St Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, was according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early Church at Jerusalem. He aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Members of these synagogues had challenged Stephen’s teachings but Stephen, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had bested them in debate. Furious at this humiliation, they suborned false witnesses to testify that Stephen had preached blasphemy against Moses and God and so dragged him to appear before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders, accusing him of preaching against the Temple and Mosaic Law. At his trial, he made a long speech fiercely denouncing the Jewish authorities and listeners as “stiff-necked” people who resisted the Holy Spirit. Stephen is said to have been unperturbed, his face looking like “that of an angel”.
At this time, Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers be forgiven, then sank to his knees and “fell asleep”. His martyrdom was witnessed and approved by Saul of Tarsus (later named Paul), a Pharisee, who would later convert to Christianity and become an apostle.
St Stephen is venerated as a Saint in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Traditionally, he is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr’s palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments and often holding a miniature church building or a censor.
St Stephen invites us to pray incessantly, relish our struggles and sufferings, forgive always, have courage and be joyful witnesses in order to build God’s kingdom on earth.
In 1975, Stephen Ministry, named after St Stephen, was founded by Rev Kenneth C Haugk in St Louis, Missouri. He enlisted lay people who could offer one-to-one care through training them how to listen to people’s feelings in a non-judgmental manner, within an atmosphere of faith. Their role would be listeners/caregivers, not counsellors. Today Stephen Ministry is active in more than 10,000 congregations in over 150 denominations throughout the US, Canada and 23 other countries.