31st Sunday Ordinary Time/St. Charles Borromeo – 11:15 am (Fr. Smith homily)

We celebrate today the feast of our Patron Saint, Charles Borromeo. To list even the most basic facts of his life, much less his accomplishments, would be an impossible task for a brief homily. Even more amazing is that he was only 46 when he died in 1584.

High points are found in the main window above the main altar. The principal scene is St. Charles distributing communion to a sick person on a stretcher. This commemorates his distribution of the Eucharist to the sick during a plague and for having Mass said in the open air, allowing the afflicted to more easily attend. If you look above the main window there are three windows with angels: the one on the left shows a scroll referring to his institution of religious education in his Diocese of Milan. He is considered the founder of both Catholic schools and Sunday school. On the right, the window reflects his emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance. In the central window, two angels bear a crown which foretells his canonization after his death. Not on our window is the clearest sign that he was a reformer: one of his priests who did not want to be reformed tried to assassinate him.

We remind everyone that there is more information on St Charles and the art in the church on our website. https://www.stcharlesbklyn.org/history/stained-glass-windows/

We could say much more about St Charles, but more relevant for us today is his cousin and successor Federico Borromeo. Like Charles, he was born a rich man destined for effortless success. He originally wanted to become a Jesuit, but although he did not, he was nonetheless claimed by the Church and named a cardinal at the age of 23. A most cultured man, he was dedicated to scholarship and moved by beauty. He created leaned societies and the first truly public library on the European continent. He wrote over 100 books and monographs on many subjects and, why we remember him especially today, can be credited as publishing the first hymnal for lay people. He also renovated the Cathedral in Milan, shoring up its foundations and beautifying its interior.

Now I do not mean to suggest that he was a mere aesthete. During the great famine of 1627-1628 he fed 2,000 poor people daily at the gates of his residence from his own income. He was an example of such absolute heroism that nearly one hundred of his clergy died caring for their flocks in the famine and resulting plague. This is beautifully told in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel “The Betrothed”. I should note that this is Pope Francis’ second favorite novel; coming after only the Brothers Karamazov. In it, Federico is portrayed as the model priest, and I must admit that I give it to young priests particularly to read his admonition to a well-meaning but cowardly pastor. I have no reason to believe that this did not reflect his actual beliefs and actions. After his death, the citizens of Milan erected a statue in his honor and wrote on the pedestal: “He was one of those men rare in every age, who employed extraordinary intelligence, the resources of an opulent condition, the advantages of privileged station, and an unflinching will, in the search and practice of higher and better things.”

He demonstrates the connection between beauty, worship and charity. Much of our efforts as a parish for at least the next 3 years will be to renovate the fabric of the Church building. There will be no major changes in the sanctuary or nave – the major visible changes will be decent bathrooms and a usable basement. Through it all, we must seek not to lose the forest for the trees and must remember that this building exists for worship: turning our minds and hearts to God. Beauty has always been the handmaid of worship, and a church needs to be a place where we recognize that we are doing something different. A church such as ours can literally stop us in our footsteps, slow us down and center us on the most important things. Given the distractions of our times, this is more important and needed than ever

Although I hope that people leave here feeling blessed and holy, worship is ultimately judged not by what we feel on Sunday but what we do the rest of the week. Who is better off among your family and friends or in our community because you went to Mass today? Did you help someone at work, did you show kindness to an annoying person, did you take time to offer your services to someone who needs them? The needs are endless, the opportunities without limit, and the power that comes from true worship beyond comprehension. Yet, how much of Jesus do we see in a country in which most people call themselves Christian, and more to the point what does St Charles add to this community? Who outside these walls would know or care if we disappeared tomorrow?

Today we will add another aid to our worship with our new hymnals.

We are bodily creatures and the more senses we can engage in our worship, the more effective it will be. Philosophers (eg. Suzanne Langer) tell us that each art form allows our bodies to connect with a dimension in the real world. Buildings engage us in space. A grand church building can be literally awesome and an intimate one engenders a serenity that no other structure can provide.

