55 Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
The book called “The Acts of the Apostles” was written around 85 to 90 CE by the anonymous author of the Gospel According to Luke. The first 15 chapters of Acts are a didactic “history” of the early Jesus Follower Movement starting with a second account of the Ascension of Jesus (the first one is in Luke 24) and ending at the so-called Council of Jerusalem where it was agreed that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and keep all the Kosher dietary laws in order to become Jesus Followers. From Chapter 15 to Chapter 28, Paul’s missionary activities are recounted, ending with his house arrest in Rome, not always in a manner consistent with the accounts in Paul’s epistles.
Today’s reading presents the death by stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. In many respects, the martyrdom of Stephen parallels the events of the Crucifixion of Jesus.
Stephen’s story began in Chapter 6 when the apostles appointed Stephen as one of the first seven deacons (based on a Greek word “to serve”) to distribute food to the widows of Jewish Jesus Followers and Gentile Jesus Followers.
Stephen was portrayed as performing signs and wonders. His opponents, however, seized him, brought him before a council, and falsely accused him of speaking against the Temple and the Law. He responded by giving a lengthy (51 verses) account of the stories of Ancient Israel including Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David. (Some aspects are different from the stories in the Hebrew Bible because the author of Acts relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint.) Stephen concluded by accusing his opponents of being “stiff necked” and failing to follow the Law.
In today’s reading, the crowd seized him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him (vv. 57-58). As Stephen was facing death, he had a vision of “the Son of Man” standing at God’s right hand (v.56). “Son of Man” is a term found both in Daniel and in Ezekiel (and in the Gospels) and is best understood as “THE Human Being” — the best that a human can be. By the First Century, it had Messianic overtones.
The reading concluded by noting that the witnesses to Stephen’s death laid their coats at the feet of Saul (v.58) – the Jewish version of the Latin name “Paul.” Saul’s “Damascus Road Experience” was recounted in Chapter 9 of Acts, and Paul is the main character in Chapters 15 to 28 of Acts.
As Stephen died, he asked God not to hold the sin against his executors, an echo of Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them”) – a saying found only in the Gospel According to Luke. The Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests that Jesus’ and Steven’s intercessions on behalf of their killers may be modeled on the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:12b (“yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for his transgressors”).
1 Peter 2:2-10
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner”, 8 and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
In the First Century, it was not uncommon to write something in another person’s name so that the writing would have extra “authority” – particularly when the writer believed he knew what the “authority” (in this case, Peter) would have said.
The First Letter of Peter was likely written in the last quarter of the First Century, long after Peter’s death. It was written by an anonymous author in sophisticated Greek (not a style a Galilean fisherman would use) and resembled the form of Paul’s letters. Its focus was not on the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, but on the Resurrection and the affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.
Today’s reading contains the last (of five) directives to the Jesus Followers: to long for the means of spiritual nourishment. It emphasized that all believers are part of “a holy priesthood” (v.5) and that the Christian life is communal, not individual — “a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (v.9)
Like most authors of the books of the Christian Scriptures, the author of 1 Peter knew the Hebrew Scriptures well and used them so that his words would resonate and be familiar to his audience.
Verse 3 (“taste the Lord”) is a paraphrase of Psalm 34:8 (“O taste and see that the LORD is good”). The Lord’s laying of the cornerstone (v.6) is derived from Isaiah 28:16 (“therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See I am laying in Zion a foundation stone”). The notion that the stone was “rejected by mortals” (v.4) or “builders” (v.7) is a paraphrase of Psalm 118:22 (“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”). In Isaiah 8:14-14, YHWH is the “rock” over which the enemies of Israel will stumble.
In today’s reading, the “stone” is Jesus the Christ as Lord. Those who do not follow the word will stumble (v.8). Calling the Jesus Followers (including Gentile Jesus Followers) “a chosen race, a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (v.9) expanded the descriptions found in Hosea 2:23 and Exodus 19:6 from Jews to Gentiles.
This sense of the priesthood of all is emphasized in the Baptismal Rite of The Episcopal Church in which the celebrant and the congregation say to the newly baptized: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood” (BCP 308).
1 Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
The chronology of events is also different in the Fourth Gospel. For example, the Temple Event (“Cleansing of the Temple”) occurred early in Jesus’ Ministry in the Fourth Gospel, rather than late as in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, but in the Fourth Gospel, it occurred the day before the first day of Passover so that Jesus (who was described as “the Lamb of God” in the Fourth Gospel) died at the same time lambs were sacrificed at the Temple for the Passover Seder to be held the night he died.
Most scholars agree that the Gospel was written by an anonymous author around 95 CE, at a time when the “parting of the ways” between the Jesus Follower Movement and Rabbinic Judaism was accelerating.
Today’s reading is a portion of the lengthy Farewell Discourse (13:31-17:36) which The New Oxford Annotated Bible describes as “an interpretation [by the author of the Fourth Gospel] of Jesus’ completed work on earth and his relation both to believers and to the world after his glorification.”
In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, Bishop Spong describes the Farewell Discourses in this way: “In many sections of these discourses there is considerable repetition. They do not make for easy reading nor are they readily understandable. These documents pretend to describe Jesus’ preparing the disciples to live without him, but their content is actually aimed at the issues that the Johannine community was facing when this gospel was written, some 65 to 70 years after the crucifixion. This means that in these discourses the disciples themselves become symbols of the Johannine community of believers. They are portrayed as struggling with the reality of persecution. They are also experiencing the pain of separation, not only from Jesus by that point in history, but perhaps more poignantly from the synagogue from which they have so recently been excommunicated.”
Spong continues that the Farewell Discourses were John’s method of giving Jesus a “final opportunity to identify his mission and to interpret the divine love which John is sure dwells in him as the presence of God.” Spong understands Jesus’ response (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”) to Thomas’ question (v.5) as follows: “The journey is not an outward one, Thomas, but an inward one. God is not up there; God is in here. The only way into the reality of God is to live into the meaning of the Christ life, to discover the freedom to give yourself away. That, alone, is the pathway to the Father.”
The Jewish Annotated New Testament describes “the way” as a summary of a Johannine Christology and points out that Jesus Followers called themselves “the Way” (Acts 9:2). It says that the knowledge of “truth” (v.6) is to be understood more like a personal relationship than an intellectual experience.
The JANT also notes that the words “No one comes to the Father except through me” have served as a basis for exclusivity claims in later Christian history.
These claims fail to understand the context of this statement by a First Century Jew. Jesus is the “way” in the sense that he revealed God as selfless love that produces and enhances life. The “way to the Father” is open to all though a life of compassionate, selfless love and “doing the works” that Jesus did (v.12) – regardless of one’s religious tradition (or the lack of one).