VOCATION TO MARTYRDOM
(A biblical refection on THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER [YEAR C] – 8 May 2016)
First Reading: Acts 7:55-60
Psalms: Psalm 97:1-2,6-7,9; Second Reading: Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20; Gospel Reading: John 17:20-26
The Scripture Text
But he (Stephen), full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:55-60 RSV)
One of the most dramatic and moving scenes in the whole of Scripture takes place in the seventh chapter of Acts – the martyrdom of Stephen. It is so easy to romanticize and sentimentalize what happened. When all is said and done, we cannot avoid the words: “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” (Acts 7:57-58). This is not a pretty thought. Stephen is the object of mass violence. He dies a most painful death. Martyrdom is about death. One’s life is violently taken away. If we keep this in mind, then martyrdom regains some of its depth and mystery. We find it hard to speak about death – but death for the sake of something beyond self-preservation is extraordinary.
Death is not something we rush toward and seek gleefully. Martyrdom is not suicide. Unfortunately, we tend To see freedom at work in both. Such is not the case. There may be a kind of low level “freedom” when one commits suicide, in that one “freely” decides to end one’s life. However, in suicide [including suicide bombing] life is negated and rejected. It is different with martyrdom. Human life is affirmed and embraced as a good. But there is a higher good and an ultimate destiny beyond earthly existence. To freely hand one’s life over because of fidelity to Jesus Christ is to say “Yes” to life in the most complete way possible. The martyr says yes to life – to eternal life and the One who gives life in abundance. To the world, the martyr’s death is the final act of God’s abandonment. But to the eye of faith, the martyr’s surrender (in love and freedom and trust) is the supreme act of confident love.
The response of Stephen to those who do violence is indispensable for the Christian witness: “Lord, to not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). We see in Stephen (naturally, Jesus is the ultimate example and model) the Christian response to violence. We do not fight violence with violence. We do not take up stone for stone. The attitude of the Christian is one suffering, forgiving love. To proclaim Jesus as Lord is to say that Jesus is the truth which sets us free. This truth is precious. It is the treasure hidden in the field. We cannot play “fast and loose” with the truth. We want to share the truth with others because it is so precious.
Yet we know that others do not always respond favorably. The executioners of Jesus and Stephen provide prime example of this. But violence and death cannot be used by the Christian for victory or winning others over. The Christian is to love even those with the stone and those who drive the nails. The Kingdom of God comes through a suffering love which extends to those who are our enemies. Suffering love does not measure its effectiveness by the number of converts. Suffering love is measured by the degree of fidelity to the One who asked the Father to forgive His killers (Luke 23:34), the One who forgave the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). Suffering love is powerfully demonstrated by the example of Stephen.
Each of us, because of our Christian commitment, has a vocation to martyrdom. Right now we (you and I) may be suffering and facing cross and stones because of our faith. We are unknown to the world. We are uncelebrated in a world which courts the celebrity. Many of us are already martyrs. All of us are so called. Sisters and Brothers, let us be strong. Our Lord is the Alpha and Omega. Our Lord is the One who prayed for us the night before His martyrdom (today’s Gospel or the entire chapter 17 of Saint John’s Gospel). Through our willingness to suffer in love and forgiveness, we witness that Jesus is the One sent by the Father.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank You for giving us Your Beloved Son – Jesus Christ – to redeem us. Thank you for Saint Stephen, whose life on earth was lived in the service of Jesus Christ, and who came at his death to witness to Christ with his blood. Father, by Your Holy Spirit teach us to practise what we worship and teach us to love our enemies like Saint Stephen, who prayed even for the men who stoned him to death. Amen.
Jakarta, May 7, 2016
A Christian Pilgrim