Easter 5: 14 May Acts 7:55-60
The obvious context for this reading is what precedes, indeed, also chapter 6. Despite the accusations there, Stephen is attacking neither the temple nor the Law. The Law, he declares, was given by God through angels (7:53). That means: it is sacred and authoritative. The problem was that the leaders did not keep it. Similarly the problem with the temple is not its status, but that its leaders are corrupt. While one might attribute this to Luke's endeavour to paint the first believers as faithful Jews, it also fits what we know of the historical Jesus and his challenge to the temple authorities. Continuity is a key theme. Not the faith, but the faithlessness of the leaders is being called into question with the fairly standard accusation that they were no better than their forebears who rejected the prophets.
Luke thus depicts the first Christians as in no way setting aside the ancient traditions. That would have appealed to those espousing Roman values which gave prior respect to tradition over against innovation. It also fits Luke's later depiction of Paul as a conservative who remained Law-observant all his days - in contrast to the Paul we know of the letters. So we probably have a mixture of history and theology in Luke's account, which is not so easy to untangle.
The historical Paul sided with those wanting to suppress the Greek speaking believers like Stephen. His reversal and subsequent theology suggests that what he believed about them may have had more credence than Luke's account suggests. Perhaps they were already beginning to relax those aspects of Law which made communication and fellowship with their fellow Greek speaking non-Jews difficult. Fierce disputes arose over setting circumcision and food laws aside. Just how close was Paul's position to that already being espoused by the Greek speaking believers he once persecuted? After all, Paul appears to have been comnverted to the position he once opposed. Paul's disputes (reflected in his letters) were primarily with fellow believers. The issues between believers on the one hand and between their forebears and other Jews in Jerusalem, including Paul, were probably about the extent to which scriptural demands were met. Too much override of biblical laws through biblical principles of love and inclusivity will always rile those whose faith is fundamentalist in the sense of seeing all scripture's demand as infallible. This will be why only the Greek speakers and not the Aramaic speaking believers were banished from Jerusalem.
Luke's account keep the conflict to one about the leaders' rejecting Stephen's challenge to their integrity. The result is to shift the focus from other issues, but it leaves unexplained why only the Greek speakers (the so-called Hellenist Christian Jews) had to flee and not the Aramaic speakers (the Hebrews). Thus Luke styles the conflict as one of disobedience and obstinacy and through public stoning illegality. People hearing his account might see their own experiences reflected in this and were perhaps meant to see the story in this way. The first killing, like the later killings of their time, were groundless and based in failure to hold faithfully to Israel's ancient traditions.
Luke connects the story to Paul (using the more familiar informal name, Saul, of Saulus Paulus) and indirectly to persecution in his own time. He also connects it Jesus and especially his Jewish trial. For there, too, we hear of Jesus speaking of sitting at God's right hand, reflecting the early Christian use of Psalm 110:1 to claim that God enthroned Jesus as Israel's Messiah at his resurrection. Here in Stephen's vision Jesus stands - perhaps to receive him. That connection with Jesus brings Stephen's story back into the context of Jesus' life and ministry, as Luke sets it out in his gospel. That ministry and its message was an appeal to what can be claimed to be at the heart of the biblical heritage: compassion, forgiveness, good news for the poor. That informs Stephen's speech as Luke has constructed it. In effect, then. Stephen faces the same fate as Jesus and for the same reason.
So Luke's story serves to comfort believers in his day. It serves to bolster the belief that persecution from (fellow-) came from their unfaithfulness. Certainly the allegations of corruption match those made by Jesus on the basis of which he declared God's judgement on the temple. Luke omits that in his gospel and so brings it here. Stephen thus follows Jesus. Similarly in his death he surrenders his life to God, just as Jesus did according to Luke's version (23:46), and even prays for his killers' forgiveness, as did Jesus in some texts (Luke 23:34).
Luke has made more than enough of the story and it all counts. But there is probably more to it as there was much more to Paul's conflicts than Luke's accounts reveal. For Jesus' claim about what was at the heart of scripture confronted not only corruption but also those who approached scripture differently and who could have no tolerance for the ultimate setting aside of some of its demands in the interests of inclusivity. What killed Stephen still snuffs out life, but we need to see that it is active wherever the appeal to love as the highest priority is resisted and violence is preferred as somehow "right" or even as "just". Jubilation at the killing of anyone, both saint and sinner (including an Osama) puts us among those who threw stones at Stephen. It was the persistence of Jesus that love and truth have priority and that no one be deemed beyond God's love that led to his demise - and it leads to faith's demise still.
Easter 5: 14 May John 14:1-14
Epistle: Easter 5: 14 May 1 Peter 2:2-10