Were it not for the Feast of Sts. Philip and James, the first reading for this week-so-far would have recounted the public ministry of St. Stephen. He had been publicly debating with members of a synagogue and apparently it became so animated that Stephen is hauled before the Sanhedrin by men who falsely state: “For we have heard him claim that this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:14) In a way, their claim was true. Stephen had depreciated the importance of the temple and the Mosaic law and elevated Jesus to a stature above Moses.
However, Stephen’s defense (Acts 7) is not a response to the charges made against him but takes the form of a discourse that reviews the fortunes of God’s word to Israel and leads to a prophetic declaration: a plea for the hearing of that word as announced by Christ and now possessed by the Christian community. It does not go well. Not only is Stephen stoned for blasphemy, this seems to be the tipping point for what might well be the first widespread persecution of Christians. It won’t be the last.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God permit evil? It is one of the oldest theological questions, so much so that it has a name: theodicy. We ask the question at the level of an individual when a mom in her early 30s dies of cancer. We ask the question on a geopolitical level as Russia pumels Ukraine. We ask the question about many things in between. Men and women, far more insightful and intelligent than I, have tried to answer the question. It is above my pay grade.
But I can ask, “when bad things happen to good people, what are the paths to goodness that are revealed.” I know this. That first generation of Christian disciples described in The Acts of the Apostles were all stuck in Jerusalem, perhaps barking up the wrong tree as they made no headway with members of the Sanhedrin. Then came the persecutions: “Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4)
The disciples break out of Jerusalem as a first step to the ends of the earth preaching and baptizing.
In the face of evil, misfortune, things not going as I hoped, I can pray, “Why me, Lord?” and I think that is a necessary step in letting go and grieving. When I look back in my own life, I find there is always an accompanying prayer: “Lord help me catch my breath, give me Wisdom, and show me the next step.”
With God there is always a next step.