The reading from Acts features two distinct episodes linked by Stephen, an otherwise unknown apostle.
A large part of the story is omitted from the lectionary reading. I would recommend including the verses left out (7:2b-43) because the omission affects how one understands Stephen’s speech. The reading is lengthy enough as it is.
An obvious choice for preachers and teachers is to focus on the figure of Stephen who provides some continuity in the narrative. I suggest here a connecting theme that has potential for preaching and contemporary reflections. In each episode we see a community divided. Each offers some insights with respect to navigating divisions among us.
The Hebrews and the Hellenists The first several chapters of Acts report the growing community of believers in Jerusalem despite conflicts within and external adversity. Chapter 6 begins, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number…” thus indicating the narrative continues the pattern established following Pentecost (2:1-47).
The conflict between the Hebrews and the Hellenists is a division over language and culture. The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews. They complain that the Aramaic-speaking Jews, likely natives, neglect the Hellenistic widows in the distribution of food. “Widows” may imply any who were disadvantaged in some way. The Hellenists were most likely immigrants and a minority in this new community of believers. The distribution of food suggests divisions over social and cultural habits and customs.
The community of disciples shifts the focus from neglect of the widows in the distribution of food to neglect of “the word of God” by waiting on tables (6:2). They resolve the conflict by creating a division of labor. The community selected seven men to wait tables, thus freeing the disciples for ministry of the word (verses 3-4). The men appointed for distribution of food are named in verses 5 and 6. Only Stephen and Philip appear again in Acts, each one in the role of furthering the word of God.
The account of Stephen before the council and his death follows the conflict over food distribution (6:8-7:60). Philip appears in Samaria (8:5) and interprets the scriptures for the Ethiopian eunuch who was traveling to Jerusalem (Philip and the Ethiopian are featured in next week’s narrative). Curiously, none of the men selected for waiting tables is mentioned again in the appointed role.
The conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews concludes with the spread of the word of God and increasing numbers of disciples in Jerusalem. Despite the conflict and divisions within the community of believers, the numbers “obedient to the faith” continue to increase greatly (6:7).
Stephen Before the Council Stephen’s gifts for ministry lead him to perform wonders and signs and speak with wisdom (verses 8-10). His words and works provoke synagogue members who were African slaves, along with Jews from parts of Asia. The reference to Jews from other nations reminds readers “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem”(2:5). It also reminds us of the diversity of Judaism in the world of the early church. Acting secretly, these Jews instigate false witness against Stephen, claiming he spoke against the temple and the law. The witness against Stephen — and the narrator confirms that it is false — charges Stephen with an offense against deeply-held convictions concerning Israel’s identity.
The heading in my study bible calls this scene “The Arrest of Stephen.” This is a misnomer, for Stephen is brought before a council of religious leaders who have no authority to arrest anyone. This matter is among Jews. The high priest hears the charges and invites Stephen to respond. Some observe that Stephen does not answer the high priest’s question, “Are these things so?” (7:1). Though he does not answer directly, the speech is an answer.
Stephen’s response is a retelling of Israel’s history. The retelling in Acts follows the pattern of those in the biblical tradition. For example, in Joshua, this occurs in a covenant ceremony (24:1-18). In Nehemiah 9:6-38, the setting is within a covenant ceremony, but the tone is quite different than in Joshua. Several Psalms also feature a recitation praising God for mighty deeds throughout Israel’s history (Psalms 78 and 105, for example), or confessing disobedience (see Psalm 106). In Deuteronomy, a rehearsal of Israel’s origins is part of a liturgical response (26:5-9).
Stephen’s speech begins with Abraham (7:2b), continues with his sons, the sojourn in Egypt, and the rise of Moses. The lectionary reading includes the conclusion of Stephen’s speech. The images, such as “stiff-necked people” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears” belong to Israel’s story of self-judgment, confession and repentance. Stephen stands within that tradition. The omission of most of Stephen’s speech, including only the most polemical part, reinforces a common misperception that Stephen stands against the tradition, as if the witness against him were not false. The division is “within the family” and the identity of the people Israel is at stake.
Reflections for Today In the first conflict, discernment of gifts and division of tasks provide a way to resolve neglect arising from language differences and perhaps prejudice. We are familiar with similar conflicts in our own communities. In the second case, false witness and harsh judgment threaten traditional norms and identity. Stephen is murdered; Saul (apostle Paul) approves. But Stephen’s speech, the longest speech in Acts, dominates the narrative.
The rehearsal of the family story is an act of identity formation. Within communities, how might different groups or individuals tell the history of a congregation or faith community? How does telling the story of patriarchs and matriarchs, leaders and teachers, reveal values and define identity? Is it possible that constructing a narrative might lead to mutual understanding and respect? We might consider also the different ways we choose to tell the stories in the Bible. Perhaps Stephen’s story is a good place to begin.