Acts of the Apostles 6:8-15; 7:1-5, 47-60 • Matthew 2:13-23
Today is the Sunday after the Nativity, which falls, at most, seven days after Christmas. We’ve declared to the world that Christ is Born. We’ve sung with the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest and peace, good will toward all!” We’ve freely given gifts in honor of the awesome, holy, pure, divine, immortal, and life-giving gift that God has given us in His Son. Yet, the Gospel reading today tells us of Herod’s genocide of all the male children in and around Bethlehem who are two years or under.
In addition, since today is the 27th of December, we celebrate Stephen the Archdeacon and First Martyr. So, the Epistle reading is from Acts where we see the account of Stephen’s death by stoning.
We aren’t even done celebrating Christmas (we still sing the Christmas hymns and are fast free until the Eve of Theophany on January 5th, a sure way of knowing when the Church is in a festive mode) and here we are highlighting the murder of children and the Church’s first martyr.
Note who is responsible for the violence: Herod, the high-priest and leaders of the Jews. These are people who are interested in power — people who put faith in this world. In other words, today we highlight the way the world and those interested in power react to the Gospel — violently.
Let us examine how these people operate and think. Herod, knowing that the Messiah has recently been born, that He is to be a male and that He will be born in Bethlehem condemns everyone who fits all of those categories. St. Stephen was a Hellene, his first language was probably Greek. He was ordained as a deacon in order to serve those members of the Church community who spoke Greek, because they were being neglected.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. — Acts 6:1
The people that first rose up against Stephen (those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia) were from Hellenic communities that were probably angry that Stephen was being so accommodating to non-Hebrews and to the Greek language.
In both cases we see those in power and those interested in getting or maintaining power divide humanity into different categories. Herod targeted the males of the region of Bethlehem 2 years old and under, and the leaders of the Jews targeted Jews who spoke Greek and Greeks. They do this so that they can pit us against each other and define who is human by the artificial categories. We’ve been doing this since the Fall.
We do this all the time here in the United States. We are categorized by our race, our sex, our region, our state, our district, our sexual preference, our age, our religion etc. This allows those in power to get and maintain their power by pitting one group against another and showing favor to the groups most likely to get them re-elected. At its ugliest, we have categorized slaves as property and the unborn as non-viable. Thus, slave owners were and women are a more important category of human being that garners more power and even murder becomes justifiable in pursuit of this power.
The Gospel flies in the face of business as usual. It is antithetical to the way people in power get and maintain that power. The Nativity celebrates Christ taking on humanity — all of humanity — not a category or subset of humanity. He took on our nature — a nature shared with every other human being ever born or that will ever be born. Christ did not come for power — He came as a slave. He ignored the trappings of power at every stage of His life here on earth. He was born in a cave where animal slept and ate. He was exiled to Egypt in His infancy. He grew up in the backwater town of Nazareth. During His ministry, He lived in poverty with no where to lay His head (Matt 8:20, Luke 9:58). When the people tried to make Him an earthly king, He refused (John 6:15). His triumphant entry into Jerusalem was on a donkey followed by a bunch of poor fisherman, instead of on the back of a mighty warhorse followed by a conquering army. Ultimately, He was willing to go to the Cross and sacrifice Himself for His creation.
There is no room for categorization in the Gospel. There is no room for the pursuit of power on the backs of others. There is no room for holding one group of human beings over and above another. Is there any wonder that those who put their faith in power and in this world should react so violently to the Gospel, the Good News?
In the face of politics as usual, in the face of categorization, in the face of violence, St. Stephen is our model. We are to preach the Truth. We are to declare the Gospel. We are to stand up and declare the radical equality that is possible in Jesus Christ. Do we see inequity? Name it. Call it out for what it is. Declare the Truth. Will we suffer for this? Most likely. But we will have Christ at our side and be filled with the Holy Spirit and have the power to overcome what ever the world throws at us in its anger. In the end we will see what St. Stephen sees as He declares the Gospel with His last breath:
Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. — Acts 7:56
And know, that when we declare the Gospel without fear, a Saul might be listening, just as he was for St. Stephen. We may never get to see that Saul transform into a St. Paul, but our fearless declaration of the Truth of Jesus Christ born, crucified and risen will have made that transformation possible. Amen.