We’re reading the story of St. Stephen these days in our liturgy. He’s the early church’s first martyr and, as I indicated in my previous blog, his death sparked a Christian persecution and drove others into exile. Yet, it led to a remarkable growth in the church.
A couple of years ago, I visited the Church of San Stefano Rotondo in Rome, built in honor of St. Stephen in the 5th century. You may be interested in the story of this church.
Monday of the Third Week of Easter
The next day, the crowd that remained across the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not gone along with his disciples in the boat, but only his disciples had left.John 6:22
Whoosh! Jesus vanished like the wind without leaving a trace. Gazing across the Sea of Galilee, any “footprints” would have dissolved instantly in the crashing waves.
Not that the people fed by Jesus on the mountain surmised that the rabbi walked across the sea—what utter nonsense!—though he did miraculously multiply five loaves and two fish. Who knew what else Jesus could do? Like a collective Sherlock Holmes they noted (A) only one boat had been docked, (B) Jesus had not gone in the boat with his disciples, and (C) Jesus was missing.
Other boats came from Tiberias near the place where they had eaten the bread when the Lord gave thanks. When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.John 6:23-24
A brigade of boats rowed hotly in pursuit of their bread king.
And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”John 6:25
Not knowing what to make of Jesus’ appearance on the other side of the sea, the baffled people skirted the question, “How did you get here?” with a superficial “When?”
Genuine, disinterested wonder in the marvels and person of Jesus was lacking in the crowd. Rather, impelled by fickle appetites, they chased him down for another free meal.
Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.John 6:26
Signs point beyond themselves to an imperishable good beyond the fleeting undulations of hunger and satiety. The miraculous bread of the outdoor picnic was supposed to stimulate the deepest hunger of the human spirit.
Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”John 6:27
Bodily hunger necessarily drives people to work for food, but spiritual hunger is easily dulled and forgotten. Jesus presented himself, the “Son of Man” in his vulnerable humanity, as the very imprint of God the Father. Like an official declaration stamped and sealed (sphragizó) by the signet ring of a king, Jesus declared himself to be the very countenance and Word of God.
So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”John 6:28-29
What kind of work is “believing” (pisteuó)? In the Hebrews Hall of Fame, Enoch is praised for believing, and Abraham for his extraordinary faith and obedience (Hebrews 11:5-12). Believing is not merely a cognitive assent, but a wholehearted trust in God even when his commands are incomprehensible, as with the sacrifice of Isaac.
The “work” of believing is exemplified by Mary, Mary Magdalene, the women disciples, and John the Beloved standing at the foot of the Cross on Calvary. Like Abraham poised to slay his son on Mount Moriah they stood, not knowing the outcome of the crucifixion three days later.
Standing with Jesus in the best and worst of times surpasses logic and reason. Faith is a relationship and commitment to a person, Jesus Christ.
Our readings from the Acts of the Apostles this week tell us one thing about the early church: it doesn’t evolve through human planning but from God’s plan. The disciples certainly didn’t expect Stephen.
The church was pretty settled in Jerusalem after Jesus rose from the dead, according to Acts. The followers of Jesus, good Jews, continued to worship in the temple. Yes, there were occasional squabbles with the Jewish leaders, but they worshipped and preached in Jerusalem. It was their world. Besides praying in the temple, they met together, probably on Mount Sion where the Last Supper was celebrated. They broke bread and prayed there.
They were mostly Galileans at first, then others joined them from elsewhere. One of them was Stephen.
Stephen was a new-comer. He may have been a Samaritan, which may explain his polemic against the Judaism of the day. The scriptures see him as one who follows Jesus in his passion. So many of his sufferings are like those Jesus endured. But he was also the cause of the first scattering of believers to other places. He was brash and undiplomatic. I would guess some of the Galileans didn’t like him.
Yes, he was a saint, but a hard-nosed saint.
He brought change, or better, God did.
Morning and evening prayers, 3rd week, here.
