Acts of the Apostles, Part Five : The Martyrdom of Stephen

Acts chapter 7 contains the longest speech in Acts followed by Stephen’s martyrdom as the first or proto-martyr of the Church. Stephen is falsely accused of blasphemy by some fellow Jews (Acts 6:8-15) and this prompts a speech before the Sanhedrin.

In the beginning of his narrative Stephen highlights God’s own actions and initiative (7:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.) leading up to his appearance to Abraham and founding of the covenant of circumcision. Abraham is the father of Isaac, who is the father of Jacob. The twelve sons of Jacob (with some adjustments) become the Twelve Tribes of Israel who are aided by Joseph and later delivered from the Egyptians by Moses in the Exodus. Both Joseph and Moses become a ‘type’ of Christ who was yet to come. The Israelites worshiped God in the desert in the ‘tent of testimony’ and under the rule of King Solomon built a Temple. In Christ we will worship in Spirit and truth tasting the heavenly reality.

Stephen concludes his speech noting that in spite of God’s many blessings, many of his fellow Jews had become stiff-necked and are constantly opposing the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). Then filled with the Holy Spirit Stephen sees a vision of Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” in Heaven (7:56). As Stephen is martyred he imitates Christ saying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60).

The importance of this retelling of the history of God’s saving work among his people is seen by the amount of space Luke gives it in the Book of Acts. Stephen proclaims God’s words and deeds and then himself becomes a spirit-filled imitation of Christ.

Stephen’s speech shows us something about God’s own method of teaching. As the writer of Hebrew’s tells us:

“In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

God has desired to slowly reveal himself to us by interacting with first a person, then a family, a tribe and nation and so to ultimately reveal himself fully to all peoples through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. St John Chrysostom calls this a wonderful “condescension” of the Eternal Wisdom. God has condescended, or “stooped-down” and adapted his speech to our needs so that we can come to know Him. The Catechism notes:

The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously “by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other” and shed light on each another. It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. (CCC 53)

This “divine pedagogy” which the Catechism mentions is a central theme of Church’s General Directory for Catechesis. The Greek word ‘paidagogos,’ which we translate as ‘pedagogue’ originally did not refer to the teacher but the guardian who lead the child to and from class. In this context, ‘pedagogy’ is not simply ‘the method and practice of teaching.’ God’s own Divine pedagogy is both the source and model of our communication of both knowledge and wisdom about Him but also most importantly a work of grace which transforms us into his likeness. Dr. Petroc Willey has noted that the fathers of the church described this process using a Christian understanding of the Greek word ‘paideia’ which encompasses (all at the same time) such English terms as ‘civilization, culture, tradition, literature and education.’ In a Christian understanding it involves the education of the whole person and involves the transformation of the “the whole of culture and a complete way of life.”

The General Directory of Catechesis speaks first of the “pedagogy of God” (GDC 159) which leads to the “pedagogy of Christ” (GDC 140) and then to the “pedagogy of the Church” (GDC 141) before finally the “Divine pedagogy, action of the Holy Spirit in every Person” (GDC 142). As the fathers of Second Vatican Council said, the Church is the “sacrament” of Christ or the “sign and instrument” of the saving presence of Christ in the world (Lumen Gentium 1). The Church through the gifts and activity of the Holy Spirit becomes the continuation of the redeeming work of Christ through her individual members.

One important implication which flows from this teaching is that the entire Catechism is an integrated reality which relates to the ‘Divine pedagogy’ in four parts. The Church continues to pass on the tradition of Christ in the Creed (Part I) and to be the minister of the saving realities of God’s grace in the Sacraments (Part II), to help lead individuals to live an authentic and faithful life in the Spirit (Part III) and to deepen in personal intimacy with God in prayer (Part IV). The Church is a school of faith which leads to ever deeper union with Christ. We evangelize by educating, we educate by evangelizing (GDC 147). Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us.

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.

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Thursday
August 24, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph