In the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, thousands heard the good news of God’s love and became devoted followers of Jesus. Stephen, a Jew probably brought up in a Greek-speaking cultural environment, was one. As noted earlier in Acts when Stephen was selected to be one of the first deacons in the burgeoning Jesus-community, he was known as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.
In our current culture, saturated with a marketing perspective and its devotion to glossy appeal and personal fulfillment, often even in churches, the story of Stephen may seem an anomaly, even an offense. For at the same time thousands were giving their lives to follow Jesus, many others were opposing and even attacking the good news and the Jesus-community. Hence, Stephen, full of faith and Spirit, ended up literally giving his life for Jesus in a terrible, agonizing way. Stoned to death by an angry, rabid crowd! Not much gloss and appeal in that image! Even Stephen’s long address to his accusers and executioners seems not the stuff of a positive, motivational message to win the target audience.
Yet one was there, condoning that death, who carried the story, the image, in his mind and heart until he, too, became a devoted follower of Jesus and a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Saul witnessed Stephen’s witness, even to death. Saul observed the good news in Stephen, though he could not accept it as such. Yet in God’s harrowing mercy, the good news stuck after Saul. Eventually Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus and knocked him down with love and mercy. Good news embraced as good news at last by Saul! Saul gave himself to Jesus, and finally, as Paul, gave his life for Jesus.
This is what we commit ourselves to in baptism, whether ours or our children’s: a good news that is truly spectacular news! Yet it is good news through death. Glory does surmount – in and through the cross. This is good news both out of this world and very much in this world, yet not of this world. We are to take up and proclaim this good news-cross through all our words and all our deeds. The martyrdom of Stephen and the eventual conversion of Paul remind us of this, and they call us to embrace the true good news which comes from God through Calvary, then an empty tomb.