Saint Stephen, and the Grace of Redemption – Br. Curtis Almquist
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 12-15
The first-generation church at Jerusalem was in trouble. Its membership was drawn from two groups of Jews: those who were native Palestinians, and those who were outsiders, members of what was called “the Dispersion.” The “Dispersion Christians” were also Jews; however they had been born and raised outside of Palestine. Their native tongue was not Jewish, but Greek, and so they were also called “the Hellenists.” Rivalry between the native-born Palestinians and the Hellenists had been a drama in Jewish life for a long time. Converts to Christ brought their respective culture and history with them when they entered the Church. Greek-speaking members felt they were treated as second class, and they complained the poor people among them were not getting a fair share of the community’s food and financial support. To resolve the problem, the Apostles appointed seven of the Hellenists to administer the Church’s resources and care for those in need. Stephen, described in The Acts of the Apostles as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” was one of these seven.[i] He was authorized for this ministry by prayer and the laying-on of hands, and he became the first to do what the Church considers the work of a deacon.[ii]
Stephen was a very able administrator and preacher, and he was recognized to have a kind of supernatural power. That’s the only way to describe how or why things happened when he prayed. Amazing things. Miraculous. Too miraculous. His fellow Hellenists became jealous. They corralled false witnesses who accused Stephen of blasphemy and dragged him before the Jewish Council. Stephen denounced his accusers, which made them and their followers very defensive and very angry. Stephen was silenced by being stoned to death. Stephen is remembered as the first martyr of the Church.
Stephen’s martyrdom caused an enormous amount of fear among the Christian community in Jerusalem, the Palestinians and the Hellenists alike. No surprise. Many left Jerusalem. These Christians, for the first time, moved in large numbers beyond Jerusalem and so the Gospel of Christ began to spread. Good came out undeniably-tragic circumstances. We call this “redemption.” Our English word redemption comes from the Latin, redimere, which means to buy back. Redemption is seeing something that has been spent, or lost, or used up, or broken, perhaps wasted, and discovering some new good, some new life, some new possibility come out of it. Redemption does not deny the former, but it does recognize the latter, namely, that there is often more than immediately meets the eye. There’s no denying that Stephen was corralled, judged, and lynched by both words and stones. It was a tragic and cruel death. But there’s also no denying that Stephen’s shed blood was like seed for the Church. In fear and reaction to his death, the Church scattered and began to take root in places and in ways before unimaginable, among and beyond this tiny Jewish sect in Jerusalem and Galilee. That’s redemption. One of the Palestinian Jews who witnessed Stephen’s death was named Saul, who would become Saint Paul.[iii]That’s redemption.
Redemption is not a word to impose on people who are suffering. Redemption is a word to claim in retrospect. Where does redemption figure into your own life? You have obviously not been stoned to death; but you have surely suffered unjustly. You have had experiences in life that have just killed you, at least for the moment. I encourage you to do some reflecting on your life, where good has come out of bad in your life. I’m not suggesting sugarcoating your life’s suffering; but I am suggesting that claiming what is undeniably good come from what was undeniably bad may give you cause for deep gratitude in the present, and hope for the future.
[i]Saint Stephen is thought to have lived 5-29 c.e.
[ii]Saint Stephen’s biography is drawn from For All the Saints, complied by Stephen Reynolds. (1994), pp. 228-229.
[iii]Acts of the Apostles 7:54-8:2.
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Dear Brother Curtis,
A beautiful homily that touches my heart. The history is appreciated and its application to personal suffering and universal suffering is enlightening. What good can come from Bethlehem? The redeemer of the world. Peace, Sandra