Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Second Day of Christmas: a blunt reminder

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends,[b] select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task,  while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
-The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6:1-6 (NRSV)

On the day after Christmas Day, the Church throws us a curveball. From the magical story of the Lord coming to earth in the form of a sweet baby, we celebrate the church's first martyr--a man who, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, speaks out against the powerful--and is killed as a result.

I recently heard that a poll of historians named Alexander the Great to be the most significant figure in Western history. Jesus and Paul were tied for fifth. The reason: Alexander imposed Greek culture and language all over the eastern Mediterranean. Christianity could not have spread so rapidly without the first "lingua franca." By the third century B.C. Jewish scholars in Egypt began translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek; by Jesus' time, the resulting book, the Septuagint (seventy), so named because 72 men were supposed to have translated it, had supplanted the Hebrew text in some communities. The book was written, appropriately enough, in Koine, the dialect of Alexandria, Egypt, which had become the language of commerce throughout the Near East.

Thus there were Jews in Palestine whose sole language was Koine Greek, and it appears that many of them became followers of Jesus. And one of the first rifts in the church was over language--the Greek speakers felt the Hebrew (Aramaic) speakers were neglecting their widows. The matter was handled quickly enough by the twelve disciples, though with a certain arrogance: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables," which doesn't seem in keeping with Matthew 20:28: "Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..." The seven men included one Stephen, who turned out to be an effective preacher as well as a servant.

Stephen's preaching led to accusations of blasphemy, and as a result, he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders. His speech to them may not have been politic, but he was literally speaking truth to power. After giving a synopsis of Jewish history from Abraham through Solomon, and pointing out the Chosen People's, stubbornness, he aims his rhetoric at his audience: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Stephen is immediately condemned to death by stoning for blasphemy. Like Jesus, he asks forgiveness for his killers. And the author of Acts mentions that a man named Saul is among Stephen's persecutors.

After the joyous celebration of Christmas, the Church gives us a blunt reminder that proclaiming the Gospel can have deadly results. But the story of Stephen's martyrdom also gives us a reminder that the most adamant foes of Christ can become his allies. Saul the persecutor, or course, becomes St. Paul the Apostle.

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