Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen and Ecumenism

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit."
Acts 7:51

Today is the second day of Christmas. It is also the feast day for St. Stephen. St. Stephen was the first martyr. He was killed for his bold and uncompromising testimony before the Jews to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The quote above was part of his concluding statement. It's no wonder they stoned him. One wonders if St. Stephen would have survived this incident if he had been schooled in the modern ecumenical language.

Obviously to say something so inflammatory is going to result in a very negative response. How could he have hoped for something productive with language like that? Surely we have an example here of someone filled with zeal, but lacking in knowledge; or so the modern ecumenists would have us believe. Perhaps we should re-examine the issue. This is Scripture after all. What can we learn here?

Stephen was one of the first deacons selected to meet the growing issue of ministry to the poor. He is first presented to us as "
a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," (Acts 6:5). He is further described as "full of grace and power," (Acts 6:8), and it was said of his opponents that "they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke," (Acts 6:10). As he began this speech Luke tells us: "And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel," (Acts 6:15). As they were about to stone him, Luke says, "But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God," (Acts 7:55). Stephen died praying for his persecutors.

All of this is reminiscent of what Jesus said when He taught His disciples, "You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you," (Mt. 10:18-20). Luke is telling us that Stephen's testimony before the Jewish leaders was being directed by the Holy Spirit. If that's true, then what should we think of our modern ecumenical approach to religious dialog?

I will readily admit that this does not need to necessarily be an either/or choice. The Spirit may well lead in different ways in different circumstances. We have a number of instances in Scripture where the Spirit directed in entirely opposite directions based on the particular circumstances of the moment. Think about how the Israelites were instructed to utterly wipe out every man, woman, and child of their enemies, but how we were instructed to bear patiently and peacefully with the enemies of the Church. God is not restricted. He is not in a box. In His wisdom, He directs as He knows best.

Having said that, however, one wonders if we are seeing the whole picture, or hearing the Spirit as clearly as we say. It is one thing to seek areas of agreement and begin conversation based on our common ground. It is another thing to either implicitly, or explicitly, state that all religions are on an equal footing before God.

There are differences between Christians and Jews, or Christians and Muslims, or Christians and anyone else. Jesus is unique. He alone is the Son of God, and He alone is the way of salvation (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). Denying or downplaying that fact is not an act of love. It is an act of cowardice, and it's result is the potential damnation of those who will never come to the full knowledge of truth because we have hidden it from them.

I am not advocating for the Church to forsake many of its ecumenical breakthroughs. I would not see us go backward in our efforts to reach our neighbors. But I am concerned that many who think they are advancing are actually becoming sidetracked into no longer representing the Gospel with which we were entrusted. Instead, let us take a look at St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was very clear in his proclamation of the Gospel. His opponents understood him well. His death was the seed of the growth of the Church. For we are told that in the crowd that day was a young rising star of Judaism by the name of Saul of Tarsus. This man would eventually have his own encounter with Christ and be forever after known as St. Paul.

With St. Stephen's example in mind, I would like to urge all those involved in inter-religious efforts to think first in terms of truth, the Gospel, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Let us not fear to anger or aggravate those who refuse our teachings. Only let us be clear as to what our teachings are. Through prayer and the Holy Spirit, I believe we will be much more effective than we are when we rely on our own wisdom and understanding.

I don't believe St. Stephen's death was a foolish, vain effort. Therefore I believe he has much to teach us about obedience to God and effective evangelism. A clear, conviction-filled message will go so much further than years of ecumenical efforts have. Let us return to the biblical model and trust the same Spirit who energised St. Stephen to do even greater things through His Church today.

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