7th Sunday of Easter
Reading 1. Acts 7: 55-60
Reading II. Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20
Gospel. John 17: 20-26 (Jesus prayed).
Today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, falls between the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord which we celebrated last Thursday, and the Feast of Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. For these nine days we, like the first disciples, are in a kind of limbo. We commemorate these nine days in our "Novenas," a word taken from the Latin word for nine.
The theme of today's readings is martyrdom. Although we commonly associate the word "martyr" with one who suffers and dies for his or her faith, the word really refers to one who gives witness to his or her faith. In today's first reading we recall the death of Stephen, the first martyr to die for his faith in Jesus.
Why do we recall the death of Stephen today? The feast of St. Stephen is December 26, the day after the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas. It seems so strange after that wonderful day of hope and joy to hear such a sad story. It's like a rude awakening from a pleasant dream. And now on the first Sunday after Our Lord's departure, we again have the story of Stephen.
In chapter 6 of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke introduces us to Stephen, one of the group of seven "deacons" chosen by the Apostles to assist them in their ministry. Stephen witnessed to the Risen Lord by " working great wonders and signs among the people," but his activity also provoked opposition. Like Jesus, Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges. In his defense he launched into a retelling of the whole history of the Jews from the time of Abraham down to the prophets. In his conclusion he castigated the present generation:
Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the Holy
Spirit; as your fathers did, so you do also. Which of the prophets have not your
fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just
One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who
received the Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it.
Is it any wonder that they would be furious at these words and sentence him to death? Would we behave any differently today, if a similar prophet appeared among us? Not only have we rejected the "ordinance of angels" and failed to keep it, we have glorified our failure to keep it. Let's just look at the Ten Commandments. Love the Lord thy God--we can't even mention His Name in school. Keep holy the Lord's day. Where? In the Mall? Honor thy father and mother--the very idea of fatherhood and motherhood has been under attack for decades. Avoid adultery. Who are you kidding? Isn't adultery a stepping stone to success in the business and entertainment world? Stealing! Lying! They are only wrong if you get caught. Killing! Enlightened voices no longer consider abortion a necessary evil. It has become a positive good that every politician and judge must embrace in order to attain office.
Isn't it just as difficult to be a follower of Jesus today as it was in the time of Stephen? Maybe that's the reason why Jesus in today's gospel prayed not only for the disciples but for all of us at the Last Supper. Lifting his eyes to Heaven, he said,
Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word...
As the prayer continues we see that our Lord's wish is that our lives will bear witness to His love and serve as a lesson to the world--"so that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me."
Most of us are not going to be asked to suffer and die as Stephen and the Apostles did. But we are all being asked in one way or another to be a witness--to pass on the love of Christ to others. Someone once posed a question which should make all of us a little uneasy. I'll just repeat it. "If someone were to accuse you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" Again, "If someone were to accuse you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"
We will have to find ways to bear witness--to become martyrs. Let's look at the commandments or ordinances again. We can make the Lord's day holy again by making it a day of rest, a day spent rediscovering our own families. We can honor our father and mother by refusing to blame them for everything that's gone wrong with our lives. Stealing at work is a major problem in our society. If we expect to be fairly compensated for our work, shouldn't we give a full day's work for a full day's pay? Pornography leads to adultery. Let's keep it out of our homes. Our Lord saw little difference between anger and killing.
Like the Apostles we will not be able to bear witness on our own. We need the Holy Spirit of Christ just as much as they did. It may not appear to us as tongues of fire, but the Love of Christ has been given to all of us and it is the strongest force in the world if only we believe.
It is our choice. We can accept the "ordinance of angels" or reject it. In today's second reading from the Book of Revelation, we read,
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
Let the hearer say, "Come."
Let the one who thirsts come forward,
and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.