Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

April 28, 2002

Fifth Sunday of Easter 2002

Acts 6, 1-7, 1 Peter 2, 4-9, Jn 14, 1-12, Acts 6:17 ff

This week’s text from Acts is the account of the selection and ordination of the first deacons. Between this week’s text and last week’s text, a lot has happened. After Peter’s Pentecost speech, three thousand people joined the Jesus movement, and the communal life began in Jerusalem. Peter and John started going to the Temple to proclaim the Risen Lord. One day they cured one crippled from birth, and they were arrested and spent the night in jail. News of the cure spread throughout the city, and the numbers in their community grew to five thousand.

The next day they were brought before the Sanhedrin, the same governing body that condemned Jesus. The Sanhedrin ordered Peter and John to no longer preach in Jesus’ name, a kind of court order and let them free. From that time on, only the twelve apostles returned to the Temple to proclaim Jesus; the rest of the community was too afraid. This must have been an intentional strategy of the community to test the limits of the Sanhedrin’s court order. The apostles did many signs and wonders at this time. People from surrounding towns brought their sick and possessed people to the Temple for the apostles to cure.

Finally the high priest moved on the twelve apostles and had them arrested in mass and put in jail. During the night an angel of the Lord helped them escape from jail. Early the next day the High Priest called the Sanhedrin together to sit in judgment on the twelve Apostles and had them arrested in mass and put in jail. During the night an angel of the Lord helped them escape from jail. Early the next day the high priest called the Sanhedrin together to sit in judgment on the Twelve only to discover that they were no longer in jail but back in the Temple preaching about Jesus. The High Priest had the Apostles re-arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest asked the Apostles why they continued to preach in the Name of Jesus after they had direct orders not to do so. Peter boldly told them that they were going to obey God rather than man and continued preaching and proclaiming the new way of Jesus.

The whole Sanhedrin was so upset with what Peter said they wanted to kill them all, right on the spot. But a learned member of their body, Gamaliel, talked them out of killing the Apostles reasoning if this new way was of human origin, it would fail on its own, but if it is of God, they will not be able to destroy it and they may find themselves fighting against God. So the Sanhedrin had the Apostles flogged, ordered them again to stop preaching about Jesus, and set them free. The Apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they were found worthy to suffer for the new way and continued preaching in the Name of Jesus in the Temple and in their homes.

By this time the community in Jerusalem was experiencing growing pains. The communal life referred to in Acts 2:32-35 and 4:42-47 was breaking down. The demands of managing a community of 5,000 and the distribution of food to the neediest were taking too much time from the Apostles’ primary ministry of proclaiming the Word. Divisions were forming within the community with the most recent additions to the community, the needy Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) not getting their fair share of the community’s food. Something had to be done.

Acts 6:5 They choose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit. Seven men were chosen to manage and distribute the community food to the needy. The Apostles prayed and laid their hands on them, ordaining the first deacons. Among those ordained and first named was Stephen, whom the text said was filled with faith and the Holy Spirit.

Today’s reading ends telling us that the community continued to grow in number, "even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:7) This is a very interesting development with priests from the Temple joining the new way. Clearly accommodations were being made between the Temple authorities and the new community. It seems that middle ground was developed between the priests of the Temple and the new community.

Stephen’s call beyond his ordination. Stephen was not the compromising type. Called by the Holy Spirit beyond his ordination mandate. "Filled with grace and power" he did "great wonders and signs among the people."(Acts 6:8) A great speaker and debater, he made many enemies with certain leaders in the Greek-speaking synagogues. These leaders stirred the people, the elders, and the scribes against Stephen and had him brought before the Sanhedrin. They accused Stephen of speaking against the Temple and the Law and that Jesus was intent on destroying the Temple and changing the Law of Moses.

When the High Priest asked Stephen if the accusations were true, Stephen delivered a 53 verse speech (Acts 7:1-53) Presenting a selective survey of salvation history, Stephen ended his speech telling the Sanhedrin that God did not need their Temple to dwell in and that they were stiff-necked, opposed to the Holy Spirit, and like their ancestors who killed the prophets; they put to death the righteous one, Jesus.

Stephen’s speech so enraged the Sanhedrin that they dragged him out of the Temple and out of the city and stoned him to death. A great persecution of the Jerusalem community immediately followed the stoning of Stephen. Many were killed; almost all went underground or left the city. Only the Apostles remained. And the yet to be converted Saul had license to hunt down Christians and bring them to trial.

To those within the Jerusalem community who favored a more compromising posture with the Temple authorities, the rash and outspoken Stephen’s death must have been a great disappointment. At the same time they must have only seen the negative, short-term effects of Stephen’s martyrdom.

Yet it was only after Stephen’s martyrdom that the underground church in Jerusalem was forced to move out of the city and into Samaria, growing bigger and stronger, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the Acts of the Apostles and throughout the history of the church.

Stephen: The first Catholic Worker. I often think of Stephen as being the first Catholic Worker. Like Catholic Workers his primary point of reference was the Works of Mercy. He and his fellow deacons ran the soup kitchens for the Jerusalem community. They had the closest, daily contact with the poor in their midst. And like Catholic Workers this concrete, lived-out perspective from the bottom up helped Stephen see clearly and uncompromisingly the Gospel for the sake of institutional security.

John 14:1-12. This week’s gospel from John is the beginning of Jesus’ final words to his disciples. It is a long discourse that lasts three chapters (14, 15, and 16) and concludes with his final prayer (17). It comes right after Jesus predicts Peter’s denial of him on Holy Thursday night, and right before they head for the garden and Jesus’ arrest to follow.

Jesus covers a lot of concerns in this discourse. Mostly though he is trying to comfort his disciples because they are sensing the great risk and peril facing them.

"In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places." (Jn 14:2) Jesus tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, trust the faith they have and then assures them that in his Father’s house there are many dwellings, enough space for everyone. I find these words to be some of the most comforting in the Bible. I have often used this text for funeral Mass celebrations for people who have not been known for their regular church attendance.

I have this philosophy about presiding at funeral masses. I presume we are burying a saint, someone who is in heaven with the Lord. I make it a point to sit down with surviving family members and loved ones to talk about the person who died, about their lives, their strengths and weaknesses, about their joys and sorrows, and about their spiritual faith journey. I’m always looking for something redemptive to say about the person.

And then for the homily I take everything that was told to me about the deceased and put into a narrative form that is biographical with an emphasis on something redemptive about the person’s life. With a gospel like the one we have from John this week, with the image of God’s heavenly home as a place with unlimited dwellings and a place for everyone, it’s a perfect gospel for a lot of peoples’ life stories who were not necessarily regular church going folks.