Stephen’s death was a bit of a sucker punch to the early church. Not only did they have to cope with the loss of one of their most devout members, but also Jerusalem turned hostile to the faith. The majority of the new Christians had to disperse to other regions, and Saul spearheaded the persecution efforts, imprisoning many of those who stuck around. But you don’t get diamonds without pressure, you don’t get pearls without irritants, and it takes a lot of (ahem) fertilizer to make a rose.
Do you remember that scene in The Prince of Egypt where Moses kills an Egyptian and flees to the wilderness? He goes to stop one of the taskmasters from beating a Hebrew slave, but accidentally sends the taskmaster plummeting off a scaffolding and kills him. Everyone sees the event, and Moses runs away into the desert. It’s a dramatic scene, but as it does elsewhere, the movie takes some liberties with the text it’s interpreting. It differs starkly from both the original account in Exodus and Stephen’s interpretation of it in his speech before the Council in Jerusalem.
Acts 6 begins with strife between the Greek-speaking Jews and the Jews native to Judea. You may be familiar with the situation, in which those who provided meals for the needy were overlooking the widows among the Greek-speaking Jews. As I read it today, I found that I associated it in my mind with Biblical themes of compassion for the poor and opposition to racism, such as we see in Acts 2:44-45 and Galatians 3:28. But Luke includes the story of the overlooked widows to introduce a larger story: Stephen’s martyrdom.
The end of the last chapter and the beginning of this one form a sort of interlude. The new Christian movement is sharing goods and property among its members. Some landowners are even selling their land to support their brethren, but a couple named Ananias and Sapphira, hoping to capitalize on the good favor that such deeds bring, keep back a portion of their profits and lie about how much they sold their land for. And then they die. I’m sure we could get plenty of mileage out of untangling that thorn bush, but frankly, I’d rather take a look at Peter’s second visit to Jewish Prison and the wisdom of Gamaliel the Pharisee. If you really want me to revisit Ananias and Sapphira, perhaps I will, if you ask nicely.
In today’s chapter, a good deed goes unpunished, but only barely.
I’m a little on the short side. But when I was far shorter than I am now, probably only four or five years old, my mom taught me a song that told the story of today’s chapter from Acts.
Acts 2 is the chapter where the early church blows up. Boatloads of Jews from all over have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, known in Greek as Pentecost. The Holy Spirit miraculously grants the disciples the ability to speak and comprehend various languages, in a kind of reverse Babel, and Peter preaches a gospel message to the crowds that results in thousands repenting and getting baptized. In the previous chapter, the disciples had been biding their time, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them. But here God starts making waves, and he won’t let up until it gets the disciples kicked out of Jerusalem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.