|Rembrandt: The Stoning of St. Stephen|
God raised him from the dead, and we are his witnesses." (Acts 3:13-15) He challenges the Sanhedrin who order them to stop preaching about Jesus, "Surely we cannot help speaking of what we have heard and seen." (Acts 4:20) When the apostles are arrested and thrown into jail, an angel frees them with the admonition, "Go out now and take your place in the temple precincts and preach to the people all about this new life." (Acts 5:20) In other words, tell everyone what you have seen and heard. And when they are dragged back before the Sanhedrin, Peter once again proclaims their duty, in obedience to God, to be witnesses. "Better for us to obey God than men! The God of our fathers has raised up Jesus whom you put to death, hanging him on a tree. He whom God has exalted at his right hand as ruler and savior is to bring repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. We testify to this. So too does the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those that obey him." And what was the result of their obedience and their witness? They were whipped and ordered not to speak of Jesus again. What was their response?
"The apostles for their part left the Sanhedrin full of joy that they had been judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of the Name." (Acts 5: 41) Not only that but they continued to witness with zeal. "Day after day, both in the temple and at home, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus the Messiah." (Acts. 5:42)
At this point, the apostles focused their witness on the Jews of Jerusalem, but the Holy Spirit had other plans in store for these witnesses. Few among them realized yet the wider implications of Jesus' teaching. The deacon, Stephen, however, did. He knew that Jesus wasn't just adding something to Judaism like the icing on a cake. Jesus had done something new. And Stephen preached powerfully -- so much so that the Sanhedrin could not tolerate him because "he depreciated the importance of the temple [in Jerusalem] and the Mosaic law and elevated Jesus to a stature above Moses." (Note from my St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible 1970) And so, as they did with Jesus, they brought false witnesses to accuse him of blasphemy, stirred up a mob, and stoned him to death.
The result of Stephen's murder was significant and illustrates the saying that the "blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the faith." Stephen's discourse historically explaining the history of Israel from Abraham onward proclaiming Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophets so angered Saul (later St. Paul) that he began a virulent persecution of the Church. As a reusult, "All except the apostles scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria." (Acts 8:1) The Sanhedrin hoped to suppress the Church; instead, the murder of Steven spread it.
We are called to walk in the feet of the apostles, sharing and spreading the faith as Jesus ordered ordered at His ascension. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you; then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8) Was this calling only to the apostles, the priests? Not likely. Acts tells us that during the days after the Ascension when they returned to the upper room that "Peter stood up in the center of the brothers; there must have been a hundred and twenty gathered together." (Acts 1:15) Isn't it likely that some of them were present when Jesus gave the great commission as well as Mary and the faithful women? No, the commission to go forth and witness fell on each of us at Baptism and was brought to fulfillment when we were confirmed as adults in the faith.
So what are you doing today to respond to Christ's call to be a witness? Jesus doesn't require us to go out and stand on a soapbox. We can respond in many small ways witnessing to our own family members and friends. But we are called -- not just to pray, but to proclaim. How can we do that?
Here are five small suggestions that, like the five smooth stones David carried in his pouch to defeat the pagan giant Goliath, can help us hold our ground against a pagan culture:
1) Make the sign of the cross and say grace whenever you eat in a restaurant.
2) Make the sign of the cross if anyone desecrates God's name in your hearing as an act of reparation.
3) Write a letter to the editor in response to an article attacking the faith.
4) Send a pamphlet about praying the rosary to a godchild or friend encouraging them to respond to Mary's requests at Fatima.
5) Send a novena of Masses to a Catholic couple entering an invalid marriage as your gift.
You can probably come up with a dozen other suggestions. I'd be happy to hear them. May we all be effective witnesses to Christ in whatever opportunities we're given. St. Stephen, pray for us.