Signpost for Sunday 18 May: Acts 7:55-70; Ps 31:1-5; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
We move between them both this week. The rock of refuge (Ps 31:2-4) is comforting and we’re encouraged by ‘The Rock’ to build a holy priesthood from living stones with Jesus as the cornerstone (1Peter 2:2-4 and 6-8). But then we’re no longer in the land of metaphor, we’re dragged with Stephen into the horribly real world of first century Palestine (Acts 7: 58-59). Historians and Mel Gibson have painted all too clearly the horrors of crucifixion, but stoning always shocks me. It’s not a spectator punishment; people take part in it (and, unbelievably, in the 21st century they still do).
Apart from the sheer cruelty of his death, Stephen’s is a very short story and a strange one. He starts out being chosen to look after the women (widows) and although many Bibles call this episode ‘the appointment of the seven’ Stephen and the other six appear to be appointed as not much more than top notch waiters (Acts 6:2-5).
I don’t know whether Stephen dropped a few plates or what but he spends no time taking anybody’s supper order before he’s off doing great wonders and signs (Acts 6:8)
Next thing we know he’s up before the High Priest and his cronies, accused of blasphemy, just as Yeshua was. The big difference, which I failed to spot before, is that this time they don’t hesitate to put Stephen to death there and then.
What happened to all their protestations to Pilate about Rome not giving them the right to put people to death for blasphemy? And aren’t they supposed to consult with the Roman authorities about capital punishment (John 18:31)?
“Whatever,” we might imagine them responding. Because as far as we know the members of the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen to death, took Roman law into their own hands, as well as stones, and got away with it. And that dramatic scene marks the end of Luke’s story of the Jerusalem church. From now on it’s all about “Judea and Samaria, and [going to] the ends of the earth.”
But before we set off on our travels, a word or two about this week’s other well known reading (John 14:1-14).
Many people, me included, take comfort from John 14:2 – “In my Father’s house there are many mansions (or rooms or habitations, depending on your translation).” I discovered this week that the word in the original is ‘monai’.
Monai means a temporary resting place for a traveler and it was associated with those who travelled together as a caravan. There would be a few of them who were sent ahead of the caravan to “prepare a place” so that when the caravan arrived, the tent sites had been identified, a water supply found and food was ready: the travelers would have a place of comfort to spend the night.
So if you’ve ever thought, as naughty people like me sometimes do, that verse 2 could mean that the Anglicans will have one room, the Methodists another, the Catholics will have theirs and the Baptists can sleep in the hall, well you’re wrong.