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 and great fulfillments.
This Sunday we hear of the cost of discipleship – and also of its mystery. (Biblical quotations are from the NIV translation unless otherwise marked.)
The Acts reading presents the witness, that is, the martyrdom, of the deacon Stephen. Stephen preached a provocative sermon to Jewish 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 7:59; Luke 23:46, 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.
(This prayer seems to be a repetition of what Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them…” However, the saying at Luke 23:34 was in fact added to the Gospel text sometime in the second century. See translators’ notes there. No other Gospel has Jesus say this. From the viewpoint of the copyists of Luke’s Gospel in the second century, Stephen’s noble prayer must have had a preceding model from the Lord himself, and they were inspired to add it to the Passion narrative.)
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. Jews, 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. Stephen’s story witnesses to this by standing near the beginning of the history in the book of Acts.
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, with reference to the imagery of the sacred stone in the prophets and psalms.
The mostly non-Jewish followers who live in Pontus and the neighboring Roman provinces (northwestern Turkey) are exhorted, “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 8:14). 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 Jewish-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 Jews. To these non-Jewish 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 Hosea 2:23 [Heb. 2:25]).
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 reportedly 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 13:30. There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (13:30), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (14:22). 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 really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (verse 7, NIV). 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.