When God acts decisively, as we celebrated yesterday, he is inclined to do so in a manner that (however much Old Testament prophecies might have hinted at it) catches creation unawares. A baby in a manger is scarcely a more likely incarnation of the divine than the one-eyed, slightly chipped tortoise that is the great god OM in Terry Pratchett’s novel Small Gods (it’s Christmas, I’m allowed to read trash). When the church acts decisively it follows much more obvious channels. Hence, some of the first tasks of the post-Pentecost Christian community are about getting the structures right. Matthias is appointed to fill the place of Judas, and then, lest the apostles be distracted from their preaching and prayers by the mundane, and inward facing, tasks of sorting out disputes and allocating resources, seven new posts are created, the first deacons.
There’s meant to be a clear distinction between the apostolic and diaconal roles, but it doesn’t work out. The mistake the twelve have made is in appointing men ‘full of the Spirit’. And the Spirit won’t be tied to the mundane and practical. Indeed in the chapters that follow in the Acts of the Apostles we find two of the seven heavily engaged in proclaiming the gospel to those outside the community. In fact, given that we hear little in the rest of the book about any of the original dozen apart from Peter, James and John, you could say that there’s a higher success rate of apostolic ministry among the seven than there is from the twelve.
Today we celebrate the martyrdom of Stephen, one of those seven, arrested for his preaching and condemned for witnessing to his vision of Christ at the right hand of God. Stephen discovered, as countless others have down the centuries, that you can’t separate the proclamation of the Good News from meeting the practical needs of the poor. And that inseparability is for two distinct and complementary reasons.
Firstly, churches and Christians need to uphold justice and perform good works in order to show the love of Jesus. My friend the Bishop of Peru has a simple rule that no congregation in his diocese can achieve the status as a parish until it has some practical programme of work: a school; a clinic; a project teaching skills to the unemployed. There has to be something that reaches out and lifts up the poor of its neighbourhood. If we are not showing the love of God through our practical actions how can anyone be drawn to him through our words?
But secondly, it was only when he began serving the needy that Stephen was granted his vision of Christ. Twelve centuries later St Francis of Assisi discovered that unless he could see Jesus in a leper he could not truly see Jesus. In that sense the practical tasks we undertake are as much for own benefit as for the well-being of those who are aided by them. We will not see Jesus at the right hand of the Father until we cultivate the habit of seeing him in the drug addict, the beggar, the AIDS sufferer, the sex worker or the homeless person; or in whomever it may be that we and our society are minded to neglect, condemn or despise.
Anglicans too often divide into those who neglect justice in the pursuit of holiness and those who ignore holiness in their striving for justice. In Stephen both are held together. May they be so for us too this Christmastide and beyond.
David Walker is suffragan Bishop of Dudley in the diocese of Worcester.