Luke parallels Stephen’s and Jesus’ situations … they preached in a way unpopular with the religious leaders, were taken before the Sanhedrin, were unjustly accused with false testimony.
The charges that Stephen depreciated the importance of the temple and the Mosaic law and elevated Jesus to a stature above Moses (⇒ Acts 6:13-14) were in fact true. Before the Sanhedrin, no defense against them was possible. With Stephen, who thus perceived the fuller implications of the teachings of Jesus, the differences between Judaism and Christianity began to appear.
– The New American Bible, notes.
– his face was like the face of an angel
Just as I had posted on Pentecostal individualism versus corporate Quaker discernment this caught my eye:
But the promises of God were made to the community, not just to individuals, or to the particular individuals who touched Jesus’ wounds or who can honestly say that they “felt” the Holy Spirit. And as a community we have a corporate stewardship of relationships, promises, blessings, strengths, even as those qualities ebb and flow in individuals. I do get strong impressions of God’s love and power, and the person next to me in worship is entitled to benefit from that reality even if he or she doesn’t have that experience personally. That person might have far more insight into the human psyche, however, and might be just the one to restore my perspective when I’m in despair about a relationship. This isn’t theory, by the way; it’s my experience.
So, like the captions says: go here — read this: Can you believe?: Another awkward chorus
What happpened to Stephen does seem remarkably similar to what had recently happened to Jesus. He declared the truth, and for it he was hated and persecuted. Is that still true today? Tell the complete truth about any significant matter, and they will get you one way or another. Why is that? Check John 3:19-20.
It wasn’t the original followers of Jesus who made trouble; it was people who came in later. Apparently people had flooded in without preparation.
Churches later came to have standards for admission; new people went through some sort of preparation for membership and met certain qualifications.
In the 19th century Quaker standards for membership were extremely high: one woman lost her membership because she had attended the wedding of a daughter in another church.
In the 20th century (the unprogrammed) Quakers swung back to the opposite extreme. In many cases people were given membership with no preparation. People flooded in like they did in the first century. Many had no Quaker background; they brought their own (spiritual and ecclesiastical) values with them. Sometimes they were given important offices; some of them attempted (often successfully) to impose their foreign values on the Meetings and also to disown some traditional Quaker values.
Inclusiveness is an important value, but it can lead to loss of the integrity of a religious group in various ways. Speaking in general whenever a large body of people come into a church, the church may suffer a loss of its original focus. It’s easier to make converts than it is to instill in them the principles for which the church exists. Inclusiveness has a high cost, but most of us still make it a priority.
Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, so anyone who comes in has a gift to share with the others. Still we have to discern and evaluate their gift to determine if it brings value or disvalue to the community and just how permissive we can afford to be. A knotty issue!
I believe Quakers have dealt with the issue in a creative way. Membership is not emphasized in many Meetings. It’s possible to attend for a long time without knowing who are members and who aren’t. Quakers have a horror of ‘proselytizing’. People are not generally invited to join the meeting. Those who want to take part in the organizational activities have to request membership.
8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.
11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.
13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law;
14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”
15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
According to the notes in the NAB, this division of labor was not so much between preaching and serving the poor, but between preaching and keeping the financial accounts that recorded the distribution of food to the needy (wasn’t that Judas’ former job?). This is an interesting distiction, becuse it’s one thing to divide preaching from serving the poor, another to divide it from monetary concerns.
The first possibilty bothers me … like David and Larry pointed out, this seems to create a moral hierarchy (preaching to others is better than helping others), and also seems to seperate contemplation from action, when I’d like them to be combined.
The second possibility seems more acceptable … to divide preaching from money worries. I may be going off on an unrelated tangent, but this is one thing I appreciate about the catholic model … priests are not directly “paid” for preaching by those to whom they preach, at least not exactly. And they don’t decide how the money that does come in will be spent. Thus preaching will not be swayed by concerns like … am I preaching popular stuff that will bring in paying customers? Hmmm, Bob hasn’t been in church recently, listening to my great sermons – let’s not give him any charity.
At any rate, the NAB also points out that this passage was probably put in to introduce Stephen, who will have a big part to play later as a martyr. Whenever he is mentioned, he’s not shown taking care of the finances or handing out food, but preaching.
As David has aptly pointed out, Acts 6:1-7 points us to the everlasting dichotomy of the Christian life. The second in the series of books that Elizabeth O’Connor wrote describing the history and activity of the Church of the Savior was called Journey Inward, Journey Outward. This theme was elaborated throughout the life of the church. One of our primary studies there concerned the trappist monk, Thomas Merton who clearly understood that contemplation and activity must go together; neither is effectual without the other: neither solitary Christian nor soulless activist has any place in the kingdom of God.
The most interesting thing to me about the passage is that Stephen, one of those appointed for work in the material realm, became the primary spiritual leader in the ongoing life of the church (See the material in Acts immediately following this passage).
In 1974 I was living at the Ritz, a run down apartment building in the inner city being renovated during the evenings or weekends by white professional people who lived in the suburbs; their project was to upgrade housing in D.C. for the poor; at the Sunday worship service I was so rash as to announce to the congregation after the sermon that the true spiritual leader of the church was the maintenance man at the Ritz.
At this point in the game we Christianity expanding. There seems to be two types of Jewish Christian — Judean and Hellenist. A Judean was a Jew who was also a cultural Jew — and likely from rural Judea. A Hellenist would be Jewish by faith and by inheritance but would have absorbed much more of the Greek/Roman culture. Maybe they didn’t even speak Hebrew or Aramaic.
The Hellenists who have converted to this messianic Judaism preached by the apostles (because Christianity is still a reformation/renewal movement within Judaism at this point and not a separate faith or sect — complain that when collections are made of the poor — the poor from Judean Jewish Christian families are getting a bigger share than the poor from Hellenist Jewish Christian families.
The solution — provided by the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples — is a division of labour. This inner circle will expand the circle of people who minister but at the same time reserve the office of prayer, teaching and preaching to themselves. This will ultimately lead to the three-fold order of ministry we know in traditional church structures: deacon-priest-bishop.
So what’s going on. The group grew so fast the original leadership became overwhelmed. They neglected the duties of care for the poor in favour of teaching ministry. And the neglect broke down — whether consciously or unconsciously along ethnic lines. The solution of sharing power — but it was this inner circle that got to decide this — and they reserved the teaching function for themselves creating a situation where teaching is a superior ministry to feeding the poor.
What this warns me about — I tend to favour the teaching function myself. I need to be mindful that my calling doesn’t make me a superior Christian to those who work for justice and change.
We also need to be aware that having the spirit doesn’t make us infallible. We may have gifts of healing and miracles and spectacular teaching or preaching — but we remain human — with all our limitations. Humility is a more important virtue for leaders than for the rest of us.
Happy Easter, you guys 🙂
Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.
Build His church and deck His shrine;
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine-
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not ’tis Easter mom?
Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter’s robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.
Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe.
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.
Seek God’s house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls alway
Make each morn an Easter Day.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ
1 About this time, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews: in the daily distribution their own widows were being overlooked.
2 So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food;
3 you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty.
4 We ourselves will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.’
5 The whole assembly approved of this proposal and elected Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
6 They presented these to the apostles, and after prayer they laid their hands on them.
7 The word of the Lord continued to spread: the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly increased, and a large group of priests made their submission to the faith.