It is fitting that we are here, in this place, as we listen to these words of Christ in the gospel this morning. Christ addresses his disciples and tells them, soberly, of the days to come:
They will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them…
—Matthew 10: 17-22
And some of them, Christ says, will be put to death. Of course, St. Peter would have been one of those disciples listening to that warning; Peter, who experienced all these things for Christ.
It is fitting that we celebrate here in this chapel—at the tomb of St. Peter, Apostle and martyr—the Feast of St. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church and the very first martyr. That word martyr—as our seminarians will remember from Greek classes!—means witness. Saints Peter and Stephen gave their lives as witnesses to their faith in Jesus Christ.
St. Stephen, in the Acts of the Apostles this morning, bears witness to Christ quite literally. He looks up into the heavens and sees our Lord with his own eyes. He cries out to the members of the synagogue, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts of the Apostles 7:56).
But it was not for a vision that St. Stephen was stoned to death. It was not merely because he saw Christ with his own eyes. St. Stephen, like St. Peter and all the martyrs, was killed because of his witness to Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel. He bore witness to the synagogue officials about the need to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the savior of our lives. Like St. Peter, he spoke courageously about the person of Jesus Christ and the need to live our lives for Him, and not for ourselves. The martyrs announced the message of the gospel and bore witness to Christ without shame, without embarrassment, and without fear.
Those of us here today who are priests and those studying for the priesthood can do no less. We, too, must announce a message which requires conversion and repentance, and at times we must speak out for the culture of life in a world that does not always listen to that message. We must daily live the gospel and, in turn, proclaim that message in its entirety. It is not easy to do that. In fact, without the grace of God it would be impossible.
And so, again, it is fitting that we are here. This is the place where, for hundreds of years after the death of Saints Peter and Stephen, popes and kings alike would come to acknowledge their faith in Christ and need for Him, here before the tomb of Peter. Here in this place is where solemn oaths were sworn and Christian hearts were strengthened.
This morning we take a moment to pray before the tomb of St. Peter, and to ask for his prayers, and the prayers of St. Stephen, that we might be as faithful as them in living our faith and professing it to others. May we also bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ, without embarrassment, without shame, and without fear.