The Scripture readings during this Easter season have led us to reflect on ways in which the movement begun by the earthly Jesus has continued. They have included personal and communal relationship with the risen Jesus, efforts at fulfilling Jesus’ command to love God and one another and the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Today’s readings urge us to work for greater unity and to consider the power of Christian witness.
The theme of unity is best expressed in Jesus’ prayer near the end of John 17. Often called Jesus’ high priestly prayer, it is the Son of God’s prayer on his own behalf and on behalf of his first disciples and those who become disciples through them. Here Jesus prays “that they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” This unity is not first and foremost a social or organizational unity. Rather, it is a unity “from above,” a theological unity in the highest sense. This unity is rooted in the unity between God the Father and Jesus the Son. Whatever social or organizational unity there may be among Christians is the result of the prior theological unity that exists among the persons of the Trinity and us; it has been made possible through the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.
Our unity in Christ stems from the risen Jesus, who brings together peoples from many lands and languages. Those who observe this unity in Christ should be led to inquire about it. Unity in Christ is an important and effective means by which Christian faith may be spread. Therefore working for greater unity among Christians is an essential part of the Christian mission.
Yet we realize how difficult it is to achieve unity. We experience disunity in our families, churches, cities, nation and world. And we recognize the negative consequences of such disunity. While there are often good reasons for it that cannot be ignored, still we cannot be satisfied with disunity or grow accustomed to it. We have a mandate from Jesus to work so that all may be one.
Today’s reading from Acts 7 recounts the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As such, Stephen is a good example of faith in the risen Jesus and of the power of Christian witness. The word “martyr” derives from the Greek word for witness. In recent times Muslim suicide bombers have given martyrdom a bad name. The idea of killing innocent civilians as a way of getting into heaven is absurd. What genuine witness (martyrdom) is for Christians can best be grasped by reflecting on why Stephen died and how he died.
According to Acts 7, Stephen died as the consequence of his bold profession of Christian faith. In the longest speech delivered by anyone in Acts, Stephen reviews the history of Israel as God’s people and suggests that this great tradition had reached its fullness in Jesus and there was no longer any need for worship at the Jerusalem temple. These claims enraged Stephen’s opponents in Jerusalem and led them to put him to death by stoning. This is the first attested case of a Christian who gave his life explicitly for his convictions about Jesus. Hence it is customary to refer to Stephen as the protomartyr.
Stephen died amid a vision of the risen Jesus as the glorious Son of Man. He also died as Jesus died before him. Just as Jesus on the cross forgave his executioners, so Stephen says about those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And just as Jesus, in his last words, commended his spirit to his heavenly Father, so Stephen at the moment of death says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Stephen’s good example must have made an impact on Saul/Paul, who participated in the mob action. It must have prepared Paul for his own encounter with the risen Jesus.
The ground of unity and the reason for witness (martyrdom) is the risen Jesus, celebrated in today’s reading from Revelation 22. In its several short units, Jesus is described in terms usually reserved in the Bible for the Father. This is another reflection of the “high” Christology found in the Book of Revelation. Jesus’ human identity as “the root and offspring of David” is balanced by the reference to his resurrection in the title “the bright morning star.” Just as the planet Venus is the first heavenly body visible in the morning, so Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. As his second coming and role as judge of the living and dead are affirmed, we learn that the proper response from us is: “Amen. Come, Lord, Jesus!”