Detail, Ordination of St. Stephen by St. Peter, by Fra Angelico (1447-49).
New Testament Witness | Fr. John Navone, SJ | HPR
The faith of the early Christians in Jesus and the Kingdom of his Father constituted them as a community or Church. If it was their shared faith that formed them into a community, who and what they believed in would be the decisive factor in shaping their shared life as a community and their self-understanding as a Church. The self-understanding or their ecclesiology had to be shaped by their Christology, their theology of Jesus.
Christology and Ecclesiology
In both his Gospel and in the book of Acts, Luke associates the resurrection experience very closely with the notion of “giving witness.” In the speeches of both Peter and Paul that are narrated in Acts, this is a recurrent theme: “This Jesus God raised up, and, of that, we are all witnesses” (2:32; see also 3:15; 5:32; 1:31). In one passage, Peter sees the reason for the resurrection experience in the fact that they were chosen by God as witnesses: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses …” (10:39-41). In his Gospel, Luke makes this association in the final conversation between Jesus and his disciples, where Jesus tells them that they are to be “witnesses of these things” (24:48).
Moreover, the role of giving witness is associated, not only with the resurrection experience, but also with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the Gospel account of the final conversation, the disciples are told to stay in the city until they are clothed with the power which the promise of the Father will bring (24:49). In the Pentecost event itself, the Spirit comes in the symbols of fire and a rush of mighty wind, and Peter stands to speak and give witness (Acts 2:2-14). The power which they received from the Holy Spirit was, in a special way, the power to give witness.
These associations of both the resurrection experience and the Pentecost experience with the call to give witness and the power to give witness suggest that Luke’s theology, both of the resurrection and of Pentecost, was formulated within the context of the delay of Jesus’ coming, and are Luke’s theological solution of this problem. Luke’s theology of the Ascension also makes sense within this context. When Jesus did not come in power and glory as they expected, his power and glory was portrayed as his heavenly exaltation “at the right hand of the Father.” The manifestation of his power is that power which comes with the outpouring of the Spirit. The opening scene in Acts shows the interrelationship of these various elements in Luke’s theology: the disciples are not to inquire about “times and seasons” for the coming of the Kingdom, but they are to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and they are to be his witnesses, and after saying this, Jesus departs from them. It was his absence that made witnesses necessary, and made the role of the Spirit in empowering to give witness so central.
The disciples, then, were constituted witnesses to Jesus through the resurrection experience and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. What the nature of their witness was to be, however, and what all it was to include were things that they had to learn. Luke brings this out in Acts in the story which he tells about Stephen, who was one of the seven deacons chosen to take care of the daily distribution to the widows. We are told that Stephen was “full of grace and power, and did great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). So great were the wonders and signs, that they began to cause trouble for Stephen with the synagogue. Members of the synagogue began to dispute with him, but when they could not withstand the “wisdom and spirit” with which he spoke, “they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes” and had Stephen arrested (6:12).
There follows the story of Stephen being brought before the High Priest and the Council, and his lengthy speech about the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, ending with the account of Jesus, whom Stephen calls the Righteous One, being betrayed and put to death (7:52).