1. With the on-going atrocities in the war being waged by Mr Putin in Ukraine, we possibly feel that we are almost numbed to reports of armed aggression and killings. On Tuesday 24th May, the numbness wore off and we found ourselves deeply shocked to learn that a young man had entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and shot dead 19 children and 2 teachers, injuring 17 others. School shootings in America have a sad history of repetition. Engraved in our own psyche in Scotland will always be the killing of pupils in Dunblane Primary School. Memorials abound, but the searing pain of that moment will remain for ever with those who were around at the time, in 1996.
Much is said in Ukraine about 'crimes against humanity', but every snuffing out of a human life is nothing other than a crime against humanity.
The First Reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter is the account of one such episode: the stoning to death of Stephen, the protomartyr. The brutality of his killing is countered by his dying words commending his spirit to Jesus and, like Christ himself, forgiving his assailants.
The Gospel offers us part of the great Priestly Prayer of Jesus. The time for the sacrifice of his life draws near and in this prayer for his disciples and the 'church' of all believers gathered by the witness of the apostles.
The Lapidation of Stephen, Annibale Carracci, 1603-04
Now in the Louvre, Paris
3. Stephen and 'the seven' are usually thought of (and represented as) deacons, although this word diakonos is not used of them. There are two mentions of the related word, diakonia'. In verse 1, it is translated as 'distribution'. It is also used in verse 4 for 'service of the word'.
Stephen on trial before the Sanhedrin, in chapter 7 gives a very comprehensive summary of salvation history. He ends with a sharp rebuke for his hearers: 'You are always resisting the Holy Spirit just as your ancestors used to do.' (v.51). Their reaction is predictable: 'They were infuriated when they heard this and ground their teeth at him.'( v.54)
Stephen gives an account of the vision that he sees before him: 'I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand side of God.' (v.57) With these words, Stephen's opponents have all the evidence they need and 'they made a concerted rush at him and thrust him out of the city and stoned him.' (v. 58)
The final editorial note for this section is telling: 'Saul entirely approved of the killing.' (8;1)
Ascension - Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410
Musée Condé, Chantilly
5. Given that this prayer is for and about us, we should probably attend to the content of this part of the prayer.
First of all, Jesus insists on the gift - the need for unity. This unity will be the thing that will convince 'the world to believe that it was you who sent me.' (v.21) This is the very first thing that Jesus prays for. Sadly, we have managed to frustrate this aspiration of Our Lord. Disunity has been the order of the day, easily as much as unity. We can, and do focus on particular aspects of this 'unity' from time to time. We express pious aspirations and make token gestures. Jesus does not limit the nature or scope of his prayer. Perhaps just as we can and should allow ourselves to hear Jesus praying for each one of us, personally, we should also stop and examine our conscience on where we do, or do not build up unity - in any of the contexts of our life.
Having a week when we pray for Church unity allows us to focus on this, but it can also allow us to then tidy the concept away and leave it for another year - or so. Jesus' prayer for unity is much more urgent than that. It has to embrace so much else. Can we be sure that we are habitually promoting harmony, cooperation, mutual support, understanding, reconciliation, forgiveness and peace?
Jesus has no doubt that there has to be a connection between this life-giving unity and the evangelisation of our world: 'May they be so completely one that the world will believe that it was you who sent me... and that you have loved them as you love me.' (v.23)
There is clearly work for us to do. If we are to share the 'glory' that Jesus wants for us, if we are to experience the love of Father and Son really may active within us, then we have a task on our hands.
In a world where aggression is the staple diet of so many, and where even the most innocent of lives are endangered by those who perhaps themselves have lived without any real love, our diakonia, like that of St. Stephen, has to be untiring in the service of a unifying Christ-like care for others.
Aftermath of the shooting in a Texas school
Part of the memorial stained glass window in
Holy Family Church, Dunblane
2. On Thursday, we celebrated the Ascension of the Lord. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the church energetically moved into mission and ministry. On the one hand, there were great 'successes', with many converts to 'the 'Way', but as Jesus had warned, persecution was not long in coming.
In chapter 6 of Acts, we are told of a certain tension between two groups of disciples. Firstly there were the 'Hebrews' - native Palestinians whose language was Aramaic and who would meet in the synagogues with the scriptures read in Hebrew. There were also those called 'Hellenists'. These were Jews from outside Palestine. They met in separate synagogues where the scriptures were read in Greek.
Tension has arisen because the latter group were being overlooked in the daily distribution to the widows. To resolve the matter, 'seven men of good reputation' were selected by a full meeting of the disciples. These are then set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands. Chief mention is given to Stephen, 'a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.' (Acts 6; 5) At once, the gift of the Spirit is seen to be a work: 'Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people.'(v.8)
Presumably a mixture of jealousy and anxiety about the number of those converting to discipleship result in false accusations and the Sanhedrin sit in judgement. Stephen is accused of blasphemy and thrust out of the city.
Wooden carving of St. Stephen by
Hans Leinberger (1525-30) The Met.
St Stephen's Gate on the old city of Jerusalem.
4. We read the Scriptures, particularly the Gospel, in the light of the Resurrection, Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. On Thursday of last week, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension, in a sense, the completion of the dynamic of the Resurrection. Jesus has now definitively returned to the Father.
Our Gospel passage today is from chapter 17 of John. It is often referred to as the Great Priestly Prayer of Christ. Jesus is aware that all too soon, he is about to be betrayed by Judas, taken prisoner, hauled before Pilate, briefly declared innocent, but then handed over for a hideous execution. His time now is very limited. He makes time for a private moment of prayer to his Father. He prays for the disciples but not only them: 'Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but also for those who through their teaching will come to believe in me.' (17;20) Jesus prays for all future believers, those who will come to faith in him, gathered through the witness of the apostles and their successors.
In a very real sense, this is Jesus' prayer for each one of us. Here, just before the process of passion and death is about to unfold, Jesus thinks of and prays personally to the Father for us, for me. There has to be great reassurance and comfort for us as we read or listen to these words again. Maybe we might with profit hear Jesus pray for me - by name. No matter what may happen to or for us, we are enveloped in the providence of Jesus' entrusting us to the love and care of the Father.
Eugène Burnand, La Prière Sacerdotale, 1900-1918
Musée Cantonal de Lausanne
I heard him call you his beloved son
And saw his Spirit lighten like a dove,
I thought his words must be for you alone,
Knowing myself unworthy of his love.
You pray in close communion with your Father,
So close you say the two of you are one,
I feel myself to be receding further,
Fallen away and outcast and alone.
And so I come and ask you how to pray,
Seeking a distant supplicant’s petition,
Only to find you give your words away,
As though I stood with you in your position,
As though your Father were my Father too,
As though I found his ‘welcome home’ in you.
Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite
Parable and Paradox
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