And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. (Acts 6:5)
These were the first deacons of the church. Stephen was a deacon in the original sense of the word. He served, he ministered – διάκονος comes from the word διακονία. As a matter of fact the original purpose of the deacons was to serve food! The twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4)
The apostles felt that serving food was beneath them, so they chose Stephen and a few others to do it. But Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and so his story involved more than serving food. He was “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Not only grace and power, but a holy, burning love for Christ. But certain groups became envious of him and started spreading false allegations against him and brought him to the Jewish council, and “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
When the chief priest asked him if the allegations were true, Stephen proceeded to give the religious leaders a lesson in Bible history (Acts 7). He starts with Abraham, moves on to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Then he comes to Moses and reminds the council of the burning bush and the exodus. He reminds them of the people’s apostasy when they turned against Moses and worshipped the golden calf. He reminds them of the tent Moses built in the desert, which became the model for the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem 300 years later.
Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’ (Acts 7:48-50)
Do you see what Stephen was doing? In essence he was telling them the temple was another act of rebellion against God, just like the golden calf! So he went on to call them, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.”
The conclusion of all this is remarkable:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
Before dying, Stephen experienced an ecstatic vision of the heavenly Christ. He was inflamed by divine love. But there is a short epilogue: And Saul was consenting to his death…Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison (Acts 8:1-3) This is the Saul who also received a vision of Jesus – “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) This is the Saul who after this vision became Paul, the great apostle.
Paul’s own heart was animated by the same divine love that filled Stephen. Agape is the word that Paul himself uses for love in his letters. But the love that filled Stephen and Paul perhaps is better described by another ancient Greek word, έρως. There are four words for love: έρως (eros), φιλία (philia), στοργή (storge), αγάπη (agape). The Fathers of the Church habitually used the word έρως in addition to αγάπη. Αγάπη is a wonderful word to describe that unique form of Christian love that is self-giving and works for the good of others, and describes God’s own love in sending Jesus to us. But έρως connotes something different, an intense, ecstatic love of personal devotion, infatuation even, that I believe describes both Stephen and Paul. Listen to how Chrysostom describes Paul: “the red-hot lover of Christ” (ο διάπυρος εραστής του Χριστού). Chrysostom himself came under the spell of Paul. Chrysostom, who lived 300 years after Paul, believed that his own love for Saint Paul would be added to Saint Paul’s burning love for Christ and God.
Today, December 27th, is the feast day of Saint Stephen, and he invites us to share his ecstatic vision and love of Christ. This is why we love the saints – especially saints like Stephen and Paul. We want their burning love for Christ to spill over unto us. We want our love for Christ and for each other to be added to their love, their έρως and αγάπη and φιλία and στοργή. In these four words perhaps we can sum up the good news of Jesus Christ, for which St. Stephen lived and died and lives again.