ON ST. STEPHEN
Consider first, that St. Stephen was the first martyr; that is, the first who bore witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ by laying down his life for him; the first who after the death and passion of the Son of God returned him blood for blood, life for life; the first that was so happy as to be made a victim of divine love, a holocaust of sweet savour in the sight of God; in fine, the first that washed his robes by martyrdom in the blood of the Lamb, and is now at the head of his heavenly train, ‘who stand before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple, where he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell over them; and they shall no more hunger nor thirst, neither shall the sun fall on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb, which is in the midst of the throne, shall rule them, and shall lead them to the living fountains of waters,’ &c., Apoc. vii. 15, &c. O my soul, what a glory, what a happiness is it to lay down life itself for divine love! But alas! how far are the generality of Christians from this perfection of charity, who are so unwilling to suffer even the least inconvenience for the sake of their heavenly lover? And is not this our case too? O let us love at least these generous lovers of our God; let us conceive a holy envy for their happiness, by sighing and praying for a share of their charity and love.
Consider 2ndly, the character that is given to St. Stephen by the spirit of God: ‘He was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,’ Acts vi. 5. ‘He was full of grace and fortitude, and did great wonders and miracles among the people,’ verse 8. ‘By his zeal the word of the Lord increased, and the number of the disciples was multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly,’ verse 7, ‘and though many adversaries rose up, who disputed against him, there are none of them able to resist the wisdom and spirit that spoke,’ verse 10. And when he was hurried by them before the council, all that were there ‘saw his face, as if it had been the face of an angel,’ verse 15. His zeal for the faith of Christ, and the courage and constancy with which he maintained it before the council, was rewarded with a heavenly vision, in which he ‘saw the glory of God, and the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of God,’ Acts vii. 55. And his bearing testimony to this truth drew on him his martyrdom: for presently, ‘casting him forth out of the city, they stoned him,’ and invoking the Lord, he said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this he fell asleep in the Lord,’ Acts vii. 57, 58, 59. Christians, what admirable lessons and examples have we here of all the virtues, in a heroic degree, in the life and death of this glorious saint? He was full of faith; he was full of the Holy Ghost and his gifts; he was full of grace, he was full of fortitude, he was full of zeal, he was full of heavenly wisdom, he was full of divine charity; in a word, he was full of God and of all good. O how happy shall we be, if we seriously endeavour to walk in the footsteps of this great saint by an imitation of these his virtues!
Consider 3rdly, that as amongst the virtues of St. Stephen none was more remarkable than his charity, so none more pressingly calls for our imitation. Charity has two branches, the love of God and the love of our neighbours: the love of God with our whole heart, and with our whole soul; and the love of our neighbours as ourselves. The love of God is exercised by seeking and by promoting in all things the glory of God; by sanctifying his name, both by word and work; by labouring to propagate his kingdom; by a perpetual dedication of our whole selves to his divine service. Thus did St. Stephen continually exercise himself in the most perfect acts of the love of God, not by the bare profession of the tongue, but by works and in truth. In like manner, the love of our neighbours is exercised by seeking and promoting their true and everlasting welfare upon all occasions, by withdrawing them from the error of their way, and from the broad road that leads to perdition, and bringing them to God and to his grace: thus also did St. Stephen continually exercise himself in the most perfect acts of the love of his neighbours, by his preaching and by his prayers; by his zeal for the salvation of their souls; and by his sparing no pains to bring them to Christ, through this charity cost him his life. Now ‘greater love than this no man hath, that a man should lay down his life for his friends,’ John xv. 13. But the most difficult point of all in the line of charity as it regards our neighbours, is the love of our enemies; of which St. Stephen has given us a most glorious example in his last dying prayer for them that were actually stoning him. ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’
Conclude to honour this great saint, by diligently imitating his love for his God, his zeal for his glory, and for the salvation of souls; his fortitude and constancy in his sufferings, and his charity for his enemies. And to this end beg the assistance of his prayers.