Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Acts 7

Acts 7:1-53: Luke has shared with us a number of early Christian “sermons,” and this will be the longest in the Book of Acts. Stephen, one of those chosen to serve, was also one who had done great wonders and signs, and was preaching. For his efforts he had been arrested and now stood before the council. This is Stephen’s response. In this response, Stephen rehearses the history of Israel, but not to inform the original hearers nor the readers, but rather to offer a particular reading of the history of Israel and of the Hebrew Scriptures. That was one of the distinguishing marks of the early Christian community – its interpretation of the tradition shared with those in the Jewish community. In offering his unique interpretation, Jews who have not also become followers of Jesus are sometimes given over to harsh judgment. Luke writes for a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians who are struggling to define their identity in relation to those Jews who did not believe in Jesus…. It must be recognized that Luke’s statements were made in a context of intra-Jewish conflict and thus take on an entirely different character when they are made by Christians who are no longer Jewish and when they are applied to Jewish people as a whole. Christians must clearly denounce all contemporary forms of Christian anti-Judaism as abhorrent. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

The story begins with Abraham, a figure Jews, Christians and Muslims share as a part of their religious heritage. The story of Joseph is meant to be seen as like the story of Jesus – rejected, God was with Joseph. Rejected, God was with Jesus. The sermon moves on to the story of Moses born “beautiful before God.” That describes what our faith affirms about all of us. The words used of Moses are also descriptive of Jesus – beautiful before God, powerful in word and deed. Like Jesus, Moses was not understood by his people (verse 25). Nevertheless, Moses became both liberator and ruler, just as Jesus did. Along the way, Moses is rejected again.

Fast forward to the story of David and Solomon and the building of the Temple, which would have been around during the time of Stephen, but not as Luke was writing. But then comes the “punch line.” “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” All this history comes to a point – just as God’s prophets have been rejected in the past, so has Jesus been rejected. These are very strong words.

In the speech given by Stephen as Luke has constructed it, there are a number of discrepancies with the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. As we read the gospels, we noted places where details disagree. What should we make of such things? The discrepancies are real and cannot be harmonized. The truth of the biblical message is not dependent on infallibility of in detail. This… can be celebrated as part of the biblical witness that God has chosen to work through fallible human beings. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Acts 7:54-8:1a: The words at the end of Stephen’s speech are strong, harsh. It is little wonder that they enrage their hearers. In the midst of their rage, Stephen has a vision of heaven, seeing God and Jesus. It is sometimes the case that when we are in the deepest difficulty we, too, have insight into God. In their rage, they stone Stephen. Stephen prays “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Prayer to Jesus as the one in whom we know God must have become part of the practice of the church by the time of Luke’s writing. Stephen also prays to God and asks for forgiveness for those who are killing him. At the very end, we are introduced to a character who will soon be the focus of much of the rest of the book – Saul.

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