The Theological College where I trained was named after St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As a result I have something of a fondness of, and affinity towards, him. Stephen was one of seven Greek-speaking Jews who were ordained deacon, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. They were set apart to help look after the poor and needy, and to free the apostles up to preach and share the Good News of Jesus. Stephen was an enthusiastic young man, full of faith, but his zeal came up against a religious authority which was not exactly enthusiastic towards the Church. False accusations are made against Stephen, who is brought to trial in front of the High Priest. Stephen takes this opportunity to give an account of salvation history from Abraham to Jesus, which finishes by chastising the Jews for not believing in Jesus. Naturally, this upsets his audience. They respond by taking Stephen outside Jerusalem and stoning him to death for the crime of blasphemy. The account of his martyrdom is today’s first reading.
It would be all too easy to find fault with Stephen as his evangelistic strategy does not look, at first, to be very successful. All Stephen manages to do is to upset people and get himself killed. Such an interpretation is fine at a superficial level, but fails to get to grips with all that is going on.
Stephen bears witness to Christ as the fulfilment of Israel’s salvation history, and proclaims the Good News of Our Lord’s Saving Death. Before he is murdered, Stephen has a vision of the glory of heaven:
“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)
Stephen sees the reality which the Church celebrates after the Ascension: Jesus is Heaven with the Father. Those around Stephen interpret this as blasphemy, and set about stoning him. Assisting in the deathly punishment is a young pharisee named Saul. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (Paul) will go on to become the greatest evangelist in the Early Church.
Before Stephen is killed he says two things:
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7: 59 & 60)
In the first he puts his trust in God completely, and in the second he prays for those who are persecuting him, as Christ did on the Cross at Calvary. Stephen’s death is an example of faith put into practice; real tangible faith. He does not curse the people who are killing him, as one might expect, but instead he prays to God that they may be forgiven. The reason for this is found in verse 55, Stephen is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’. The same Holy Spirit poured out on the Apostles at Pentecost, which they prayed for, and waited for. When we are filled with the Spirit we can be people of love, zeal, and forgiveness.
The text of today’s Gospel comes from the middle of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, the summit of His teaching. It is a moment of profound intimacy where Christ prays to God the Father. He prays not only for His disciples, but for those who will believe in Him through their word. That means you, and me, and countless Christians down through the ages. Just before His Passion, Christ prays for us. Such generosity and love should amaze us. Jesus prays that we should be one, that there should be unity in the church. Sadly, throughout its history this has not been the case. Unity is Our Lord’s will for His Church. His will puts our petty human divisions into perspective. They are bad and they are wrong; they are not the will of God. As Christians we should be growing together in love. We should do this because it is Christ’s will, we are told to listen to Him, and to do what He tells us. That isn’t the only reason, however. Christ prays that the Church may be one,
‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (Jn 17:21)
In other words the truth of our witness and proclamation of the Gospel is contingent upon our unity. If we are divided, people won’t be drawn to the Christian faith.
Christ gives us His glory, which is His Passion and Death. To follow Christ leads to a Cross, and onward to new life. But if we want to follow Christ, then we cannot ignore the pain and suffering that we will encounter on our journey. We have signed up for it. Each of us, in our baptism, when we received the water of life without price. We are called to bear witness to Christ regardless of the cost. Others may think we are fools for believing what we do. We can convince them otherwise by the example of our lives, as authentic faith is attractive, real, and convincing.
Christ speaks to us, and teaches us so that our joy may be complete in Him, filled with His love, and the Holy Spirit. In following Christ, we are walking the way of His Passion. We are walking the Way of the Cross: dying daily to sin, and letting God’s grace be at work in and through us. It is not easy, and there are times when we will struggle and fail. We need the love and support of the Christian community to help us. Even the first Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each other’s help and support, so they could continue what Jesus started.
As a Christian community we support each other by meeting together to pray for our needs and those of the world, and to be nourished by the word of God, the Bible, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Because, as followers of Christ, these things are crucial to who and what we are. If we are to experience the fulness of God’s love then we have to live this way. Only then can we oﬀer the world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin.
As Christians who live in the love of God, we are called to forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness demonstrated by Jesus on the Cross. This is a love which can transform the world. We may not understand such love, but we know that it can be experienced, and we are living testimony to its power. It turns our lives around and sets us free to live for God and to proclaim His saving truth in our words and actions, calling the world to repentance, to turn to Christ, and to be renewed in and through Him. In His power, with His Truth, and filled with His Love we can transform the world.
So, as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us pray that Christ may come, and send His Holy Spirit. Let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live His life and to proclaim His Truth. To oﬀer the world that which it most earnestly desires: peace, joy, freedom, and the gift of eternal life in Christ. Let us proclaim God’s love so that all the world may come to know God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.