Earlier today, I pulled out my Bible and read the story of Stephen, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6-8, primarily 6-7. (If you want to read it and don't have a Bible, you can find online Bibles easily enough. I mostly use the Oremus Bible Browser.)
A few things struck me about this story.
Like Jesus, he was brought before a council of judgment on trumped up charges. Unlike Jesus, he defended himself with a long monolog (amazingly long, really---the writer of Acts seems to have thought this very important to spend the parchment and time writing it out).
Stephen's "defense," if you want to call it that, was basically a recounting of the salvation story for Israel, from Abraham, through Moses, to the building of the Temple. He doesn't even mention Jesus by name in his speech, but he does tell the council that they are in line not with Abraham and Moses and David, but with those who opposed the prophets. He appears to give this history lesson because the charge against him is that he has spoken against Moses and the Law, against the Temple and its customs. He soundly demonstrates that he knows the stories of the established religion. Had he stopped with the recounting of the story of Israel without telling the council the part they play in it, he might have lived to be an old man.
But he spoke to the council without hesitation and with boldness that they were in opposition to the movement of the Holy Spirit. This was enough to get Stephen dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
The stoning is an interesting detail, given the contrast to Jesus' death. With Jesus, it appears to be a long-brewing plot with a desire to make the Romans the bad guys and so a death by Roman means---the cross, which the Jews were not allowed to use. With Stephen, he gets a quicker "trial" and is dispatched by a means allowed by the Law. The Jewish council seemed less worried about taking the matter of Stephen in their own hands. Not sure we can say why. Perhaps Stephen wasn't as popular as Jesus.
Of course, the ending of Stephen's story---paralleling Jesus' prayer for forgiveness for his murderers---has the added twist the most important voice of the canonical New Testament writings is there approving of the stoning. Saul, later Paul, is not participating in the stoning of the first Christian martyr, but he's present, watching, and approving.
So on this Feast of Stephen, the questions that arise for me are:
In what way have I acted (or am acting) as the religion's traditionalists, throwing out the Spirit-filled voice on trumped up charges because I did not like what this voice had to say?
In what way have I stood by approvingly and how have I been converted to the very thing I persecuted? (I can answer that in one concrete way: I, a gay man, used to speak against LGBT folk in the church, or at least against their ordination, and I certainly wouldn't have been for anything resembling marriage rites for same-sex couples. I may not have stoned anyone, but I stood by and watched. Who do I stand by and approvingly watch get stoned now?)
When, where, and how am I willing to follow in Stephen's footsteps, speaking truth to power, willing to die for my convictions, and praying for those with rocks in their hands?
I've long believed that as the church calendar developed, there is something fitting and horrifically right that we remember Stephen on the second day of Christmas, the day after we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It's too easy to make these twelve days a sentimental greeting card about a newborn and angels.
There is joy in the journey, and there is a cost to discipleship. We forget the latter so easily, it's good we have Stephen to remind us immediately after singing "Joy to the World."