Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12th
Once again, a reading from Acts of the Apostles gives us an opportunity to see something of great importance that was taking place in the early Church. Last week’s excerpts had two important points – that there was theological confusion from the very beginning and the apostles claimed guidance by the Holy Spirit in order to be able to maintain the purity of the teachings of Jesus.
Today is another first – martyrdom! The text tells the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons. Stephen has been effectively preaching the new joyous message of Jesus of Nazareth and needless to say, it stirs up strong resentment among those who had rejected Jesus. At this point, the sacred author has Stephen giving a long, very long, homily about the story of salvation history. Towards the end of it he points out that their ancestors had rejected the prophets and now they have rejected Jesus and they are making a big mistake. You can well imagine that the crowd was infuriated and, cheered on by the Sanhedrin, the crowd begins to execute Stephen by stoning him. Again, the sacred author makes Stephen very similar to the death of Jesus. His enemies bring forth false witnesses to accuse him of false crimes and as he begins to die he prays, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” And with these words he “fell asleep.”
From the very beginning the Church saw martyrdom as a mysterious blending of one’s own death into the death of Jesus Christ and making that person one with Christ for all eternity.
An interesting sideline is that there was a man standing there that seemed to have some importance and we will see that later on but it was that Saul was there as a witness and approved of what was happening. A little farther along in Acts we will see that Saul is commissioned to travel up to Antioch and arrest any other followers of “the way” that he might find in that city. On the road he will find that he experiences a very interesting horseback ride.