Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

On this second day of Christmas, I offer the following reflection on St. Stephen’s Day, originally written for Fling Wide the Doors, the 2014-2015 Advent and Christmastide devotional by the community of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago.ststephenicon

Stephen’s story is recorded in the book of Acts. He was appointed as one of the first deacons of the early church in order to care for those in need. Ultimately, Stephen’s preaching caught the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who ordered that he be stoned to death. In many Commonwealth nations, St. Stephen’s Day is called Boxing Day and commemorates the martyr’s ministry among the poor.

The twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task…” And they chose Stephen. – Acts 6.2-3, 5 (NRSV)

Nearly every Sunday for the past year, I have joined South Loop Campus Ministry to prepare sack lunches and hand-deliver them to our sisters and brothers living on the streets. What started rather by accident—when SLCM advertised “Free Food for College Students” and more than just the target audience showed up—has since turned into our most popular ministry.

See, this thing called Christianity is really all about food and feeding people. From its inception, the early church recognized the need to feed and care for people, and in Acts we are told they commissioned seven people to this task as deacons (literally, “servers”)—including Stephen, whose martyrdom we commemorate today.

Of course, our liturgical life also centers on food, in a special kind of meal entrusted to the pastor. But the ministry of diakonia, or table-serving, is entrusted to all of us—”the priesthood of all believers.” In the Eucharist we are refreshed and strengthened with holy food to love and serve and even feed our neighbor in return. So the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

SLCM students and leaders “Takin’ It to the Streets” on Lower Wacker (photo credit: Ben Adams, also for photo above)

One particular Sunday with SLCM, while were serving food on Lower Wacker, a brother asked us to pray for him. We joined hands around our shopping cart full of sack lunches and prayed, and it occurred to me in that moment that our cart is essentially our altar on wheels, around which we gather in community each week to give thanks and make and bless holy food for hungry people. Such is what diakonia means: the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

Before his martyrdom, Stephen concludes his speech with the indictment, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7.48). To be sure, he’s not claiming that God is not present in our places of worship but declaring instead that God is not limited to those places alone. God is just as present on Lower Wacker as God is at Addison and Magnolia or at Grace Place.

So this St Stephen’s Day I invite you to be mindful of where you encounter the sacred amid the quotidian, particularly among “the least of these.” Holy Trinity certainly has no shortage of opportunities to engage in this ministry of feeding.

Finally, I offer this quote, adapted from Gordon Lathrop, as a prayer, or perhaps a mantra, to carry with you today: “Christianity is a meal. Its members are table-servers. Let beggars come. Amen.”

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