Daring the Spirit: Stephen, Saul, or Paul?

Cambridge, MA. It is an understatement to notice that we’ve been going through some hard times in the Church, and the crises are well documented in In All Things. We must all be hoping and praying that the Church, ourselves included, undergo some renewal and fresh gust of Spirit at Pentecost, May 23.
     So it was hard to avoid thinking about this when I found myself preaching this afternoon (Saturday Mass for Sunday) on Sunday’s first reading, Acts 7, the stoning and death of Stephen, the first martyr. I am not sure why this reading is given to us in Cycle C for the Sunday before Pentecost,  but I read it over and over, and at Mass asked my patient listeners at Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, MA, what we might learn from this particular reading, as we, in our troubled Church today, wait yet again for the Spirit. What follows here is rooted in the homily I gave, though readers here can take it as an allegory.
     In our readings and in our Church, we are faced with the examples of Stephen, Saul, and (by extension all the way to Acts 9) Paul. Stephen dies for his faith, but is the easiest example: filled with the Spirit, given the wisdom and courage to preach the Gospel, he is fearless in speaking of Christ. Arguing for the Christologically-attuned meaning of the Hebrew Bible, he debates heatedly with the pious and learned Jews of Jerusalem, offending their propriety and piety. Arousing fierce hostility by his persistence, he imperils his life. He refuses to be silent, he frightens them all, and is stoned to death — dying in imitation of Christ, even forgiving his enemies, as Jesus did. So here, Stephen reminds us of the power of the Spirit, where that Spirit can lead someone who is obedient and fearless in preaching the truth, regardless of whether people want to hear it or not.
     The less comfortable example is that of Saul. Acts 7 tells us that the people stoning Stephen to death pile their cloaks at the feet of Saul, presumably entrusting him with care for the cloaks while they were busy. It would have been nice, I suggested to my congregation, if Saul had been inspired by the example of Stephen, so as either to intervene to save Stephen or at least to take up Stephen’s preaching after his death. Instead, Acts tells us that Saul approves of the stoning of Stephen and (at the start of Acts 8) he begins to persecute the Christian community fiercely. Saul is a zealot, impressed by zealotry: error has no rights, the attack on our beliefs is not to be tolerated, we should speak publicly and vigorously against those who criticize our faith, driving dissenters out of our community.
     Was Saul wrong? It is easy as a Christian and with 2000 years of hindsight to say that Stephen was right, and Saul wrong. Yet Saul was defending his faith — though he threw no stones; did he not have the Spirit too? Why would a good Jew in Jerusalem be so impressed by Stephen as to undertake a radical change in his or her faith? The answer cannot be so banal a matter as to say that my zeal is from God, while yours is a mistake.
     And then there is Paul. It would have been nice, I suggested, if Saul eventually stopped on his own, realizing that he was in error in joining those who persecuted the church. He could have hearkened back to the powerful example of Stephen, and stopped acting like Saul and the fierce zealots. But there is no indication in Acts 7-9 that Saul had any doubts. Rather, indeed, what is required is the famous scene on the road to Damascus: he is knocked down, blinded by the divine light, and yet made to see that it was Jesus before him, Jesus he had been persecuting. Although we might glean from the letters of St. Paul that he saw great continuity between Saul and Paul, the righteous Pharisee twice over, in Acts 9 it seems simply that Saul was told to stop, no longer be guided by what he must have thought was divine inspiration, and instead be driven — across the world — by a new spirit, the Holy Spirit.
     Perhaps too Paul then reminds us that people — even other Catholics whom we consider dangerous and have given up on — may suddenly be changed by the Spirit, and flow with new energy in Christ. If Saul can become Paul, who among us is beyond change? What we've done and said before needn't always determine the limits of what we can do in the future.
     Our prayer for the Spirit at Pentecost is or should be an at least slightly dangerous prayer, because we do not know what we are asking for: we may find ourselves a Stephen, speaking the truth and wisdom of Christ dangerously in a world that may reject us as it rejected both Jesus and Stephen; we may find ourselves a Saul, driven to defend our faith with a sure conviction that we are doing God’s work, while in fact we are just guilty bystanders as the prophet in our midst is silenced; or we may find ourselves a Paul, compelled to realize by the gift of the Spirit that all along we’ve been Saul, zealous, devout, and wrong — and called to change course, right now.
     Think about it; pray about it. The Church needs the Spirit — in us — however that Spirit blows — but we ought not presume to decide exactly what it means that someone 'really' speaks and acts in the Spirit.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 5 months ago
"We commonly speak of the first three hundred years of the Christian era as the Age of Martyrs. Certainly tens of thousands of believing Christians laid down their lives, rather than compromise their Christian faith and morality to the pagan culture in which they lived. Every single Pope up to the fourth century died a martyr’s death.

So, far from crushing Christianity or destroying the church founded by Christ, martyrdom actually contributed to the growth of a Christian civilization. The phrase, sanguis martyrum est semen Christianorum—“the blood of martys is the seed of Christians”—was not a pius aphorism. It was a literal fact of history. The more blood was shed by Christians in dying for their faith, the more Christianity expanded throughout what had been a pagan world...

You do not remain faithful to the Savior without paying for it. This has been the story of Christianity since the first Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified by His enemies. Why did they crucify Him? Because He taught that we were made for a life that will never end, and because He would not compromise on the Truth which He had received from His Father.

This has been the verdict of Christian history ever since, and will remain the same until the end of time. Those who want to remain loyal to Jesus Christ must expect to suffer for their witness to Incarnate Life and Truth. Another name for this suffering witness is martyrdom".

John Hardon SJ

It is good to be reminded that we are all called to be witnesses to the Truth, no matter the cost.

Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 5 months ago
"Our prayer for the Spirit at Pentecost is or should be an at least slightly dangerous prayer, because we do not know what we are asking for ..."
Amen.  If I were anywhere near Our Lady of Sorrows, I would be one of those patient listeners.  This is the kind of homily that stirs my soul, challenging and inviting.  Thank you for sharing it here.
Maria, I agree with Fr. Hardon that we are born for eternal life, but his way of saying this feels somehow damning to me.


The latest from america

The tête-à-tête between Paul Krugman and Nancy Pelosi in Manhattan was like a documentary about a once-popular rock band. (Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography)
Speaking in a deep blue stronghold, the Democratic leader of the House calls for “civility” and cautiously hopes that she will again wield the speaker’s gavel in January.
Brandon SanchezOctober 16, 2018
The lecture provoked no hostile reaction from the students who heard it. But a media firestorm erupted.
John J. ConleyOctober 16, 2018
Though the current synod appears to lack the sort of drama and high-stakes debates of the previous two, the role of conscience appears to be a common thread.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 16, 2018
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium, their act drew widespread criticism. Now Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike.
Michael McKinleyOctober 16, 2018