Music in this theory connects and develops our sense of time. Many of us seem dominated by time and trying to make each second effective. No wonder time itself may seem exhausting. Great music can suspend time and give us a taste of the infinite and a moment’s peace to gather ourselves together to praise and worship God

Please embrace this opportunity. We bless not so much the hymn books as ourselves, and desire to offer not only everything to God, but every moment. Unlike Federico Borromeo, we may not have extraordinary intelligence to display, nor either the resources of an opulent condition nor privileged station, but we can ask for an unflinching will to – by our worship – search for and practice higher and better things.

29th Sunday Ordinary Time – 9 AM (Fr. Smith Homily and Stewardship)

We many times hear that we should act with a “preferential option for the poor” This phrase dates to 1968 but is simply an elegant way of expressing a biblical truth. Jesus tells us in the always disconcerting chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” This however has roots deep in the Old Testament.  

The Jewish law itself stated: Cursed be he who violates the rights of the alien, the orphan or the widow!’ (Dt 27:19). 

God himself takes the part of the poor and those who we would consider marginalized 

The LORD protects the stranger,  

     sustains the orphan and the widow, 

     but thwarts the way of the wicked. Ps 146:9 

 

The Lord is particularly concerned that Justice be done for them by the leaders of the people: Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:17) 

Let us look now at the characters and situation in todays parable. The widow is among the poor to be protected. The judge is at very least indifferent to her predicament. He did not respect any one much less a poor woman. He also showed that he did not fear the God who has claimed the poor as his own.  

Yet she will receive justice because he is afraid that she will treat him violently. If a truly bad man will listen and act properly how much more will God hear the cry of the poor? (Ps 34) 

This would have had a very special meaning to the early Christians. They had declared themselves followers of Jesus and now awaited his return. They are as innocent as the widow but have found many in authority who were as wicked as the judge. Jesus had told them that they would be hauled before judges (Lk 12:11) and indeed there would be division within their own families (Luke 12:50-53) But they are finding this too long a wait and want Jesus to act now. If not an immediate return a little smiting of their enemies would certainly be appreciated.  

Luke’s response to this is very subtle and profound. He compares them to widows. people to whom God has shown preferential care. They are loved and protected; they are part of God’s plan not the all of it. Luke does not compare them to Kings, or Prophets or Priests or even messengers whose power is found in their strength but in a widow, a person powerless by definition.  

Look now at the ending: I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Lk 18:8). 

The disciples might very well say that if this is Jesus’ idea of speedy then He may well find very few people waiting. There is something here of course, we may be widows and orphans protected and loved by God, but we can find that love very far away and our oppressors very close indeed. Certainly, we all need to pray for patience, forbearance and hope. 

Yet this is the Gospel of St Luke and there is another dimension 

37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. (Luke 12:37) 

 

We read this passage several weeks ago and saw that vigilance meant looking not up the in sky for the Lord’s return but at the needs and wants of those around us. (Lk 12: 42-45) That is true here as well this is how Jesus will know if there is faith. 

 

Last week we celebrated the feast of St Pope John 23rd who called the second Vatican Council in whose spirit I was formed. One sign of this is a desire to see everything through the lens of the scriptures. I find it significant that we have begun looking at stewardship while reading St Lukes gospel at Mass. Of all the gospels his is the most concerned with why Jesus has called us to belong to a community and the necessary spirituality for it. Next year when we will be implementing how we wish to be stewards we will read from St Matthew’s Gospel which can be read as a handbook for building a church. Scriptural Serendipity. 

 

So, let us look at the results so far. 

 

Last week I asked those who were present to make a renewed commitment in support of our parish. One of the realities of this community is that many of us travel a great deal and are not able to be present here at St Charles every week. Therefore, we must do everything several times to reach everyone. I ask the forbearance of those who heard this and filled out the card last week as I address those that did not.  

