Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
Listen Now. We will now be including the daily reading of Epistle and Gospel with The Prayer Team.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” John 20:21
The Book of Acts and the Early Ecclesia—Part Fourteen
We are All Called to Be Martyrs (Witnesses)
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 7:58-60
Good morning Prayer Team!
In the last reflection we learned about the seven men chosen to be the first deacons, one of whom was named Stephen. These men were chosen to help the Apostles by distributing food to the poor. His time of service did not last long, however. He was arrested by the Jewish authorities on charges of blasphemy against Moses and God. Called before the high priest, Stephen made a long oration that is found in Acts 7 (which you are encouraged to read in its entirety) in which he gave a summary of the history of Abraham and God’s covenant with him. He spoke of Joseph and how the Hebrews settled in Egypt. Then he spoke of how Moses led them out of Egypt and how God gave Moses the Law on Mount Sinai. Then he spoke of David and Solomon and how the temple was built. However he noted that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” (Acts 7:48) Then he called them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (7:51) And then he accused them of murdering Jesus, “the Righteous One.” (7:52)
The authorities were enraged by what Stephen was saying, and they took him outside of the city and stoned him. Three notable things happened during the stoning of Stephen. First, as Christ did from the Cross, Stephen forgave those who were stoning him. Second, one of the people who was present and presumably taking part, or at least endorsing what was going on, was a young man named Saul, who would later become St. Paul. And third, Stephen became the first martyr for Christ (though some debate that it was St. John the Baptist, however, St. Stephen was certainly the first martyr after the Resurrection of Christ).
There is a long historical tradition in our church of martyrs, people who have given up their lives for Christ. Some have done it very notably, like St. Demetrios or St. George or St. Barbara or St. Katherine. We recognize these people as prominent saints of our church. Others have given up their lives more anonymously, like the thousands of Russians killed in the 20th century, that we don’t know their names or circumstances.
The title “martyr” refers to people who were killed for their faith. The saints who have that title all were killed for their faith. People who have died a natural death, while they may be considered saints, are not given the title “Martyr.”
However, the word “martyr” means “witness”, so in a sense, anyone who have lived a committed Christian life, whether they have died by natural causes or were killed for their faith is a “martyr.” And in this sense of the word, we are all called to be “martyrs.” Thus we are all called to follow the example of St. Stephen. We do this in three ways. First, we have to be committed to our faith. We have to know Christ. We have to know Who we are giving witness to and why being a witness for Christ is so important. Second, we have to be “convicted” in what we believe, to the degree we are willing to proclaim it to others, even if it costs us. Proclaiming Christ may not cost us our lives in America this year (though it will in other parts of the world), but it may cost us friends or reputation or something else. Choosing Christ over sports on a Sunday morning might cost our children a place on a team, or may make other sports fans mad at us. This is just one example.
In contemporary times, the word “martyr” has a negative connotation. People who are “martyrs” are often seen as prideful and arrogant. So, the third example of how to be a martyr is to not be so bold that we become arrogant. Saint Stephen was bold in what he said, but he was not arrogant or boastful. And as he was being stoned to death, he was able to forgive those who were killing him. A good “martyr” (witness) is one who has humility and forgiveness, rather than judgement. We show ourselves to be good “martyrs” not so much by what we say but by what we do. Stopping to say a kind word, offering a helping hand, being a shoulder to cry on and doing these things in the name of the Lord and for His glory—these are just a few examples of what it means to be a good martyr. Turning the other cheek when we are ridiculed, forgiving when we’ve been wronged, being patient when things are going our way—these are other every day examples of the martyrdom we’re supposed to offer.
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name; give to Him glorious praise! Say to God “How terrible are Thy deeds! So great is Thy power that Thy enemies cringe before Thee. All the earth worships Thee; they sing praises to Thee, sing praises to Thy name.” Come and see what God has done: He is terrible in His deeds among men. He turned the sea into dry land; men passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in Him, Who rules by His might forever, Whose eyes keep watch on the nations—let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of His praise be heard, Who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For Thou, O God, hast tested us; Thou hast tried us as silver is tried. Thou didst bring us into the net; Thou didst lay affliction on our loins; Thou didst let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet Thou hast brought us forth to a spacious place. I will come into Thy house with burnt offerings; I will pay Thee my vows, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to Thee burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what He has done for me. I cried aloud to Him, and He was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; He has given heed to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because He has not rejected my prayer or removed His steadfast love from me. Psalm 66
Be a good witness (martyr) for Christ today!
With Roger Hunt providing today’s Daily Reading: Listen Now.
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