The Christian life is fundamentally cross-shaped. The two New Testament paradigms for the Christian life are the cross and the resurrection. To follow Christ requires taking up one’s own cross and doing so in the power of the resurrection. But our participation in Christ’s resurrection is anticipatory. Fully experiencing the resurrection, though a present reality for Christ, is a future reality for us. In the meantime, the cross is our present reality and therefore is the dominant of these two New Testament patterns of the Christian life. That’s why the longest section of the Gospels, written as manuals of discipleship, is the passion narrative. It’s why early Christians were baptized in cross-shaped baptistries and took up the practice of tracing the sign of the cross upon their body as a daily renewal of their baptismal vows, reminding them that cross-bearing is the way of the Christian life. And this is why, during the first few centuries of Christian existence, the church regarded the martyrs as the saints who most fully exemplified Christian discipleship.
Among these saintly martyrs, Stephen was honored by the early church as the “protomartyr”—the first one to take up his cross and suffer death because of his testimony to Christ. Today’s passage identifies Stephen’s martyrdom with Jesus’ crucifixion. It is occasioned by Stephen’s final testimony to his vision of Christ in heaven at the right hand of God, his faithful suffering vindicated by his resurrection from the dead. Like Jesus, and now to Jesus, he prays, “receive my spirit” (v. 59). Like Jesus, he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). According to later Christian tradition, Stephen was buried by Nicodemus, the secret follower of Jesus, and the rabbi Gamaliel, who had been Stephen’s teacher and taught Saul, later to be known as the Apostle Paul, who approvingly watched Stephen’s stoning (8:1).
In what ways might we imitate Stephen in taking up our cross and following after Jesus today?
God, who in Christ forgives us, may we be faithfully forgiving this day. Amen.