 

Over the past few years our weekly offertory has consistently been one of the lowest in the Brooklyn both in amount and per capita.  Over that same span of time bills and costs at the parish have steadily risen. As our next financial report, which will be published in a few weeks, will reveal we have had to use some of our rental income to pay operating expenses. 

It will take a greater sacrifice to St. Charles Borromeo to maintain much less expand our ministries. As we all make our commitments today, remember that we are truly returning to God what has first been given to us. The ownership lies with Him. 

 

Here’s how this will work:  My goal is to receive a card from every family attending this Mass today. ​Today is very important. Tomorrow I will meet with parish leaders and our accountant to plan our strategy for a loan to complete the work on the church in a timely manner. We will need to have a much better idea what we can reasonably expect in our regular collections and if we will have to direct some of our rental money. As most of you know better than I the more we can direct to this project the better the terms we can expect and the faster this will be accomplished. So: 

  1. If you have brought your own Commitment Card from the mailing with you today, we greatly appreciate it and we’ll collect them in a moment.  
  2. If you didn’t bring the one that was mailed to you, or you didn’t get the mailing, the ushers are going to walk down the aisle right now and distribute Commitment Weekend forms to everyone who doesn’t have one.   
  3. If you have already returned your Commitment Card to the parish office take one of the forms the ushers have and simply indicate that you have already returned your card. 

 

  • For those filling out the forms, please print your name and address on the bottom portion of the card.  
  • We ask that you please include your cell number and email address. Our parish would like to use this opportunity to update our records.  
  • Next, please indicate the amount you typically give to the collection at the top of the card.  
  • Then on the next line, please indicate the new amount you are committing to going forward. 
  • I would like to remind you that this is not a pledge of any form. It should serve as a promise between you and God.  

. 

  1. Next, please check one of the four options: 
  • Yes – I am interested in increasing my offertory through my parish’s online giving portal. Please send me more information. 
  • I encourage you to consider signing up for electronic giving through WeShare.  It is a simple and convenient process for you that takes no more than a few minutes to complete.  It also greatly benefits our parish by reducing mailing costs and accounting for weekly offertory fluctuation.. As I have noted we are a very mobile parish and it is important that we recognize that the parish exists during the weeks we are not here as well as when we are. This is not a pew rental for single events. 
  • You can have your offertory charged to your credit card (earn reward or loyalty points) or simply have it deducted from your bank’s checking or savings account. Mark the appropriate box if you are interested and make sure to write out your email address neatly.  We’ll send you some information and a link to get started. 
  • Yes – I am interested in increasing my offertory with envelopes. If you are currently not receiving envelopes and wish to receive them, please include your telephone number.  
  • Praying – I am still praying about my decision 
  • Amen- I am unable to increase my regular giving at this time.  

I thank you for your commitments and may God bless us. 

.  

 

22nd Sunday Ordinary Time – Fr. Smith homily

At the beginning of the summer the priests of the diocese held a dinner for Bishop Di Marzio’s  75th birthday. The committee that organized it sat the priests according to year of ordination with the most newly ordained priests and the most senior sitting with the Bishop. Truly an elegant solution to a potentially difficult situation. Yet isn’t it interesting that it is a persistent problem. Eating together is such a sign of intimacy and harmony that the Bible uses it as an image of the kingdom of God yet so often it reflects people’s attempts to assert power and position. Luke today is showing us what is at stake and what we can do 

This is the third time that Jesus has accepted an invitation to eat with Pharisees on the Sabbath in Luke’s gospel. (See Luke 7:36, 11:37) It did not go well either time and it presumably will not be particularly pleasant this time out. The passage today opens with:  

On a sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. (Lk 14:1) 

They were so carefully observing him because previously he cured people at the meal on the Sabbath. This was a violation of Jewish law. This is also the case here, but our reading today skips over it. Let us for a moment however examine this passage 

