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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice


Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7. 55-60
: The Rare Gift of Martyrdom

Note:
For this and the remaining weeks of Easter,
the Reflections will cover the Sunday reading from Acts
(See Introductory Notes)
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

Share together instances of when good has come out of the most evil of situations.

Reflection on the text

The martyrdom of Stephen (7 v 60) was a threshold moment in the unfolding story of the first Christian communities as told by the author of The Acts of the Apostles.

On the plus side, it led to a scattering of Christians precipitating the widening of Christian mission to Judea and Samaria (8 v 1-2) and eventually way out to the Gentiles. On the other hand many people suffered.

Not only through this, but also the extraordinary about-turn in the life of Saul of Tarsus, the ruthless persecutor of the church and a silent consenter to Stephen's execution (8 v 1). Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus changed all that. (Chapter 9) One wonders what impact Stephen's dying words had on him.

In this short reading we see again how easily crowds can be manipulated, how quickly they can turn. Standing before the High Council in the presence of many people, Stephen defended himself against accusations of blasphemy and of plotting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (7 v 13–14). Luke's summary of the speech is given in 7 verses 2–53 and is well worth reading before tackling the questions below.

Here, in the agony of an excruciatingly painful death, Stephen shows the same forgiving attitude towards his persecutors as Jesus did on the cross. His words, 'Master, do not blame them for this sin' (7 v 60) echo the words of Jesus: 'Father forgive them for they don't know what they're doing' (Luke 23 v 34).
Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. Some people think that Stephen's speech was unnecessarily provocative which was his undoing? What kind of traps can we fall into when it comes to defending the faith?

  2. Should forgiveness be offered to people who are likely to refuse it? Can an over-readiness to forgive belittle the depth of seriousness of the crime committed? For example, should a parent forgive a suicide bomber who blows up their innocent child?

  3. How is the practice of forgiveness expressed in your community of faith? How often is it talked about? How might the time of' confession in worship be used to bring home the centrality of forgiveness in the church's life and mission?
Praying Together
  • All together, pray for the persecuted church. Invite people to name countries, situations or individual people currently experiencing persecution. You may wish to identify where they are, using a marker on a map of the world. You may like to put a photo of persecuted Christians in the centre of the group.

  • Take time in silence to raise these people before God in prayer.

  • Say together the Lord's Prayer, repeating three times the words 'but deliver us from evil'.

  • Pray for any other issues and concerns raised by members of the group.

  • Close, by joining hands as a circle and then saying The Grace together. Instead of saying 'the fellowship of the Holy Spirit' say ‘the solidarity of the Holy Spirit' - a better translation of the word koinonia (= fellowship) - remembering the solidarity we have with our fellow Christians around the world who are living in difficult and dangerous situations.
More background information
  1. Reference to Paul's involvement in the persecution of the household churches are found in 1 Corinthians 15 v 9, Galatians 1 v 13, 23; Philippians 3 v 6 and 1 Timothy 1 v 13.

An Introduction to Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is the seamless sequel to Luke’s Gospel. It is thought they were written some 5 decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus,
around 85 AD.

The ‘book’ records the beginnings and spread of the Christian household community movement across the Roman Empire. We are shown how a religious movement which was deeply rooted in Jewish culture managed to ‘leap’ barriers and take root and flourish in a diversity of Gentile cultural contexts.

The author of Luke and Acts, who remains anonymous, provides a new portrait of Jesus the Christ for Gentiles living in a very different world from that of rural Palestine. Indeed, he opens a window into urban Greco-Roman society providing insights into the political and social circumstances of his day.

Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, says that Acts was written to help Christians survive the death of the apostles. The author uses two devices: continuity with the past from Israel to Jesus to Peter to Paul and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit who empowers for God’s mission.

Biblical scholar Michael Trainer gives a very handy summary of the two scrolls in his book Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (p.26 see details below):

Gospel of Luke   Book of Acts  
1:1 - 4 Prologue 1:1 - 5 Prologue
1:5 – 3:38 Birth Story of Jesus 1:6 – 26 Birth Story of the Church
4:1 – 13 Preparation by the Spirit for Mission 2:1 – 13 Preparation by the Spirit for Mission
4:14 – 9:50 Ministry in Galilee 2:14 – 12:25 Ministry in Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria
9:51 – 19:27 Jesus' journey to Jerusalem 13:21 – 28:16 Paul's journey to Rome
19:28 – 24:53 Ministry in Jerusalem 28:17 – 31 Ministry in Rome

Trainer goes on to say:

‘According to Luke, the story of Jesus is incomplete without the story of the early Christian communities and, by inference, the story of the audience addressed by these stories. Jesus’ ministry is a model for the ministry of the Christian community; the story of the Christian community is grounded in and parallels the story of Jesus.’

Luke tackles a number of issues:

    1. How to remain faithful to the vision and spirit of Jesus in very different cultural and social circumstances.
    2. The reliability and historicity of the evidence available to Luke (documented eyewitness accounts and verbatim citation).
    3. How Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ live together in harmony and mutual respect.
    4. The implications of Jew and Gentile eating at table together.

Trainer says, the author of Luke/Acts

‘addresses a vibrant, active, missionary-conscious Christian community seeking to deal with problems on two fronts: internally, with issues of multiculturalism, wealth, table communion, ministerial effectiveness and diversity; and externally, with relationships and the wider Greco-Roman society.

Faced with these issues Luke was left with one or two options: to encourage readers to retreat into their own sectarian vacuum cut off from the reality of life around them, or encourage them to engage the questions and issues of their world. Luke chose the second option.

The Gospel and Acts… reflect that choice. Simply put, in both volumes Luke encourages readers to remain in dialogue with their world while bringing the tradition that they have received about Jesus to bear on it.’ ( page 27)

We face the same challenge to adapt and apply the Jesus story in our own context as we wrestle with the major challenges of our time – global warming, climate change, destruction of the habitat and survival of species; the global and local rich-poor divide; living simply in a consumer society; addressing issues of peace and justice in a world of violence and oppression.

We recommend that you take time to read the whole of Acts in one sitting prior to engagement in the study series.

We are grateful to Michael Trainor for kindly allowing us to use material from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, 1995, St Paul’s, Homebush NSW, pages 26 and 27. For more on Michael Trainor’s work see: http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/theology/staff/trainor_mf.php

See also:

Raymond E Brown’s classic work,1984, The Church the Apostles Left behind, Paulist Press, New York, chapter 4.

Acts - The Gospel of the Spirit by Justo L. Gonzales, Orbis Books, 2001

Acts - The peoples Bible Commentary by Loveday Alexander, Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006

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