"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.
Shout joyfully to God, all the earth,
sing praise to the glory of his name;
proclaim his glorious praise.
Say to God, How tremendous are your deeds! (R./)
He has changed the sea into dry land;
through the river they passed on foot;
therefore let us rejoice in him.
He rules by his might forever. (R./)
So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
In Acts, Luke compares Stephen's martyrdom to Jesus' death on the cross. Each of them, accused of blasphemy, is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. Each sees a vision of someone coming on the clouds, at the right hand of God. Each asks God to receive the spirit and each prays for the forgiveness of the executioners (See Luke 22-23). Stephen becomes the proto-martyr of Christianity. Yet paradoxically, when one's death is modeled on that of Jesus, such a death turns into a moment of triumph and glory! The final moments of Stephen seemed anything but glorious and joyful, at the time. A pall of sorrow must have descended upon the small Christian community. Luke even adds how that day saw the beginning of a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem. All except the apostles scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Soon afterwards, Saul began to harass the church.
Even one as well meaning as Saul of Tarsus approved of stoning one who was promoting heresy. But Stephen himself accepted his fate peacefully, "filled with the Holy Spirit." Even when dragged outside the city amid a vortex of hatred, Stephen did not answer anger with anger, nor frustration with rage. He rose above the unbelief and violence by the strength he drew from the risen Lord. Self-possessed, he reasoned with his judges in the court of the Sanhedrin. He recognized God's providence and design where others were caught in anger, frustration and violence. Stephen stayed in possession of himself because he had surrendered that self to the Lord Jesus.
In Acts we read about the execution of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. Luke, who wrote this account, describes Stephen's death in a very similar way to how he had described the death of Jesus in his first volume, the gospel. Just as Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," so Stephen prays, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Just as Jesus said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," so Stephen prays to the risen Lord, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." It is as if Luke is saying that the fundamental attitudes of Jesus are to be reproduced in that of his followers. The risen Lord seeks to continue living in and through his followers, and that includes us all. Because the Lord wants to live out his life in us, he invites us to come to him as our bread of life, in the words of this morning's gospel, "I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry." Our coming to the Lord in faith, and our receiving nourishment from him, creates an opening for him to live out his life in us, so that, in some way, we can continue to give flesh to his fundamental outlook and attitudes.