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Saints Peter and Paul got some things badly wrong. So do we.

April 15, 2013

Many people who criticize us Christians do so because they believe we are arrogant and hypocritical….. and they are right. We must recognise that sometimes we may be wrong when we think we are right.

[Some thoughts today on the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6: 8-15) for Monday 15 April 2013. It’s about Saint Stephen, ordained a deacon and first martyr of the Church.]

In the first FIVE chapters of the Acts of the Apostles the main character is Saint Peter.  Peter was an apostle to the Jews, starting his mission in Jerusalem, immediately after Jesus had ascended into heaven. And then, in Chapter EIGHT, Acts moves on to focus on Saint Paul, who evangelised the gentiles across the Roman Empire.

Now, sandwiched between the stories of Peter and Paul are Chapters 6 and 7 – the readings for today and tomorrow. And it is here we meet Saint Stephen, the deacon, the first man to die as a martyr. His death was the signal for persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and as a result, Christian activity moved further afield, so that the focus became evangelisation of the rest of the world. Stephen’s martyrdom was a key moment in Church history. And ironically this great persecution was led by none other than Saint Paul. God works in mysterious ways.

Now todays reading is simply a continuation from the Sunday reading we heard in church yesterday, when we saw Saint Peter and the other apostles being flogged for their preaching. This flogging indeed marked the start of that first persecution of the Church. And yesterday, during an angry rant by the high priest Caiaphas, the Apostles were told, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teachings”. So, it looks like Saint Peter and the other apostles had been pretty effective in their work, and were coming to the end of their preaching in Jerusalem anyway, because everyone had heard what they had to say.

Did you the reference in the reading to the way Saint Stephen had been debating at the Synagogue of Freedmen? The story of the ‘Freedmen’ originated nearly one hundred years earlier, in 63BC, when the Roman General Pompey besieged Jerusalem and took prisoner Jews, who were shipped to Rome to become slaves. When they were later freed in Rome they remained in Italy in their own community, and they became known as the ‘Freedmen’. It’s interesting the way Saint Luke specifically mentions the ‘Synagogue of Freedmen’. He did it for a reason – to emphasise how Stephen was preaching to Jews who did not live in Jerusalem but had travelled from gentile countries. So Saint Stephen was debating with Jews in Jerusalem, but who had come to Jerusalem on pilgrimage from far afield, from gentile places like Cyrene in Libya and Alexandria in Egypt.

In his ministry of outreach Saint Stephen was very much fulfilling his role as a deacon. Part of the deacon’s role, to this day, is to be a bridge between the Church and the wider world, taking God’s message to those who are out there in the big wide world. Our deacons today continue to be bridges like Saint Stephen, bringing a vast experience of working in the world to the ministry of the Church, and becoming signs of the Church in places where the majority of people are not Christians.

 Saint Stephen’s work in preaching the gospel was signalling the beginning of the Church moving its activities away from Jerusalem, away from the Temple, towards the wider world.

I don’t know about you, but listening to the words about what happened to Saint Stephen in Jerusalem sounds familiar to me. It’s almost a parallel story to the trial and death of Jesus.

It was Caiaphas, the high priest, who, before the Easter Passover, suggested that Jesus should be put to death.[1] Why did Caiphas suggest that? Because Jesus represented a threat to both the established order and the power of the Jewish leaders. They had tried debating with Jesus, they tried to ask him trick questions so that they could destroy His reputation, but they had failed miserably. Think of the way they tried to use religious law to get Him to condemn a woman to death because of the allegation of adultery – Jesus turned the tables on them and showed her accusers that they were hypocrites; and think of the way they tried to drag Jesus into making political statements by asking Him about paying taxes to Caesar – only to find Jesus tied them up in knots again. It was only after they had failed through religious and political arguments that they decided to get rid of Jesus.

They debated in this same way, only a few months later, with Stephen, but they found, as with Jesus, that they could not get the better of him because of his wisdom, and because Stephen’s words were inspired by the Holy Spirit. So then the authorities went to the next stage, exactly the same pattern as they with Jesus. Saint Matthew’s version of Jesus’ trial says, “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus, however false, on which they might pass the death sentence.[2] And today we hear how those overseas Jews debating with Stephen used the same method: “So they procured some men to say, ‘We heard him using blasphemous language against Moses and against God.’” Then they put Stephen on trial for his life before the Sanhedrin. Can you see how Luke is showing us how Stephen shares, as a martyr, in the death of Jesus Christ.

The same charge. Blasphemy. This is because blasphemy carries the death penalty. The politicians are willing to stay in power by false evidence and by ruthlessly killing anyone who threatens to their power base. There is a difference though in Stephen’s case. He was to be stoned to death, not crucified. A few months earlier the authorities had conspired to get the Romans to crucify Jesus. They could have stoned Jesus to death, but wanted Jesus to be crucified. Although they didn’t realise it, in doing so they were fulfilling the prophecies of how the Son of God would die. But stoning to death would serve their purposes in Stephen’s case.

Stephen had a relatively short public ministry, but that was not important, because his ministry had a tremendous impact on world history. No, the purpose marked out for Stephen by God was not to be achieved over a long lifetime. Whereas his persecutor Paul was to have an amazing conversion and then a long and difficult life serving the Church. Different people, different missions.

I want to mention one final, intriguing detail that Saint Luke tells us about in today’s reading. He mentions Cilicia and Asia, which were two districts to the north of Israel in Syria and Turkey.  The capital of Cilicia was the city of Tarsus. Who do we know who came from Tarsus? Yes, it’s that man again, Saint Paul, he came from Tarsus! Do you realise what this means? It means Saint Stephen had been debating with Saint Paul, and Saint Paul couldn’t get the better of him. No wonder Saint Paul was angry. We know that Saint Paul studied under the great Jewish teacher called Gamaliel, and there’s a strong possibility that Saint Stephen might have been a fellow student. It may help to explain Paul’s burning anger against Stephen: to Paul’s mind when Stephen became a Christian he had not only betrayed the great Jewish religious traditions, but his actions were even more scandalous because was a highly educated, intelligent man who had benefited from sitting at the feet of the great Gamaliel. He had betrayed the old school tie.

Listening to Canon John’s homily yesterday I was deeply struck by what he had to say about Peter denying Jesus three times. Peter had not acted malignly, but had made a mistake because he was weak. Peter was bitterly ashamed of his behaviour, but it taught him a lesson that was to change his life entirely – through this experience he had learnt that he was not as brave as he thought he was.

 Next Friday we will hear another man, this time Saint Paul, learning that same hard lesson about himself through an encounter with Jesus. Despite his intellect and education, Paul came to horrifying realization that he had been wrong and that in his arrogance he had done terrible things, that he was not as clever as he thought he was.

Today’s short reading from the Acts of the Apostles has serious implications for all of us who profess to be Christians. We learn that being a Christian is not at all easy. Many people who criticize us Christians do so because they believe we are arrogant and hypocritical, that we judge other people and find them wanting. We must try to understand that, like both Peter and Paul, we may be weaker than we think, we may be wrong when we think we are right.  And what we learn about Saint Stephen tells us that each of us has been given a mission by God – we should pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us and inspire us and give us the strength to persevere and achieve our purpose in life, just like he did.


[1] John 11:49

[2] Matthew 26:59

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