[Diocesian Metropolitan of Chengannur-Mavelikara Diocese, Marthoma Church]


'When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.' [Acts 7:54-60]

The era we live is famous for stone throwing. It is now a common scene that our youth students throw stones towards the Police force and Police stone back at the students. Recently The Madras High Court compound turned into a war zone lead by a violent clash between the deployed police force and advocates. Well-educated lawyers began to throw stones at the police demanding the release of one lawyer arrested. The police caught the stones and thrown back to the lawyers. Stones were pelted from all directions. A number of lawyers and a judge were injured. The advocates staged a boycott demanding action against the police for the violence in the High Court premises. The entire High Court campus was under siege for several hours. The court had been officially forced to shut on following the violence.

Few years back I visited Palestine. I was living in a retreat center at a place in between the Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Towards the evening, I went to the terrace to view the surroundings. On one side there lies the peaceful Bethlehem and on other side there lies the glorious Jerusalem. All on a sudden, I heard a huge noise on one side. Some local sporadic clashes broke out in which youths threw stones to the Soldiers and the Soldiers shot back at the youth. Paradoxically these confrontations took place at the holiest and national heritage sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The Palestine area was historically a flashpoint for confrontations. When we look into Old Testament, David, the shepherd boy emerged to the warfront with three stones to throw, but he used only one out of that to strike down the Philistine warrior, Goliath. David strikes Goliath in the head with a stone from his sling, and the Philistine falls on his face to the ground.

Once we come to the New Testament, we see some saintly scribes and Pharisees brought before Jesus Christ, a woman caught in adultery ready to be stoned to death. When they kept on questioning Jesus, He straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground. When Jesus had lifted up Himself, and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Had no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. In order to tempt Jesus, Satan demanded Jesus to turn the stones to bread. During the Triumphal Entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, when the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus to rebuke the disciples from praising God in loud voices, Jesus replied that if they are silenced, the stones will cry out.

When we look through Sports and Games we come across many throws, but they are made out not by stones but by the balls. In cricket the throws are turned out as scores.

In the above cited scripture words we see a youth who had turned the stone throwing into blissful garlands. It was none other than St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Who was Stephen?

The Holy Book 'Acts of Apostles' outlines the history of the Apostolic Age of Christian Church. In the sixth Chapter of Acts we read of the discontent that was among the disciples about the distribution of the public charity that paved way for the election and ordination of seven deacons, who should take care of that matter, and ease the apostles of the burden. When the number of the disciples was multiplied to many thousands in Jerusalem, there arose an occasion of discord while hitherto they were all with one accord. The Grecians complained that their widows were neglected in the daily administration that is in the distribution of the public charity and the Hebrew widows had more care taken of them. The twelve Apostles called the multitude of the disciples to them, the heads of the congregations of Christians in Jerusalem and told that it is not reasonable that the Twelve Apostles should leave the word of God and serve tables. So they decided to select seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom they may put in charge of this task. The Apostle devoted themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. The whole congregation approved the decision of Apostles and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch to be ordained as first seven deacons of the Holy Church.

The first named, Stephen was distinguished among the seven newly ordained deacons. Stephen was with full of gifts of graces, spiritual power, courage and was performing great wonders and signs among the people. The great Cyrenian, Cilician, Asian and Alexandrian scholars argued with Stephen in the doctrine of Christ, but he was an extraordinary man, excelled in everything that was good and they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

The name Stephen is simply derived from the Greek Stephanos, meaning 'crown'. Saint Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom for Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 16:15 St. Paul exemplify household of Stephanas as the first fruits of Achaia as they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints. So the first martyr of the Holy Church, Stephen was really the crown of the cloud of the saints. The meaning of the root word for Martyr is 'witness’. The witness confesses that he knows about something to the real. The manure of the Christian Church was the blood of the martyrs. Stephen was a person of courage, conviction and commitment.

Modern extremist or terrorists are not martyrs of any kind as anybody claim. They kill themselves and in that act they kill several innocent people. The real martyrs give their life for death and save thousands through their death and leave the value of their life for the rest of the world. Stephen stands as the first real martyr in front of us.

What was ministry of Stephen? Though the ministry of Stephen was short, it was with full of vigor. Stephen was ordained for the ministry on the table. Very abruptly ministry of Stephen spread to the street. Stephen started to witness Christ in public with his arguments replete with the Divine energy of the Scriptural authorities. He proved the truth of the gospel, by working miracles in Christ’s name.

Stephen spoke with such wisdom and grace that many of his hearers became followers of Jesus. He pleaded the cause of Christianity against those that opposed it, and argued against it fearlessly. The saint spoke about Jesus, showing that He is the Savior, God had promised to send. Stephen faced that great assembly of enemies without fear. The enemies of the Church of Jesus were furious and they laid a plot for him, stirred up the people against him, so they bribed men to lie about him, saying that he had spoken sinfully against God.

The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations that he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and against God. All that sat in the council, gazed on him, saw his face, as it had been the face of an angel. He was extraordinarily pleasant, cheerful with miraculous splendor and brightness upon his countenance. Holy Bible refer few similar occasion like that of our Savior when He was transfigured or that of Moses when he came down from the mount Sinai: God put honor upon His faithful as grace shine on their countenance.

Stephen's defense of himself before the council was a challenging discourse as it was delivered in front of a dangerous audience. Stephen was aware of the danger and he was prepared to die and very daringly argued going over the history of the Old Testament, and observing that God never intended to confine His favors to that place, or that ceremonial law. He began with the call of Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees by which he was set apart for God to be the trustee of the promise, and the father of all children of God. Abraham was called from an idolatrous country, Mesopotamia and not from Jerusalem. Those whom God takes into covenant with Himself, He distinguishes from the children of this world; they are effectually called out of the state, out of the land, of their nativity; they must sit loose to the world, and live above it and every thing in it, even that in it which is most dear to them. Abraham was taken under God’s guidance, and into communion with Him, before he was circumcised, because he was justified when he was in uncircumcision. It was God that raised up the righteous man from the east, and called him to His foot. God appeared in His glory to Abraham a great way off in Mesopotamia, before he came near Holy Promised Land of Canaan. The Jewish nation, for the honor of which they were so jealous, was very inconsiderable in its beginnings; as their common father Abraham was fetched out of obscurity in Ur of the Chaldees. The vision that Moses saw of the glory of God at the bush was in wilderness of Egypt. Lord said to Moses to put off his shoes from his feet for the place where he stands is holy ground. Though God is present in all places, the special places where Lord blesses man with divine revelation with him are most holy.

Until the time of King David, fathers of Israel had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness and further brought in same with Joshua dispossessing the nations whom God drove out before the face of their fathers and that was on a land in possession of the Gentiles. Presence of God was in the tabernacle. Tabernacle was pitched first in the wilderness; it was not a native land of Israelites. In the wilderness, Sons of Israel offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. For not sacrificing to their own God in the wilderness, God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven. It was God’s condescension to them that He did not insist upon it during their unsettled state in the foreign land. That tabernacle continued for many ages, even to the days of David, above four hundred long years, before there was any thought of building a temple. David, who desired to have a dwelling place for God, found favor before God. Eventually, Solomon built a Temple for God. Howbeit the Most High dwell not in temples made with hands of men. Stephen presented a list of revolutionary arguments before the scribes who believed that Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God and is the only place of worship.

We should put our serious thoughts to consider that fact, 'Where God exist?’ The latter subject of the discourse of Jesus with the Samaritan woman near the well of Jacob at Sychar in the City of Samaria was concerning the place of worship. The woman told Jesus that their fathers worshipped in this mountain; and Jews say, that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. The Samaritans worshipped the God of Israel only, to whom they erected a temple on mount Gerizim, in competition with that at Jerusalem. Jesus replied her that we shall neither worship in the mountain nor in Jerusalem. True worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Father is pleased only with such true worship. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. [St. John 4:5-23]

In short, the theme of Stephen's discourse before the Council of Sanhedrin was, 'God outside Jerusalem and God outside Temple'. As he was on trial and being prosecuted, Stephen experienced a theophany. Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God in an open heaven. His theophany was unusual in that he saw both the Father and the Son: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." [Acts 7:56] Stephen accused Jews of persecuting prophets who spoke out against their sins and those who foretold the coming of the Just One. Thus castigated, the crowd could contain their anger no longer; they rose up in great anger and shouted at him. They ran violently upon him and cast him out of the city to stone him to death. His dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him. Stephen with full of grace and fortitude fell on his knees and raised his head to the Most High and prayed loudly and pleaded Lord for forgiveness to their executioners. The praying martyr was thrown down and stoned to death. Finally the martyr uttered the supreme prayer "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit".

The blood they shed was the first seed of a harvest that was to cover the world for the spread of living Gospel of Lord Jesus Christ. Stephen called for a change. He sustained for the truth. The truth is intolerable for many. This marvelous history of St. Stephen, The Protomartyr of Christianity, is the memoir and narration about an young man who twisted stone throwing to garlands of honor and grace. In the long chronicle of Christian martyrs, the story of Stephen stands out as one of the most moving and memorable.

[Extract from Devotional Address delivered at Maramon Convention 2009
Original in Oral Malayalam : Transcribed and translated for LOL by Editor Dr. Rajan Mathew Philadelphia, USA]

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