7 May 2023: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Faithful Conversations #12

Note to readers: Remember to read through the entire set of readings, in whatever fashion you are doing that. I include the text of one of the readings, or perhaps parts of several here, for easy reference while reading the reflection. This week I am focusing on the reading from Acts and parts of the Gospel.     

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Easter:

Acts 7:55-60 (Below)
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

The First Reading: Acts 7: 55-60: The Stoning of Stephen 
55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he 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. ( And Saul approved of their killing him). 

The Gospel Reading: John 14: 1-10: Jesus the Way to the Father
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 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? 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 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 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.

Today’s Reflection (focusing on the first reading and a portion of the Gospel)
Grappling with the lectionary week to week reminds me of the line attributed to Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Someone told  me once that grasping the scriptures is like being handed a small cup and being told to move Lake Michigan — seems apt. Anyway, I’m reading a book right now that is causing me to “think anew” — a good process. The book is A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way (2021) by Canadian theologian Bradley Jersak. In a nutshell, the “Emmaus Way” of exploring the Bible focuses on what is known as the Christotelic view, meaning reading all of scripture as pointing to Christ (“telos” refers to the end or completion of something). Keep that concept in mind for the next few moments.

So, what is going on in this gruesome story from Acts 7? As always, context is key. Stephen, one of seven men chosen as deacons to aid the disciples in their work, comes under suspicion by members of one of the various Jewish sects in Jerusalem, and is arrested. His speech in chapter 7, the longest among the various speeches recorded in Acts,  provides a Christotelic interpretation of Jewish history, harshly calling out the leaders of the Sanhedrin (elders) who have charged him — I especially like the part where they cover their ears! (verse 57) In turn, they call for his death by stoning (verse 58). Stephen is dragged “out of the city” and put to death (verse 58). At a moment of high drama, he gazes into heaven and asks God to forgive his executioners (verse 60). And, in one of the chilling moments in all of scripture, Saul (later Paul), the great persecutor of the early Christians, approves of Stephen’s death (Chapter 8:1). The death of Stephen, by the way, is one of three executions recorded in the New Testament. The other two are John the Baptist and Christ.

Rembrandt: The Stoning of Stephen (1625)

What are we to make of all this? Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr (protomartyr) and his arrest, trial, and execution mirror the crucifixion of Christ, including his call for mercy on his executioners. Much has been made of his gaze into heaven, his singular fixation on God at the moment of his death. The renowned Dutch artist Rembrandt, in fact, highlighted this gaze in his first painting in 1625 (I have included the image here, but if you want to see it in greater detail, click on the image).



Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait

A bit of research on this painting proved enlightening. First, note that the face of Stephen and the face of Paul are the same (Paul is seated in the top center of the painting). The artist seems to be foreshadowing Paul’s conversion to Christianity, as documented in Acts 9. In addition, Rembrandt included a self-portrait in the scene, placing himself within the story (he is peeking out from behind the man who is ready to strike Stephen). The painful expression on his face suggests to me that the artist was implicating humanity in our unwillingness to confront injustice in our world. Just a thought. You may have other ideas.

But, back to Stephen’s gaze and what it symbolizes. I’m intrigued that at the moment of his death, he did not fixate on those who were about to kill him. Instead, he focused on God. Further, he has a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God (verse 56). One commentator I read emphasized in a compelling way, that Christ’s posture of “standing” and not sitting, indicated his willingness to “stand with us,” as opposed to sitting in judgement.

And, here seems to be a clear link between the story of the first Christian martyr and this week’s Gospel from John. In an intriguing exchange with Thomas and Phillip, Jesus utters those famous words, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14: 6-7). Clearly, Christ identifies himself as “the way” (remember that those first generation Christians were called “People of the Way”). Our gaze needs to remain fixed on him. All scripture points to him (Christotelic). In the world of 2023, a world filled with so much division, hatred, violence, and despair, we need to hear this. This is the message we are compelled to share in our community and in our world. We have a powerful God who loves us, who gazes into our hearts, restores our souls, and fills us with hope.   

Soli Deo Gloria

Today’s Prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer, Church of England)
“Almighty God unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no Secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The day the Mormon Tabernacle Choir stopped in Black River Falls, 2013.

Finally, on a personal note today . . .
My father was a consummate teacher, and it is impossible for me to read Acts 7 and not be reminded that Unk (his nickname) named me (Paul Stephen) for this passage of scripture (such is the life of a PK — preacher’s kid!). He first explained this to me around the time of my confirmation in the early 1970s. “I want you to be reminded of the power of conversion,” he said. He affirmed this in a conversation I had with him two weeks before he died in 2013. We were talking about names, and I asked him for permission to add his first name (Thorwald) as a second middle name. He laughed and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I said yes, and I did. 

Have a great week!




2 thoughts on “7 May 2023: Fifth Sunday of Easter

  1. I read on in Acts-Paul(Saul) is a powerful example of how no one is impossible for God to reach and change. Saul was hating and persecuting Jesus’s followers then became a devoted follower and gifted preacher.
    ]Also people will not stone us but they might want to silence us and not hear the truth.

    “If you know me you will know my Father”–conveys to me-we do have a “loving God” that knows us completely and accepts us as we are. We are God’s children and one of our values is representing Him to others. If we fix our vision on Him we will know Him as trustworthy, precious and the most important part of the church. Being loved is the most powerful motivation in the world.

    We all living stones built into a spiritual house.


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