CHOSEN AS A DEACON
St Stephen was the first martyr and his story is told in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles. Nothing is known of his early life but he is first mentioned in Acts 6:5 where he is called “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. Earlier it describes how after Pentecost the Christian community had grown around the disciples and everyone lived and prayed together and shared their possessions. But as the community grew the Apostles found that they were spending all their time looking after the administration of the community and could not find time to pray or evangelise. They decided to select seven men who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” for the task of organising the believers and ensuring that everyone was fairly treated. These were the first deacons and Stephen was one of the seven chosen.
MIRACLE WORKER AND PREACHER
Stephen “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people,” (Acts 6:8) and he was obviously a very good speaker as when some Jews started to argue with him, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” (Acts 6:10) Many of the Jews were opposed to the new religion of the Apostles. They rejected Jesus as their promised Messiah and wanted to stop anyone from spreading the message. Stephen’s preaching was very effective so they stirred up the people against him and twisted his words so that they appeared to threaten the Jewish religion. Stephen was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (the Council of Jewish leaders who had previously tried Jesus) for trial. and led the tribe of Israel from the time of Abraham to the time of Moses and beyond. He describes how time and time again, God had done wonderful things for his people but they kept turning their backs on him and ignoring the prophets. He calls them ‘stiffnecked people’ who were just like their forefathers resisting the Holy Spirit. He says that just as the Jews murdered the prophets, those people who had predicted the birth of the Messiah, this generation has now killed the Holy One of God who was sent to redeem them.
STONED TO DEATH
The Sanhedrin were furious with Stephen for saying such things and this was made worse when Stephen was reported as looking up to heaven and saying, ”Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55) This was the last straw for the Sanhedrin and Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. At the very end just before he died Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and forgave his killers.
A MODEL OF HOLINESS
St Stephen is a model of holiness and courage, he faced opposition and stood firm. As a deacon he had the opportunity to serve his local Christian community and to evangelise. He helps us to remember that we should stand firm and be courageous because God is with us and will give us courage and the words that we need when our faith is challenged.
St Stephen is the Patron Saint of deacons, headaches, horses, coffin makers, and masons. His feast day is on 26th December.