In this week’s Gospel, the disciple Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" The reply he receives is famous: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life”. The other readings show how, thanks to the Apostles’ preaching, this message could also speak powerfully to people who had not themselves followed Jesus of Nazareth, or witnessed his mysterious post-Resurrection appearances.
The passage from Acts is especially compelling in this respect. It is a very truncated version of the story of Stephen, a man held in such high regard by the early Christians that he was elected to the new office of deacon, a person entrusted with special responsibilities for the welfare of the fledgling Church. One day, as the price of this trust, Stephen faced a much greater, and far more difficult call – to be the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.
‘Martyr’ does not mean ‘victim’, as it is often taken to mean in modern English. It means ‘witness’. Stephen had found his salvation in Christ. Jesus was for him THE way, THE truth and THE life. Accordingly, his pre-eminent task was to witness to this fact, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”, as the Epistle for this week puts it. Christian witness of this kind was not merely a duty, but a sacred privilege that could transcend even martyrdom. In death, Stephen remained what through Christ’s Cross he had become in life, one of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people”.
Nowadays, we find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between martyrs and fanatics, and the ideology of multiculturalism pressures us to say that Jesus is just one way, not the way. This is certainly a more comfortable message for contemporary Christians to affirm, but it is not what these Bible readings actually say. The Gospel asks the disciples this question, and asks it of us also: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" Living in the world that we live in, how are we to respond ?
We know what membership of the Church meant to Stephen. What does it mean to us? Is it a matter of belonging to a welcoming group whose social life we enjoy, and whose 'good causes' we endorse? In that case, we will commit a few Sundays a month to it, and join in its community activities at other times as well. Or is it something much deeper than this – the privilege of belonging to a ‘royal priesthood’ called 'out of darkness into light' by the saving work of God in Christ? If it is the second, this will be shown in our willingness to sacrifice a very great deal for it -- time and money, certainly, but also popularity, social approval and conventional wisdom, if that's what witnessing requires,. This falls far short of what was required of Stephen, and yet, surrounded as we are by a secular society, sacrifices like these often prove too difficult, a test, in fact, that we are quite likely to fail.
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