St Stephen – statue over porch at St Stephen’s, Hackington, Canterbury – carrying bread, with a cairn of stones behind him.
Beware of men: they will hand you over to sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. Mt. 10: 17f
Beware, Jesus says. They will hand you over. Brother will betray brother…. but the man who stands firm to the end will be saved. These things will happen. Jesus is not talking about a mere probability here. Jesus is making a statement of fact. Nor does he qualify the statement by saying, ‘But these things might not happen to you.’ Rather, he suggests that all the disciples must be prepared.
This is the day after Christmas, something that makes the poignancy of Jesus’ words even sharper. Our minds are full of images not of disaster, but of an infant – with all the vulnerability and irresistible infant beauty this implies. On the other hand, today’s Gospel, along with the celebration of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, highlights not the image of the baby, but the disastrous, morally sordid world where God’s Son became that baby. Of course, we are meant to do some lateral thinking: this world is the one God became a human being in, to save it. But, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel don’t sound much like salvation. Of course, it’s possible I’ve got the wrong idea of salvation.
St Stephen’s, Hackington
Perhaps Jesus is telling me here that he’s not a spiritual handyman who comes to “fix” everything. For he does not fix anything, as today’s Gospel makes blazingly obvious. And certainly fix is the wrong word entirely. A better word might be fills. In becoming a man, in experiencing the crucifying reality of sin, in drinking the bitter cup all the way down to the dregs, Jesus is not merely one more innocent victim in a depraved world. Although Jesus is not a fixer, and brother will continue to betray brother until the end of time, Jesus nonetheless fills this experience, fills the complete absence of goodness with all Goodness.
Can I get my head around this paradox? There is no fixing, but there is filling. There is no personal exemption from misfortune for Jesus’ disciples, but there is personal incorporation into Jesus through baptism, and though living a life of faith. There are profound sufferings for disciples of Jesus to endure, but Jesus’ capacity to fill with life life’s bitterest sorrows is his legacy to his disciples.
Can it possibly be so? Yes, it can. Even as I know that Jesus’ predictions of the disasters that will befall his disciples are true, I also know the truth to which Saint Stephen testifies today: that in exactly such bitter experiences of sin, betrayal, and murderous violence the encounter with God can now take place. This – astonishingly – is precisely the point where heaven is thrown open and the glory of God shines forth, with Jesus at God’s right hand. The man who stands firm to the end will be saved. This is truly Good News.