We can learn a lot from the way Luke tells the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, the first martyr in Chapters 6 and 7 of Acts.
He includes in the story details which reflect the passion and death of Jesus, beginning with false witnesses before the Sanhedrin: "Then they instigated some men to say, 'We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.' They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes, accosted him, seized him, and brought him before the Sanhedrin" (Acts 6:11) and including details such as “they took him outside the city” to execute him, just as Jesus had been killed outside the city walls. Then as he is being stoned Stephen prays “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and finally “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” The first Christians, suffering persecution themselves, could not have missed the point, that their suffering was a share in the suffering of Christ.
These clear allusions to the passion and death of Jesus, however, may make us miss the subtle allusions to his resurrection as well. For instance, Luke weaves into the end of the story of Stephen's martyrdom two references to a young man named Saul: “The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” (7:58) as they began to kill Stephen. After Stephen dies the story ends with the deceptively simple comment, “Now Saul was consenting to his execution” (8:1)
By introducing the reader to Saul at this point Luke is showing us that as the Jerusalem section of acts draws to a close with the death of Stephen, a new stage of the church’s life is already beginning. We meet a new player in the drama, the one who will become “the apostle to the Gentiles.” It’s as if Stephen’s prayer for his persecutors has been answered. This is classical paschal theology: out of death comes new life.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE FIRST PERSECUTIONS
Besides introducing us to Saul, two verses later Luke tells us that “After the death of Stephen a great persecution broke out.” This, too, sets us up for a paschal experience. Up to this point, the followers of Jesus were all Jews, and Christianity seemed destined to remain simply a sub-group within Judaism confined to Jerusalem. Now with this horrible persecution the infant church seems about to perish altogether. But watch how Luke moves the story along:
On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him. Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment.
Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Thus Philip went down to (the) city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed and crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city (8:1-8).
Within the space of a few verses Christianity has burst out of Jerusalem and like a seed pod that has broken open and has begun to spread its seeds abroad. Two chapters later the spread of the Gospel is well under way: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that arose because of Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word …” (11:19)
TROUBLED TIMES AND THE PASCHAL EVENT
Two traumatic and catastrophic events in the life of the early church, the death of Stephen and the outbreak of the first persecution of Christians, both turn out to be paschal events, sources of unexpected new life out of death…
Maybe in my next blog I’ll follow a little further this theme of the role of “troubled times” in the story of early church. Meanwhile I’m finding the plot of the Acts of the Apostles to be a real source of encouragement.
..............Watch for wind-borne seeds!