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.
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
“In truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer focused much of his brilliant mind on the problem of ethics and particularly the problem of ethics in the face of violence. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the take-over and transformation of Germany by the Nazi Party, knew and experienced violence and hatred personally.
His theology proceeds, as does any really good theology, directly from his lived experience. In it, Bonhoeffer argued strongly and persuasively that there are no ethical principles – none; and that Jesus was not a teacher of morality. Yet Bonhoeffer argued that for the Christian there is simply one guide and one guide only: Jesus Christ. Each moral decision, Bonhoeffer said, presents us, as individuals, with a fresh and unique moment of choice. Each choice is a unique opportunity, to make a choice, unrelated to any choice we have made before, or will make hereafter. And that choice is about one thing and one thing only: Is what I choose consistent with my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ or to put it another way: Am I, in this particular instance, choosing love? Always, the same question: Am I choosing love?
1 John 1: 1 – 4
Luke 24: 36 – 53
There are a few of us in the community who will remember, and there may be others of you who will have heard the story, probably countless times, of how our brother Tom, when he was the Superior, used to pray at the Mid-Day Office for the gift of martyrdom to be given to our community. Some of us were quite ready to grant him his prayer, and make him the first official martyr of the Society. (As an aside, I say official martyr, because while the African martyr Bernard Mizeki was not a member of our community, he was certainly a product of our Society, as he was: introduced to the Christian faith; prepared for baptism; trained as a catechist and sent out on mission where he was later martyred, by members of our community in South Africa. Because of that, I like to think of him as our martyr.)
We say in our Rule of Life in the chapter on Life Profession that the grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.
We know that all things work together for good* for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. *30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?