- Published: Sunday, 10 May 2020 11:25
Stephen, Gareth, Deacon and Dalmatic
A joke that falls out of Christmas crackers: ‘How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza? Deep pan, crisp and even!’ As the carol tells us, he was the king who looked out on the feast of Stephen.
We read of Stephen first, in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The first generation of followers of Christ – a fledgling movement within Judaism - were beginning to establish themselves in Jerusalem. There's an energy about them: some of their adherents are prepared to assert themselves and challenge the status quo; others are more cautious, and critical of those of their number whom they regard as undermining their Jewish roots. Tensions are emerging. There seems to have been a particular issue regarding the daily distribution to the destitute, particularly for the widows. The Greek 'christians' complained that their Jewish fellows were benefitting. So the brethren chose Stephen and six others, whom the apostles authorised, laying their hands on them and commissioning them to serve ('diakonein') at table. These servants were key personnel. It's from this beginning that the Church traditionally derives its order of Deacons.
Stephen is usually depicted in art wearing a Dalmatic, the deacon's vestment. Ever since then, individuals have been called, and entrusted to carry out specific tasks and duties; and in the case of ordained and authorised ministry, that role is affirmed through the bishop's action of laying on of hands.
Passionate and articulate, it was inevitable that Stephen's activities would attract attention, and his words soon put him on a collision course with the religious leaders. Dragged before the ruling council, he's accused of blasphemy against God and Moses, and for undermining the Law and the Temple. Stephen gives as good as he gets, and his detractors are enraged by his confidence and robust defence. They've heard enough, and he's dragged out of the city, and stoned to death. The early Church never forgot that moment. He became the first Martyr, a Greek word meaning 'witness'. They were burying the first person to give their life for their faith in Christ. To be a follower of Christ has been risky from the start, and as the Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt's recent Report revealed, its no less true today.
He concluded that as much as a third of the world suffers from religious persecution, and Christians are among the most persecuted. That said, over the centuries the Church has also hurled its stones against people of faith. The Church's Prayer Book once prayed for Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks, “that they might be liberated from their ignorance, hardness of heart and contempt for the Gospel, and saved among the remnant of true Israelites”. Sticks and stones may break bones...but words can wound as well as inform. And sometimes even those who should have known welcome and affirmation have left, feeling ostracised and vulnerable.
Stephen's story lays bare the joy and cost of following Christ, and God calls us to faithfulness and commitment; to telling the truth that is in us.
Recently I watched a DVD with the uninspiring title, 'Mr Jones'. It's based on the life of Gareth Jones, who's played by James Norton. Jones was born in 1905. He was a brilliant linguist and became foreign affairs advisor to Lloyd George. He witnessed many of the momentous happenings of the early 1930s, and his diaries provide an insight into the complexities of international relations at this time. Working as a journalist in Germany at the time Hitler became Chancellor, Jones found himself flying with him and Goebells. The following month he went to Moscow, hoping to interview Stalin about his economic programme and 5 Year Plan. His critique proved unpalatable, and some of those around him sought to play down the gravity of the situation. Thus Gareth became the outsider, gripped by the courage of his convictions, principled, fearless, telling it as he saw it. He was murdered, shot days before his 30th birthday.
David Lloyd George later wrote in the Evening Standard, 'Gareth shrank from no risk...I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many. He allowed no obstacle to turn him from his course...He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered'.
Stephen, Gareth, men of conviction and courage, and for whom the truth was non-negotiable. Stephen's death reflects that of his Lord: commending his spirit to God, and praying that his murderers be forgiven. We note that one of those holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen was Saul, that great persecutor of the early Church. And marvel, that very soon Saul would become Paul, one of the most remarkable leaders and defenders of the faith. Jesus said, “...I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14.12)