26 Dec – Feast of Saint Stephen, the first Martyr
First Christian martyr. Deacon. Preacher. All we know of him is related in the Acts of the Apostles. While preaching the Gospel in the streets, angry Jews who believed his message to be blasphemy dragged him outside the city, and stoned him to death. In the crowd, on the side of the mob, was a man who would later be known as Saint Paul the Apostle.
– The Patron Saint Index
Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people. But then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, some from Cyrene and Alexandria who were members of the synagogue called the Synagogue of Freedmen, and others from Cilicia and Asia. They found they could not get the better of him because of his wisdom, and because it was the Spirit that prompted what he said. They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him.
But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘I can see heaven thrown open’ he said ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they all rushed at him, sent him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of men: they will hand you over to sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the pagans. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.
‘Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name; but the man who stands firm to the end will be saved.’
At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands
Some years ago, I was introduced to this concept called Stages of Faith by Professor James Fowler. Briefly, a person’s faith in any religion can be broken down into 6 stages: 1. Religion is known through images and experience; 2. Metaphors in religion are taken literally; 3. Conformity to religious authority; 4. Awareness of conflict within one’s faith; 5. Acceptance of paradoxes within one’s faith; 6. Universal faith to treat each person with compassion.
I don’t know what stage Stephen is, but clearly to me his detractors were in stage 3. People at this stage can be quite proud of their knowledge of their religion. They would typically step forward to debate with others in their knowledge of the religion, often hoping to show others “the error of their ways” and convert them to their religion as we see in those who stepped forward to debate with Stephen. When stumped they would also get angry and refuse to listen further, simply because they’re not open to having their understanding of their faith changed. To admit that they were wrong is often to admit that their religion is wrong, which is something that they cannot as yet accept. And it’s important to know that’s okay, as we see Stephen ask God not to hold their sin against them.
This is a stage of faith that we must all go through if we are to develop further. We see that Saul also went through this stage as he approved of Stephen’s killing. If we do develop further into our faith, we will move into Stage 4, which is where we start to question our faith, with all its contradictions, paradoxes and beliefs. You see that whole paragraph in the gospel reading? That’s where we start to question those things that we once found no problem believing in. It is at this stage where many lose their faith, but if we somehow press on, which eventually come to stage 5 where we accept that there will continue to be paradoxes and that the truth is somehow more complex than any one statement can express.
The culmination of the faith development process is Stage 6, where Jesus is. In the last paragraph of the gospel reading, that’s what Stage 6 is, where we are compassionate, where we do not judge others, do not condemn others, and love one another. This sixth stage is where all religions meet – that is why we revere saintly men and women from any religion. We can see something in these people that our own religion teaches us, regardless of what religion they profess.
Some people may never progress beyond the initial stages, and that’s okay too. Some of us who enter stage 4, which I think is the most trying stage, and because it shakes the foundation of our belief so much, we regress back into the comfort zone of stage 3. That’s okay too, because each person’s faith journey is different and unique. It is a journey that only you will walk with God. It is your journey, and no one else should judge you on yours, nor should you judge another person’s journey. In the end, we pray in hope that we will all meet again in heaven.
(Today’s OXYGEN by Daniel Tay)
Prayer: We pray for all religious people involved in conflict with other religious people, may we remember that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, peace and joy.
Thanksgiving: We give thanks to the Lord who walks with us on our journey towards Him.