Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; I Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14.
The witnesses to Jesus’ lordship face great costs, but know the mystery of his presence.
This Sunday we move through martyrdom of disciples to the divinly-given knowledge of the heavenly Jesus.
The Acts reading presents the witness, that is, the martyrdom, of the deacon Stephen. Stephen preached a provocative sermon to Judean folks in Jerusalem and was stoned to death as one who blasphemed the Lord.
Stephen is the first martyr in Christian tradition, one who died because he confessed the Lordship of Jesus. His death-scene is presented as an idealized model of such witnessing to the ultimate degree.
Stephen is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is granted a vision of God in heaven and the glorified Jesus at God’s right hand – a vision that Jesus had announced to the chief priests at his trial (Luke 22:69). Before he dies, Stephen addresses to Jesus the same petition that Jesus on the cross had addressed to God, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts ; Luke , both echoing Psalm 31:5).
Stephen’s very last word is a loud outcry praying for his persecutors. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (verse 60). Those who follow Jesus were called to testify to the world and to pray for it, not to condemn it or respond vengefully because the world rejected the message.
Stephen’s vision and prayer – obviously elevating him to saint’s status – made it clear that the life of faith was not defeated by persecution and death. Judeans, Romans, or Nazis could not kill the faith. They could not, by killing their bodies, deprive the witnesses of the ultimate meaning of their lives.
· We remember that April 9th this year was the 75th anniversary of the Nazis’ hanging Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a truly modern example of a martyr for the faith.
· We remember that Christians today in
, Egypt , Iraq , and other non-European countries are suffering
discrimination, persecution, and death because of their faith identities. Syria
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16.
The Psalm reading is a typical prayer by a faithful one who is persecuted and threatened.
Read in the context of Stephen’s story, the hearer knows that the petition, “deliver me in your righteousness,” may only be answered through the heavenly reward of the martyr, not by some earthly rescue.
The whole prayer (in verses 1-5), fervent as it is, can be seen to culminate in the last statement. “Into your hands I commit my spirit…” – into God’s hands, come what may.
That is the prayer the martyr is prepared to make.
When the psalmist also prays, “Let your face shine on your servant” (verse 16), the narrative in Acts suggests that the prayer was answered for Stephen when he received his vision. The vision came because he had the grace to pray for his enemies.
I Peter 2:2-10.
The Epistle reading is a meditation on rejection and chosenness. It is a meditation prompted by the imagery of the sacred stone in the prophets and psalms.
The people addressed are mostly non-Judean followers who live in
and the neighboring Roman provinces (I Peter 1:1, modern northwestern Pontus ). Turkey
“As you come to him, the living stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to [God]…” (verse 4).
The chosen stone may be a precious cornerstone, most important in the building, or it may be a stumbling block, “a stone that causes men to stumble” (verse 8, quoting
Isaiah ). This
description of the stone is offered to the faithful as a way to understand
their persecutions. They are the living
stones being built into a sanctuary that replaces the temple (verse 5), but
those who reject their message and persecute them are stumbling over the stone
instead of honoring it as God’s chosen one.
In the late first century, this was a Judean-against-Christian struggle over the claim to be God’s chosen people.
The writer takes the covenant promise of Exodus 19:5-6 and applies it to the Jesus followers who are being persecuted by other Judeans. To these non-Judean confessors he proclaims, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (verse 9).
Beside this testimony from the Torah, the writer cites a passage from the prophets, which he also understands to apply to the New Israel. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (verse 10, paraphrasing
The chosen people, older or newer, are witnesses, witnesses to “the wonderful light” of the God who redeemed sinners, even persecuting sinners.
The Gospel reading is from the farewell discourses of Jesus with his disciples. The setting of the discourses is at the last supper, but the teaching is actually about times after the resurrection.
Chapter 14 of John continues a series of dialogues that began with Peter’s question in . There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (). Each question gives Jesus an opportunity to spell out further to uncomprehending disciples how he can go away now and yet be present to them in the times ahead.
Our passage is not so much about the witnessing that apostles will do as it is about the new reality they will enter. It is about Stephen’s vision, not his preaching.
The heavenly realm has many dwelling places – that is, there is a multitude of ways in which worthy souls will find fulfillment and consummation (verse 2). Human ways of understanding cannot comprehend this – especially in the case of a doubting Thomas (verse 5) – but the passage insists that the person of Jesus himself is the entry to God’s own presence. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (verse 7, NRSV).
The Christ-mysticism of this Gospel’s testimony comes to unqualified expression in such statements.
Philip’s question (verse 8), pressing Thomas’s doubts further, leads Jesus to both reaffirm his own mutual in-dwelling with the Father (verses 9-10) and to extend this communion-of-being to the works done in the world. “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…” (verse 12).
This passage is not directly about the cost of discipleship. It is about the mystery of discipleship. It is about the new reality – glimpsed by martyrs in their visions, and affirmed by prophets and apostles as the outcome of God’s justice and love.