All too often it’s easy to let our awe at martyrs’ deaths overshadow what God does in and through their lives. Especially today, when the current challenge of militant Islam colors our understanding of martyrdom, it’s all too easy to regard Christian martyrs as beads shuffled about on some great abacus of fanatical hate; as if all martyrs were playing at the same game, when nothing could be farther from the truth.
The Book of Acts testifies to much more than Stephen’s death. You see, when the apostles realized that they were so busy studying the scriptures, trying to make sense of what they’d experienced with Jesus – that they could no longer care for the widows and the weak the way they wanted to, and the way they knew they should – they gathered the disciples together and considered to whom this work should be entrusted. And without speeches or debate that multitude knew that out of them all, the person to do this was “Stephen!” because they knew him to be so full of love and care that he would take up this work gladly.
When Stephen is brought before the High Priests on trumped up charges of blaphemy against the law and against the customs handed on from Moses, Stephen can’t stop being the man he is. He’s too full of love to lie to them, but neither does he adopt a defensive posture and dispute the charges, although it’s clear from his (very long) speech that he knows his Torah.
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And although High Priests delight ever so much in arguing about that sort of thing, Stephen doesn’t indulge them–he knows what the outcome of that will be–instead he insists on speaking directly to them, making them see that even by killing him they could never get what they wanted. The story of what God has done in the world in Christ is too big–too true–for them to escape it. And boy, does that make them mad!
They gnash their teeth and hurry him out of the city to stone him. But even then in the midst of their hatred, even as the world turned on him, Stephen never lost sight of his love, so that as the stones showered upon him he saw the heavens open and the Father, and the Son standing at his right hand, and he, himself, was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he prayed for his killers.
When John Chrysostom preached on Stephen’s martyrdom, he said: “If we happen to be among Gentiles, let us answer them likewise, without anger and without harshness. …For no matter how just your words may be, when you speak with anger, you ruin everything. … He did not treat them with any harshness but reminded them of the words of the prophets. …It was not in anger that he spoke these words but in grief and sorrow for their sakes.” And when St. Augustine shared this same story with his congregation, he emphasized, “[Stephen] showed his love for his murders, in that he died for them… That is the perfection of love.”
This is what Holy Scripture’s witness about Stephen teaches us: Christian martyrs never die in hate, they die in love.
And that’s the lesson for us today: that following Christ–following Christ even unto martyrdom–will never ask more of us than to love completely.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 17.
 St. Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on 1 John 5.4.