The first thing we observe in the First Reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Acts 7:55-60) is Stephen’s vision of heaven. He says: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 56). Obviously we wonder at what he saw! Did he see God? What does God look like? Did he indeed see – and would he be able to describe what he saw – the Son of Man standing at a right hand side of God?
It is hard to find a description of God in scriptures. Even Moses in Exodus 3, we are told, saw a burning bush. And Isaiah, in chapter 6 describes seeing “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” Daniel too, in chapter 7, in a vision, saw “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One (or Ancient of Days) and was presented before him” (Verse 13).
This phrase in Daniel, “coming with the clouds of heaven”, should arouse our curiosity. Standing a few years earlier before the same tribunal that sentenced Stephen to death, Jesus declared, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Luke 22:69 omits the clouds but carries the rest: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God”
Speaking to his disciples on the parousia in Mark 13:24-26, Jesus said, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory”. I underlined the phrase “after that suffering” because either Stephen or Luke, or both, were familiar with both phrases and in the context of suffering.
Like Jesus before him, Stephen saw himself suffering unjustly. Like Jesus before him, that suffering would not be in vain. Suffering leads not just to triumph but glorification. Jesus saw that in the future in his declaration to the tribunal as well as in his discourse with his disciples. Stephen saw it as a present reality, no longer in the future.
We see therefore, that the stoning of Stephen is a re-enactment of the unjustifiable condemnation and death of Jesus and the resultant triumph and glorification. We should note here that the stoning of Stephen ushered in a wave of persecution, which in turn resulted in the dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean world and beyond, and the spread of Christianity to gentiles.
This Sunday’s Gospel Reading from John 14:1-14 begins with words of assurance and comfort: Do not let your hearts be troubled.