26 April 2017

Text Study: The Witness of Stephen

Prayer of the Day
Holy Giver and Receiver of life: your martyr, Stephen, shone with the light of your Holy Spirit. When his opponents took his life, he offered up his spirit to you, and prayed mercy for theirs. Make Stephen an example of faith and courage for all your followers, for the sake of the one who brought light and lie to this world, your son, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. 

First Reading: Acts 6:1-6
In the early days after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the church was absolutely certain that a new world was near, and that Jesus would return quickly. Even so, as the new faith began to take root within the Jewish church, there were problems between local, ethnic Hebrews and the Hellenic Jews who had lived in other places and may not have been ethnically Israelite.
1Now 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. 2And 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. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." 5What 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. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

second reading: Acts 6:7-7:2a, 44-60
After a time, Stephen’s witness to Jesus drew the attention of the Jewish authorities, who continued to be very concerned about the Jesus followers in their church. Eventually, Stephen’s preaching brought about a harsh response: death by stoning for blasphemy, and Stephen became the first follower of Jesus to die as a witness to Jesus.
7The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then 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. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12They 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. 13They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for 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." 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 
1 Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?" 2And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me…
44Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands as the prophet says,
49'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did not my hand make all these things?'
51You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which 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. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56Look, he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then 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. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then 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.


  1. Glossary
    1. Hellenists/Hebrews
      1. In the ancient Mediterranean, some Jewish families either moved or were moved away from Palestine to other centers of population. These became known as the Jews of the Diaspora or “Hellenic” Jews, from the Greek H{llhnikovß, (h)ellenikos, meaning “of the Greeks.” These people were also joined by Jews who welcomed, adopted, and adapted Greek culture and customs into their faith. It was the Hellenic Jews (also known as Hellenizers) who produced the Septuagint, the version of the Jewish scriptures translated from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic into what is known as Koiné Greek (a dialect of Greek spoken in the Mediterranean during the life of Jesus). 
      2. This is a good moment to think about the fact that these early disputes were not Jewish-Christian disagreements: they were church disagreements. There is no early moment when Christians make a decided break away from their Jewish roots - historians and theologians agree that the split between Judaism and Christianity developed in stages between the death of Jesus around 29 AD and the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD. At the time of Stephen’s death, Christians hadn’t even been named “Christians” yet - they were an apocalyptic sect within Judaism much like the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sicarii (although without the violent tendencies of the Zealots and the Sicarii). 
    2. “synagogue of the Freedmen”
      1. This was not a synagogue as modern believers understand it, but an older interpretation of sunagwghv meaning a “group or gathering of people.” It literally comes from the roots a]gw and sun, meaning “go/lead/drive together.” A synagogue, then, is a collection of like-minded persons. 
    3. Are there other words or phrases that you didn’t quite understand?
  2. Thoughts and Notes
    1. “No one pages through the New Testament without repeatedly reading about violent resistance. The story of Stephen gives us much to consider, lest we forget the atrocities that are part of the Christian legacy--those inflicted upon people of faith, as well as those inflicted by them.” Dr. Matthew Skinner, Luther Seminary. http://bit.ly/2pmQ8Vs 
    2. “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.” Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
  3. Questions to Ponder
    1. What is your history with the story of the martyrdom of Stephen? What have you previously heard or learned? What more do you want to know?
    2. What disturbs you most about this disturbing story? Is there anything that comforts you? If so, what is it?
    3. What other questions do you have about this week’s texts?

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