Photo: Stoning of St Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
Hail and Farewell:
Summer is a bittersweet time of year. Many people will be moving into our community and will be “interviewing” parishes. If you are one of these, I hope that you will consider St Charles for your spiritual home, and I would love to speak with you. The bitter part is that about a dozen individuals and families, on the average, will moving from the neighborhood. For whatever reason you are leaving us – more space, schools or business transfer – we have loved having you and hope that St Charles has been a positive part of your life. We wish you many blessings and would like to do so publicly. All our departing parishioners will be blessed at the Masses on Sunday, June 23rd, the Solemnity or the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Please let us know if you will be attending any of these services. Whether you can attend or not, please know that we will pray for your continued success and happiness no matter where you go.
June 2, 2019
Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60
Since Easter, we have been reading passages from “The Acts of the Apostles” sequentially, if not comprehensively until now. Today we double back from last week’s examination of the Council of Jerusalem in Chapter 15 to the stoning of St Stephen in Chapter 7. This is to prepare us for the coming of the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost. To understand this change in order, we need to look at why Stephen was executed and how he received it.
Stephen was one of the first Deacons. He was Greek speaking and filled with “grace and power” and worked great wonders and signs among the people. (Acts 6:8) He excelled in debate and defeated other Greek-speaking Jews in public discussions. Embarrassed, they brought him to the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish leaders, for punishment as others did Jesus and the Apostles.
Like the Apostles, he answers his accusers not with philosophical arguments but with the history of Israel. (Acts 7:1) He differs from Peter and the other Apostles by accusing the leaders of acting like the foreign enemies of Israel who fought against God himself. He ends his sermon with:
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors.
52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.
53 You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.”
This is where we take up the story today.
First, note that he is telling Jewish leaders that they failed in their responsibility as Jews and leaders by not being to a light to the nations. They were called to bring people to God but kept Him for themselves. This reflects Jesus’s experience in the synagogue at Nazareth.
25 Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
26 It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. (Luke 4:2-26)
The leaders were infuriated and “ground their teeth at him”.
We begin today with Stephen’s response to the Sanhedrin:
55 But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Acts 7:55
The opening of the heavens was St Luke’s way of saying that God himself was directly communicating something serious.
At Jesus’s baptism we read:
21 After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened
22 and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21–22
Jesus instructs Peter that there are no foods which could prevent a person from being a member of the Church through a vision: 11 “He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners.” Acts 10:11
What Stephen sees is so clear for a Jew that its meaning does not require words. He calls out:
“Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:56 (NAB)
This is telling the members of the Sanhedrin to remember the words of the prophet Daniel.
13 As the visions during the night continued, I saw
One like a son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him. Daniel 7:13
The Son of Man is a complicated image, but it always contained the sense of divine judgment. It is very interesting that this the only time in Luke that the title “Son of Man” is used by anyone other than Jesus. Luke wishes us to be clear that Stephen is speaking for Jesus, not only about Him.
Let us remember that when Jesus was himself before the Sanhedrin when asked if he was the Messiah he responded “
67 “If I tell you, you will not believe,
68 and if I question, you will not respond.
69 But from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied to them, “You say that I am.” Luke 22:67–70
Accepting Jesus as the Son of Man and at very least the true Judge is a Christian requirement.
They did not listen to Stephen as they had not listened to Jesus, and like Jesus brought him out of Jerusalem to execute him. We should also not forget Jesus’ experience in Nazareth here as well:
29 They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. (Luke 4:29).
As we have seen many times in Luke/Acts, envy, jealousy, and other forms of pettiness are always lurking around the more theological explanations.
It is at Stephen’s execution that we see the closest parallels with Jesus and the clearest lessons for ourselves.
59 As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Acts 7:59
46 Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
Like Jesus Stephen clearly is offering himself up to God, but note Jesus entrusts himself to the Father and Stephen to Lord Jesus, clearly affirming that Jesus is God.
As important, however, is the attitude of forgiveness. Stephen’s last words are:
60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:60
He thus reflects Jesus’ appeal from the cross:
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
Next week we will go further back to the empty room in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit. It is among the most inspiring sections of Holy Scripture. Having read of the progress of the early Church from Peter and Stephen to Paul and Barnabas, we should ask ourselves if we have truly been filled with the Holy Spirit and acted like apostles
The Apostles were martyrs in the strict sense of the word: they gave up their lives to proclaim the Good News. Martyr, however, means witness. There are other ways to bear witness to Jesus than handing over our bodies for destruction. We bear witness by what and why we act. Our reading of Acts this Easter Season has shown us that we are Apostles and Martyrs, not by giving up our physical lives, but our spiritual pride.