18 SUN THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER Acts 3:13-15, 17-19/1 Jn 2:1-5a/Lk 24:35-48
19 Mon Easter Weekday Acts 6:8-15/Jn 6:22-29
20 Tue Easter Weekday Acts 7:51—8:1a/Jn 6:30-35
21 Wed Easter Weekday [Saint Anselm, Bishop and Doctor of the Church]
Acts 8:1b-8/Jn 6:35-40
22 Thu Easter Weekday Acts 8:26-40/Jn 6:44-51
23 Fri Easter Weekday [Saint George, Martyr; Saint Adalbert, Bishop and Martyr]
Acts 9:1-20/Jn 6:52-59
24 Sat Easter Weekday [Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen, Priest and Martyr]
Acts 9:31-42/Jn 6:60-69
The Mass readings this week continue from the Acts of the Apostles with the story of the Greek-speaking deacon Stephen. His fiery preaching against temple worship and “stiff-necked” Jewish opposition to Jesus results in his death and a persecution that drives Hellenist Christians out of Jerusalem. (Monday and Tuesday) But Stephen’s death, like the death of Jesus, brings new life. The church grows. “The death of Christians is the seed of Christianity.” (Tertullian )
Philip the Deacon, one of those displaced, preaches to the Samaritans north of Jerusalem. Then, led by the Spirit, he converts the Ethiopian eunuch returning home after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (Wednesday and Thursday} Following Philip’s activity, Paul, the persecutor, is converted by Jesus himself. (Friday)
Before Paul’s ministry begins, Peter leaves Jerusalem to bless the new Christian communities near the coast; at Joppa he’s told by God to meet the Roman centurion in Caesarea Maritima. The mission to the gentile world begins with that meeting. (Saturday)
Stephen, Philip, Peter and Paul serve God’s mysterious plan. It’s not human planning. The Holy Spirit is at work.
The gospel readings this week are from St.John’s gospel– segments of Jesus’ long discourse on the Bread of Life to the crowd at Capernaum after the miracle of the loaves. (John 6) In the Eucharist we meet the Risen Christ. He not only feeds us personally, but a growing church is fed.
Morning and Evening Prayer, 3rd week, here.
Saturday of the Second Week of Easter
Darkness, turbulent waters, and a mighty wind threatened to capsize the disciples into the whirling vortex of chaos. The image recalls the antediluvian waters at the dawn of creation.
and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Genesis 1:2 (New American Bible Revised Edition)
The One who brings order out of disorder stepped out onto the surface of the deep. Fear struck the hearts of the disciples who, in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, thought they were seeing a ghost (Mark 6:49; Matthew 14:26).
“I AM. Fear not.”John 6:20
Egō eimi. The Greek words for “I AM” in John 6:20 match the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton in Exodus 3:14. The holy, almighty and ever living God—I AM WHO AM—is the Alpha and the Omega with a human voice and face in Jesus Christ. Moses parted the Red Sea by the power of God. Jesus commanded the wind and waves by his own power.
The Spirit of God in the Word of God pacified the waters as “in the beginning.”
And the earth was tohu vavohu (without form, and void); and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Ruach Elohim (Spirit of God) was hovering upon the face of the waters.Genesis 1:2 (Orthodox Jewish Bible)
Innocent Job deluged by wave after wave of suffering extolled the God of all creation who “stretches out the heavens,” recalling Genesis 1:1, and “treads” or “walks on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8), anticipating the Son of God walking on water centuries later.
They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.John 6:21
Many commentators, including St. John Chrysostom, have thought that this last statement needed reconciling with the accounts of Mark and Matthew which explicitly state that Jesus entered the boat. Reading the line with the lectio divina approach, however, Noah’s ark comes to mind. The Lord of all creation is neither in nor out of the ark, but encompasses all space and time and brings the boat safely to land, with the sign of the Spirit (an olive branch in the beak of a dove).
“I AM. Fear not.”