Sunday Scriptures

It’s Not Easy to Give Faithful Witness to the Word of Life

by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

I’VE HAD PEOPLE applaud after homilies I delivered (perhaps to express their delight when I finally stepped away from the pulpit), and people have laughed during homilies I’ve preached (sometimes with me, and sometimes at me).

Yes, people have fallen asleep during homilies of mine (possibly lulled into a few moments of perfect peace, but probably just bored), and some people have talked back to me during homilies I’ve given (and only sometimes were they answering a question I had posed).

There have even been a couple of particularly memorable occasions when a disgruntled congregant stopped on the way out to share dissatisfaction at something I said, or should have said, or should not have said.

Still, I must admit that people have never done to me what was done to Stephen as he preached what amounted to his very first (and only) sermon: “they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.”

A closer look at what the Acts of the Apostles tells us about Stephen might lead us to conclude that this wasn’t quite what he had in mind when he first signed on in service to the young Church. We first meet Stephen in Acts 6. His name is the first of the “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom,” chosen by the apostles because the business of attending to the spiritual and material needs of the growing community had quickly become more than they could handle.

Concluding that “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table,” the apostles appoint Stephen and the rest to take charge of the daily distribution of supplies to the Greek-speaking widows in the community, taking care to provide for the needs of the most vulnerable and at-risk among their sisters in Christ. In a hint of what God has in store for Stephen, he is described as “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Among the seven, he alone is singled out for such praise. Of the rest, we learn only their names, “Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,” and we learn of the last of the seven, Nicholas of Antioch, that he was “a convert to Judaism” (Acts 6:5). In this designation of the seven, the Church recognizes the beginnings of the diaconal ministry, and in the prayer of consecration at the ordination of deacons, we read: “By prayer and the laying on of the hands the apostles entrusted to those chosen men the ministry of serving at tables.”

We hear nothing further about when, how or under what circumstances these seven undertook their responsibilities in the service of charity. We do learn more about two of them who were busy doing what was not part of the original job description. Philip, for example, made his way to Samaria, where he “preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” and inspired many to seek baptism (Acts 8:12). From there, Philip was led southward – by divine inspiration – to meet an Ethiopian court official on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Teaching the official to understand the portion of Isaiah he was reading along the journey, Philip “proclaimed Jesus to him,” and as a result the official asked to be baptized (Acts 8:35-39).

An Unexpected Turn

As for Stephen, his ministry likewise takes an unexpected turn. “Filled with grace and power,” he worked “great wonders and signs among the people” and engaged in the spirited give-and-take that was such a vital part of prayerful study of the word of God in the synagogue. Those who engaged with him in these debates “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:8, 10). Things quickly went from bad to worse, though, with harsh words that led to tragically violent deeds. On the day of Pentecost, Peter reminded the crowds of the words of the prophet Joel, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. Indeed, upon my servants and my handmaids I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

It was not long before this came to pass, for Stephen “looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” It is the risen and exalted Jesus whom Stephen beheld in his vision, as he declared to the already furious mob, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

As the stones began to fly, it was this glimpse of glory that inspired Stephen to call out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and then, echoing the words of the crucified Jesus, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Having said this, Stephen “fell asleep.” Let’s be perfectly clear: This expression neither sidesteps nor sugarcoats the violence or the injustice of Stephen’s lynching. In the shadow of the cross of Christ, and in the radiance of the resurrection, death is denied the last word. The Gospel to which the protomartyr Stephen testified with inspired words, and even more eloquently through the witness of his death, is the life-giving Gospel of the Risen One who stands in glory at the right hand of God.

Let us pray, through the intercession of St. Stephen, that whatever we say and whenever we speak, our voices will give faithful witness to the Word of Life![hr]

Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 7: 55-60

Psalm 97: 1-2, 6-7, 9

Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20

John 17: 20-26[hr]

Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is professor of theology at St. John’s University.

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