Monday, December 27, 2010
Sermon: - Acts 6:8 - 7:2a, 51-60
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
Feast of St. Stephen
December 26th, 2010
“In His Footsteps”
The Christian Church today marks a special remembrance for the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Chosen as one of the 7 deacons to assist the 12 apostles in distributing food to the needy, we read how Stephen's bold proclamation of Christ leads to his untimely demise at the hands of angry Jewish opponents. After holding their ears and shouting so as not to hear his message, they stone him to death.
Perhaps because St. Stephen was a martyr whose main service was to help the poor – we have a more recent story about a Christian ruler around 900 A.D., King Wenceslas – who is also remembered for helping the poor. The Christmas hymn in his honor (from the late 1800s) begins:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
I won't sing the whole thing... but the hymn goes on to tell of a supposed miracle involving the king, when he went walking through the snow on his way to help a poor peasant. The king's servant found warmth as he followed the king through the snow. The legend tells that the king's footprints radiated heat and kept his servant warm in the bitter cold.
Tradition then tells us that Wenceslas was murdered by his brother, partly because Wenceslas was a proponent of Christianity, and did things like defending priests from persecution. So perhaps, one could say, by helping the poor and dying for his faith, King Wenceslas followed in St. Stephen's footsteps.
Stephen, for his part, is regarded as the first Christian martyr. His symbol – the one printed in our bulletin – includes three stones and a palm branch. Of course, because he was stoned to death, and a palm branch reminding us of how the martyrs are pictured in Revelation – waving palm branches – a symbol of victory even though their blood was shed.
Some might say that we too, should follow in the footsteps of Stephen and Wenceslas, and of course, of Jesus. That the lesson here is for us to feed the poor, do good for the kingdom, proclaim God's word, whatever – to follow in their footsteps. To learn from their example. And while certainly these are good things to do, there's a bit of a problem.
We're not so good at following in those kinds of footsteps. In fact, we more often fall on our faces. Rather than boldly proclaiming God's word, we more often find our foot in our mouth. Think about it.
You feel good about yourself because you made a point of saying Merry Christmas to a store cashier. But then you go home and gossip about your friend. You put a dollar in the red pot with the bell-ringer, but you speak unkindly and think in anger toward your own family. You may blame it on stress, or a long to-do list with little time to do it, but the real problem is that all of us are tripped up by our own sins. And rather than fancy ourselves graceful footstep followers, we should be honest about our clumsy and wandering ways.
What a wonder that Christ walks in OUR footsteps. His walk is graceful, and it is full of grace for us. He becomes a human, takes on human flesh, body, eyes, ears, hands, feet. He walks a perfect walk of the law, something we could never do. And he walks the way of the cross – a path to face God's wrath, so we don't have to. Whatever we do for him, imperfect as it may be, is only because of what he has done for us.
Stephen did follow in the footsteps of Christ, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if we do anything well or good, it is to God's credit and not to ours.
First of all, take Stephen's bold proclamation. No fear stood in the way of his witness. He plainly laid out his proclamation, no matter the consequences. And consequences there were. He followed Christ in this way – who paid the consequences for speaking truth to those same powerful men. Like Christ, Stephen commended his spirit to God, even with his dying breath – and so may we follow in those footsteps in our last hour.
But best of all for Stephen, he trusted in Christ. And here is the best example to follow. That even in the face of death at the hands of evil men, we belong to Christ. That nothing, not even death, can separate us from Christ's love. That our sins are forgiven. Our filthy feet, our guilty hands, indeed our whole body is washed in baptismal water and divine blood
For Stephen's prayer, following in the footsteps of Christ, is answered. “Do not hold this sin against them”. Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them.” Jesus makes that prayer a reality.
So it is for us. Forgive us our trespasses, Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us. May we follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ. Forgive as we have been forgiven. Love as we have been loved. Give as we have received. And even carry our own crosses.
Following in his footsteps isn't always easy or without pain. Stephen and so many other martyrs found this out the hardest way. But Christ and his cross make even this suffering worthwhile. For we know where the path leads. Our forerunner went from cross to tomb to life again. And so shall we – from this world of sorrows, to a blessed death, commending ourselves to his care, to a resurrection in glory and life eternal with him.