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Stephen's Liberating Grace

Today’s reading about the selection, work and ultimately death of Stephen recognises him as the first martyr of the new Christian Church. We have some selected verses for our reading, I really encourage you to keep reading after Acts 7:2 to hear what is left out of Stephen’s words. The need for a man such as Stephen to be called into service comes from a perceived inequality of the treatment of widows between the Hellenists (those who language was Greek but did not necessarily come from a Greek background) and the Hebrews who were Jewish in tradition and culture. From this complaint the leaders of the day, the twelve, called for seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, that the community could rely on to ensure that there was equality in the treatment of the widows and other minorities. Stephen, we are told, was a man called by God to this task. He did great wonders and signs among the people and obviously stood out from others. And guess what? Some of those others looked upon him with jealousy and began to argue with him. And because they could not win the arguments with Stephen due to the wisdom of the Spirit with which he spoke, they began to secretly encourage some others to lie about him. Sound familiar? We might claim astonishment and disbelieve that within the church of the day there could be those who were so hard-hearted and ignorant of an imperative within the gospel to care for the weakest. Yet, today we also recognise that many are failing within the church and within society, where the influences of ‘protecting what we have’, replace an outward-looking social conscience and willingness to actively work for changing a society where some are denied the same chances others have for a good life. Stephen was following in the footsteps of Jesus. His care and concern for those on the margins was what Jesus taught and did. Jon Sobrino of Spain, a liberation theologian, popularized the phrase that God has “a preferential option for the poor.” Other liberation theologians claim, “There can be only one answer: we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation.” (Introducing Liberation Theology, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, 1986, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.). Liberation Theology emphasizes social concern and political liberation for oppressed people. This is what Stephen was called and commissioned to do. This is the grace and service he gave to those who were in need in the early church. Unfortunately, he was killed by those who were jealous and angry with him. Perhaps they should have paid more attention to what God had called him to do.

Jay Robinson

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