Poor St Stephen, not only the first martyr to Christ but also the first martyr to Christmas, his feast day lost as most clergy enjoy their first decent day off for ages and even the most avid churchgoer feels sated after Carols, Christingle, Crib Service, Midnight Mass and Christmas morning Eucharist.
Even in the bible he appears only briefly on the scene; ordained deacon by the apostles in Acts 6, he is dead by the end of Acts 7 after one recorded sermon. Accorded the position of patron saint of deacons during the early centuries he finds his own transient ministry echoed in the way that for much of that time (and still largely today) the Western church has seen the role of deacon as a one year preparation for priesthood.
Yet for one brief moment it is Stephen rather than one of the twelve who is at the centre of the story. And in that moment he does two remarkable things.
Accused of speaking against Moses and the temple, Stephen draws a clear distinction between the two. Moses is a man in relationship with God, the temple a much later addition. The latter cannot hold God but the former may hold on to him, even when rejected by his own people. The fulfilment of what Moses proclaimed is not a building, or any other human construct, but a man, Jesus. Stephen has broken the link between Israel’s faith and its institutions.
Meanwhile somewhere at the back of the crowd stands another man, young Saul from Tarsus. Driven by Stephen’s words to attack the new Christian communities, he will find that his efforts to bolster his religious orthodoxy through ever greater degrees of aggression have backfired. Stephen has planted a seed in his heart that will not lie dormant. Saul will need to reassess what his faith is about, and he like Stephen will discover it centres purely on relationship with God. This is the context we need to set Saul in, lest his need later to speak so much on matters of practical church organisation lead us to think that is what he thought really mattered.
Holy Stephen, first of Christ’s martyrs, remember us, and redirect our thought and hearts, when we, like the Jewish council and like Saul, are tempted to place our institutions and their wellbeing ahead of relationship with God.