apostles' could give themselves to the preach and teaching of the word. Very quickly Stephen is arrested for the "great wonders and signs" he did among the people. He challenges the religious leaders of the day by showing how the story of God pointed to Jesus. By the time he gets to the end of his great speech before the Jewish council they become enraged at him. Perhaps it has something to do with the audacious and bold way in which he concludes his speech: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed this who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it" (Acts 7:51-53, NRSV).
And so, our brother, Stephen, is stoned to death. He experiences a brutal end to a remarkable life, and in doing so he bears witness to what then became an ordinary aspect of Christian living in those early days: martyrdom. It was not as if Christians were running out into the streets asking to be killed. Rather, their loyalty to Christ meant no loyalty to the emperor. Their fidelity to Jesus meant a rejection of demands that would diminish the place of Jesus. Some of these early disciples were stoned to death, beaten, tortured, burned to death, and even crucified. Their deaths were supreme acts of terrorism, which were meant to remind those still alive that this would be your end if you chose to hold to Jesus.
Today, we remember that fear need not be an impediment to genuine faith in Christ. Stephen may have been our first martyr, but so many others have followed suit. In fact, one writer says about martyrdom: "The martyr is the conduit of divine presence who vindicates the claim to another citizenship" (Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past?, 39). Our loyalties are always with the kingdom and never with the kingdoms of this world. Our hope is always in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and never with the torturers and the power of the state. Our life is always in the hands of the Creator of the stars of night, and never with those who demand taxes, conformity to their laws, or unquestioned allegiance to anything they do.
Following Jesus is love life so much that we are willing to give it away. The marks of discipleship are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So, what will you give your life to this day, the second day of Christmas? May our prayer today be: "Mighty God, who gave your servant Stephen boldness to confess the name of our Savior Jesus Christ and courage to die for his faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen."