1st Reading: Acts 7:51 – 8:1A
Responsorial Psalm: 31:3CD-4, 6 and 7B and 8A, 17 and 21AB
Gospel Jn 6:30-35
As a theology graduate, I spend a lot of my time thinking about Jesus. However, thankfully, this past Lent reminded me that I need to spend more of my time praying to God and not just studying Him. As a favorite writer of mine once penned, “be the theologian who wants to attain heaven, not just attend a lecture on it” (Peter Kreeft). To study God and to pray to God is great – fantastic even – but there is a third category I had been missing! Something that is very obviously elaborated upon in today’s first reading.
In Acts of the Apostles, Luke – the same author of the Gospel – identifies Stephen as one of the seven men presented to the apostles and appointed to the task of caring for the marginalized in works of service and ministry (Acts 6:2-4a). Stephen especially excels at the latter. In fact, Luke spends nearly the entirety of chapter 7 talking about Stephen talking. Debate was at the heart of Jewish scholarship, and Stephen wholly embraced it. But, fervently preaching the gospel of Jesus in synagogues and public places is what also led to Stephen’s death.
Stephen is frequently venerated as the first Christian martyr, or the ‘protomartyr’. But more than just being the first martyr, Stephen’s life gives us amazing insight into what it means to be a Christian! For example, in Acts 7:54 Stephen, “filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” This affirms that the prophecy Jesus made in Mk 14:62 has been fulfilled. But, because Stephen made this affirmation before the Sanhedrin he was charged with blasphemy, taken outside the city, and stoned to death. Yet, even as he is killed he calls out, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” and “do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Is not the resemblance shocking!
The resemblance I am referring to is Stephen’s life to our Lord’s life. We are told in the gospels that Jesus “taught in synagogue[s] and public places” (Jn 18:21) but was arrested because of it. The rest of the story we are familiar with. Jesus was charged with blasphemy (Lk 22:70-71) and put to death on a cross. But, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says both “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34) and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). If we compare Stephen’s final moments of life to Jesus’ the resemblance is clear.
Both praying to God and having the luxury of studying Him are great habits. But, what this first reading reminds us is that imitating Jesus is at the heart of Christianity. Without it, the song “They Will Know we are Christians by our Love” means very little. So Stephen is not just a martyr, or the first martyr, but a model on what it means to be Christian.