A man, presumably a guest, is suffering from dropsy. This is edema or swelling caused by excess fluid.  As this is a chronic condition and not an emergency, Jesus could have told him to come back the next day to be cured but instead he cures him immediately. Celebrating a meal with Jesus cures and frees anyone humble enough to ask. Luke may be so specific with the disease because dropsy is often occasioned by great thirst and so the victim will drink more water which only makes it worse. It was used as a metaphor for greed, in this case the insatiable desire of the Pharisees for honor and position. Would they ask to be healed or even know that they needed it?  Continue reading “22nd Sunday Ordinary Time – Fr. Smith homily”

21th Sunday Ordinary Time – Isaiah’s Warning: Avoid Corruption; Unite the Community

A Plate of Cakes, Jehan Georges Vibert, circa 1840–1902, private collection (WikiArt)

FIRST READING:
August 25, 2019
Isaiah 66:18-21

Several weeks ago on July 7, we read a section from Isaiah (66:10-14c), which comes a few verses before today’s selection (66:18-21). We saw then that these verses were written by the third person to use the name Isaiah. The first lived in Jerusalem around the end of the 8th century BC, the second in Babylon about 540 BC, and this Isaiah sometime around 515 BC while Jerusalem was being rebuilt.

The Second and Third Isaiahs did not choose the name casually. Although they lived in different times and/or places, they all shared a few common beliefs. The most important was that the God of the Jews was the Lord of History. By the time of Third Isaiah, this meant that He was not only God but also that the Lord controlled world history from the beginning of time, not just the destinies of the Jews. This meant that He expressed Himself in concrete events and our relationship with Him was to be more than verbal.

To use the name Isaiah meant that the author understood that worship and justice were inseparable. This is the special theme of chapter 66. When we examined this last month, we emphasized that the call of the Jews and now indeed ourselves was to be the “light to the nations.” Now let us look at the corrosive effects of corruption on leaders. Continue reading “21th Sunday Ordinary Time – Isaiah’s Warning: Avoid Corruption; Unite the Community”

20th Sunday Ordinary Time – Visions of Justice and Faith in God’s Covenant

The Prophet Jeremiah, Michelangelo, circa 1508–1512, Sistene Chapel (Wikipedia)

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Aug. 18, 2019

We read this Sunday from the Book of Jeremiah. He is called the weeping prophet of the Old Testament because he lived to see the city of Jerusalem destroyed. He might also be called its Cassandra as well. It was her curse to see the future of Troy and speak the truth, but never be believed. So it was with Jeremiah. Continue reading “20th Sunday Ordinary Time – Visions of Justice and Faith in God’s Covenant”

19th Sunday Ordinary Time – Light Your Lamps

Santa Clara, Isidoro Arredondo, 1693.  St. Clare of Assisi’s feast day is August 11th.

Adult Sacraments and Christian Formation 

Where is God? The summer has been a catalog of horrors: detention centers and raids that separate families on our borders, a public celebration for what would once have been an unthinkable extension of abortions in our State and repeated Mass murders by lonely and disaffected young males, to name the most obvious. The author of the Book of Wisdom, facing a world that presented many difficulties to his faith (see first reading below), urged his readers to make the traditions of their people, both moral and liturgical, the center of their lives. If that was true for the Jews it is even more pertinent for us. Do you know the traditions of the Catholic Church? Have you examined them since high school? Even if you have received all the appropriate Sacraments and attend Mass more than you don’t, seriously think about your further Christian formation with the RCIA. 

Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation: Non-Catholics who wish to become Catholic or Catholics who wish to receive Eucharist or Confirmation are asked to call or email Fr. Smith. The R(evisedC(hristianI(nitiation) of A(dults) classes will begin in the Fall. They are set in a seminar format with meetings once per month until Easter. There are 50 to 75 pages of reading per session. 

Marriage: St. Charles Parish congratulates those who will become engaged this summer and we wish to accompany you on your way to the altar and beyond. Please contact Fr. Smith at your earliest convenience. This includes those who will be married in another Parish and especially those who will be married in another country. 

Please contact Fr. Smith at the Rectory (718-625-1177 ext 409) 

 

Question from last week’s homily: 

As we had our annual mission talk last week, I suggested a homily by Dr. Meghan Clark of St John’s University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js1K27ya2Rk) as a substitute.  

She connected the readings to some of the basic issues of Catholic Social thought. I received some comment on the meaning and consequences of “The universal destination of all goods”. Fr. Kenneth Himes clarifies this succinctly and elegantly below: 

  1. Has the teaching on private property evolved over the years?

Yes, basically the development has been in the direction of underscoring the social dimension of private property. 

Pius XI affirmed the “twofold aspect of ownership, which is individual or social accordingly as it regards individuals or concerns of the common good” (Quadragesimo anno 45). Pius XII retrieved the patristic theme of the universal destiny of all goods as the context for thinking about private property (“Pentecost Address,” June 1, 1941). There can be a diversity of ownership schemes that should be left to the particular customs and statutes of a society. However, any such scheme “remains subordinated to the natural scope of material goods and cannot emancipate itself from the first and fundamental right which concedes their use to all” (ibid.). 

In effect, the raising up of the social dimensions of ownership has led CST to insist not only on the individual right of private property but the “social duty essentially inherent in the right” (Pacem in terris 22). 

Paul VI explicitly denied that the right to private property is to be considered “an absolute and unconditioned right,” for “the right to private property must never be exercised to the detriment of the common good” (Populorum progressio 23). This principle extends to the case that “the common good sometimes demands expropriation” of property (24). 

According to John Paul II, all property has a “social mortgage, meaning it has an intrinsically social function based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods” (Sollicitudo rei socialis 42). While private property remains a right that is “valid and necessary,” in the face of widespread poverty it is important to affirm “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all” (ibid., italics in original). 

It is in the same vein that Benedict XVI pointed out that some within the richer nations have been guilty of “excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care” (Caritas in veritate 22). 

Himes, K. R. (2013). 101 Questions & Answers on Catholic Social Teaching (Second Edition, pp. 82–83). New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. 

How comfortable are you with the answer to the question: “Who besides myself  has benefited from my possessions?” 

If questions arise from any of the homilies or talks in the Parish, please let me know and I will be happy to answer them as best I can.  

Fr. Bill  

 

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time 

August 11, 2019 

Wisdom of Solomon: 18:6-9 

Our reading today is from the Book of Wisdom, often called the Wisdom of Solomon. We read from it several months ago. Let us take a moment to remember its background. Although it sounds ancient, it is perhaps the last book in the Old Testament and could have been written as late as 30 BC. Also, although it takes the name of King Solomon of Jerusalem from about 1000 BC, it was most likely written in Alexandria Egypt for the children of the Jewish elite who were immersed in the Roman world and tempted to give up their faith.  

Alexandria was an important commercial but also intellectual center famous throughout the Roman world. The author of Wisdom is well versed in all the alternatives to Judaism, from Greek philosophy to the cult of Isis. In the other sections we read from Wisdom, the particular city of its composition was not important but today, as we will see, it is very important that it is written in Egypt. The author is first and foremost a man of his tradition. He answers the questions that his young people might have not only as Romans but as Egyptians. He will speak from the Scriptures and shows the superiority of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and as we will see today Moses 

We read today from Wisdom 18:6-9but the section begins with Chapter 11. His purpose is to show his young aristocrats that the Lord cares for His people at all times and places, not only in the past or only in Jerusalembut in the Diaspora as well. There is no better example for them than the Exodus from Egypt millennia before.  

To develop this, he uses key elements of the Exodus story. Thus, the Lord gave the Israelites water from the Rock, but the river Nile became blood, (Wisdom 11:4-14). The Egyptians lost their appetite with an infestation of frogs, but the Israelites were fed with quail (Wisdom 16:1-4). Even in the midst of deprivation and exile the Lord cared for His people.  

The author has developed this so that the emotional climax is the contrast of the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians with the deaths of many Israelites in the desert.  

The scene is set by the decision of Pharaoh to kill the male babies of the Israelites 

5 When they determined to put to death the infants of the holy ones, (Wisdom 18:5)  

 

We know the response: 

Thus, says the LORD: At midnight I will go forth through Egypt.5 Every first-born in this land shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh on the throne to the first-born of the slave-girl at the handmill, as well as all the first-born of the animals (Ex 11:4-5) 

They (The Israelites) shall take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb. (Ex 12:7)  

12 For on this same night I will go through Egypt, striking down every first—born of the land, both man and beast, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt – I, the LORD! 

13 But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you. (Ex 12:12-13) 

 

The author of Wisdom reflects on this: 

 

That night was known beforehand to our fathers,  

that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put 

their faith, they might have courage. 

7 Your people awaited  

the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes  

For when you punished our adversaries,  

in this you glorified us whom you had summoned (Ex 12:6-8 

The Lord was faithful to his promises and demonstrated that he was all powerful in every time and place.  

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice 

and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution, 

That your holy ones should share alike the same good things and dangers, 

having previously sung the praises of the fathers. (Ex 12:9-11)  

The sacrifice is most directly the first Passover, but it reflects the situation of all the Jews in the Diaspora who faithfully commemorate the feasts and fasts of their people. The author notes that they were an ancient people even when in Egypt, able to sing the songs of their Fathers.  

We note however that there is a comparison. The angel of death came upon the Israelites in the desert as well:  

The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “It is you who have slain the LORD’S people.” 

7 But while the community was deliberating against them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the meeting tent, and the cloud now covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. (Numbers 17: 6-7) 

The Lord is furious with the people and sends destruction among them. Aaron the priest, however, goes into the midst of the carnage and stops it: 

14 Yet fourteen thousand seven hundred died from the scourge (Numbers 17: 14a)  

 

The author of wisdom reflects: 

But the trial of death touched at one time even the just,  

and in the desert a plague struck the multitude; Yet not for long did the anger last. 

21 For the blameless man hastened to be their champion, 

bearing the weapon of his special office, 

prayer and the propitiation of incense (Wisdom 18:20-21)  

God’s anger at the disobedience of the people did not last long and it was turned away because the Jews, through Aaron, remained faithful to their traditions. Ritual and tradition cannot take the place of repentance, but the future leaders of the People are being warned that without this connection they are no better than the Egyptians – of ancient times or theirs.  

The last few weeks have seen, at the time of this writing, three mass killings. We also cannot ignore the general gun violence in some of our major cities nor the extension of abortion laws. With the latter, I will never forget that when the bill making virtually any abortion legal in New York State was passed and signed buildings and bridges were lit up in celebration. So much for safe, legal and rare. The talking heads of all persuasions were out in force for these events and I, for one, found them unpersuasive. Like the author of Wisdom, some ideas seemed to have merit but there was no compelling system of thought behind them. Like our author today, I think we must go to the history of our people more to point to the God who is revealed most fully in Jesus to know that despite what we see around us, God is with us, we are never abandoned and that he gives us the means to survive as a people and often to have a real effect on our society.  

In these dark times let us take comfort in the last words of The Book of Wisdom which are, for most scholars, the last words of the Old Testament:  

22 For every way, O LORD! you magnified and glorified your people;  

unfailing, you stood by them in every time and circumstance. (Wisdom 19:22)  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

7th Sunday of Easter – I See the Heavens Opened

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.

In Christ,

Fr Bill


First Reading

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.” 

(Acts 7:51–53)

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.