Lectionary 061, Gospel JN 17:20-26
On this final Sunday of the Easter season before we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, the Church recalls the death of St. Stephen, long honored as the “proto-martyr” or the first among the countless list of martyrs who have given their lives on account of their faith in Christ. Before Stephen was put to death—with the yet to be converted St. Paul standing by and consenting to the proceedings—he beheld a marvelous vision, which not only gave Stephen courage in the moment of his greatest need but which also gives us a point of reflection for the gospel that is proclaimed today. We read: “Stephen said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’”. Later, as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:56, 59).
In essence St. Stephen described a vision of God the Father and Christ in glory, and he then prays that he might share in their glory and be with them forever in spirit. Similarly we all look ahead to the possibility of being together with the Lord in heaven, though we do not know what this may be like since it will be in many aspects an existence completely different from any that we know in this life. Thankfully this desire to be together with God in glory is shared by Christ himself, who prays in the gospel: “Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).
This is a text worth exploring carefully: throughout his long last supper discourse Jesus is speaking to the apostles, but here his words are suddenly directed to God the Father. The change in the conversation is dramatic and serves to emphasize Jesus’ rapport with his heavenly Father which is repeatedly noted in John’s gospel as being one of total unity and spiritual intimacy. It is precisely this spiritual union with the Father and the Son into which St. Stephen asks to be transported, and in which Christ himself asks the Father that we might share: “So that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one” (John 17:22).
The scriptures today thus move us from a consideration of the unity between St. Stephen and Christ to a consideration of the unity between the Lord and his holy people all the world over.
Both at a personal level in terms of our relationship with God in prayer, Christian fellowship, and the sacraments, and in terms of our bond with God as members of his living body the Church we are challenged today to set aside any sinful tendency to resist our union in Christ and to embrace the freedom we have as those called into glory with the same Lord who welcomed St. Stephen as he was about to die.
Pope John Paul II took the inspiration for his 1995 encyclical letter on closer relations with the Christian churches Ut Unum Sint—“That they may be one”— from this passage of John’s gospel; may we take from it the impetus to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in the Lord that we might truly be one in the living Body of Christ.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.