Saturday, December 26, 2009

Prayers for today: The gates of heaven opened for Stephen, the first of the martyrs; in heaven he wears the crown of victory.

Lord, today we celebrate the entrance of St Stephen into eternal glory. He died praying for those who killed him. Help us to imitate his goodness and to love our enemies. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, …

December 26, Saint Stephen, first martyr (d. 36 A.D.?)

All we know of Stephen is found in Acts of the Apostles, chapters six and seven. It is enough to tell us what kind of man he was: At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenist (Greek-speaking) Christians complained about the Hebrew-speaking Christians, saying that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit.... (Acts 6:1-5) Acts says that Stephen was a man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders among the people. Certain Jews, members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen, debated with Stephen but proved no match for the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke. They persuaded others to make the charge of blasphemy against him. He was seized and carried before the Sanhedrin. In his speech, Stephen recalled God’s guidance through Israel’s history, as well as Israel’s idolatry and disobedience. He then claimed that his persecutors were showing this same spirit. “You always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors” (Acts 7:51b). His speech brought anger from the crowd. “But [Stephen], filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God....’ They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him....As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit....Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:55-56, 58a, 59, 60b).

Stephen died as Jesus did: falsely accused, brought to unjust condemnation because he spoke the truth fearlessly. He died with his eyes trustfully fixed on God, and with a prayer of forgiveness on his lips. A “happy” death is one that finds us in the same spirit, whether our dying is as quiet as Joseph’s or as violent as Stephen’s: dying with courage, total trust and forgiving love.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (10:17-22)

Jesus said, Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:17-22)

Nature and Grace The Gift of Christ is the Holy Spirit. On rising from the dead, the first thing he did upon meeting his gathered Apostles was to bestow upon them his Gift, the Holy Spirit. He breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit. With that, he entrusted them with a share in his mission: as the Father has sent me, so am I sending you (John 20:21). Ten days after his Ascension to the right hand of the Father, he and the Father sent the Holy Spirit to the infant Church. With that, the Church was born and launched in its mission. And so it is that the Scriptures clearly show that it is God who grants the increase. Now, there are those who, looking to God alone for the power to do any good that bears on salvation, stress the profound and hopeless depravity of fallen man. However, in this stress on the Fall of man they regard nature — natural capacities and the natural means of doing good — to be of relatively little value. They view grace to be everything, and nature to be in effect nothing. For the daily Christian life they place little emphasis on a judicious use of all natural means to attain godly goals. All the emphasis is on faith in God’s grace, together with a neglect of and suspicion against working hard at all the human and natural means. Now, this is an important issue because if God means us to rely on him alone in such a way that nature is eclipsed in the process, then to be calculatingly shrewd in one’s use of natural means must interfere in his work. But if God means us to rely on him while giving full weight to natural means, then failing to give this weight will in its turn cripple the work of God. In our Gospel today our Lord warns his disciples that they will be harassed and persecuted. “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:17-22). The impression one might gain from this is that our Lord is inviting his disciples not to give thought, or to give little thought “about what to say or how to say it”, because the “Spirit of your Father” will be speaking through you. But our Lord does not say that.

Elsewhere in the Gospel, our Lord tells the parable of the sower going out to sow the seed. The sower is the Son of Man — himself — and he is sowing the word of God. The emphasis of the parable is not on the quality of the seed, but on the soil that receives it. In a sense it is the soil that makes all the difference to the degree of fruitfulness the seed will have. The fruit comes from the seed, but the degree of fruitfulness of the seed depends on the quality of the soil that receives it. In some instances — and the parable might be read as implying in most instances — the fruitfulness is extremely meagre, if not lacking altogether. After all, most of the instances mentioned in the parable — the path, the thorns, the rocky ground — are inimical to the seed. It is only the last, the good soil, which bears fruit. Some of the good soil bears thirty, some sixty, some one hundred fold. It is clear from the parable, that Christ means us to appreciate that the concrete steps we take to understand, accept and bear witness to the word are of critical importance in the work of redemption. That is to say, it is a serious and even tragic simplification simply to depend entirely on the power of God if this is understood as neglecting the concrete and human steps we ought take to make it effective. Depending entirely on the help of God does not mean neglecting to work hard at the human factors in the process. It does not mean acting as if God is to do everything. It means depending on God as the One who brings forth the fruit, while acting as if he depends on us to work to make this possible. While praying for a psychological healing, the patient also goes to a good psychiatrist. We are not alone in our efforts. We have God to grant the increase. But neither is God alone. He has us, and we are his instruments in the work he has given us to do. So then, when difficulties come in doing the work with which he has entrusted us, we must not worry as if all is dependent on ourselves alone. No, do not worry because the Spirit of God will be with us. But we must indeed give much thought to “what to say” and how to say it. We must strive to be good soil for the Farmer, soil he can use to bring forth the fruit that will be his alone.

Let us begin every day by asking God to bless and give fruitfulness to our efforts to bear witness to him in our daily work, knowing that all the fruit of it will come from him who is working and speaking in us. We are branches of the vine and the vine is Christ, with the Father the vinedresser. We are members of the body which is the Church, and the head is Christ. We depend totally on Christ to do the work in life which he has, by our vocation and circumstances, given us. Yet he is dependent on us for he has endowed us with freedom and the capacity to take our stand with him or otherwise. Nature depends on grace, but grace builds on, and in, and through nature, sanctifying it and transforming it into the likeness of God.

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