The death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is related in the New Testament reading at Morning Prayer today. Stephen was not only a martyr, he was, in character and personality, a man of quite extraordinary ability and value to the early Church. However, what he shall ever be remembered for is the words in which he prayed for those who were executing him by stoning; for their reminiscence of the words of forgiveness that Jesus used as the soldiers nailed him to the Cross, as Stephen prayed, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”
This passage is also effecting an introduction to Saul, who was to become Paul, the great missionary of the First Century Church, who, nonetheless, at this point, was its scourge and very nearly its destroyer. Saul was consenting to Stephen’s death and with great vigour went on to ravage the Church as far as he possibly could.
Of course, the great conversion of Saul lay ahead, and yet already the book of the Acts of the Apostles is preparing to tell the story of that remarkable turn-around, brought about through a vision that was demonstrating how the deaths of Stephen and others was a persecution of Christ himself.
A different sort of vision, something much quieter, and yet still transformative, forms the story read over yesterday and today from 2 Samuel chapter 7 for the Old Testament reading at Morning Prayer. This is not Stephen’s vision of heaven, or Saul’s confrontation by Christ, it is the prophet Nathan receiving the message from God that David was not the one to build the Temple, it would be his son.
These are all quite different stories, or elements in the on-going revelation of God’s will to his people, but give us insights into aspects of human nature and God’s initiative with us that bear thoughtful attention. Vision may lead to a strengthening of resolve and closeness to the divine direction, but may also be the agency for stopping some plan that we have in its tracks; that message coming through the vision of another. Do you remember Pilate’s wife? The insight of Elizabeth when visited by Mary? The effect of Christ’s Transfiguration on the inner band of disciples?
None of these things appear to be foreseen or planned, they just happened, and the progress of human endeavour, even in its most routine and ‘normal’ progression day by day, may be surprised into a fresh vision through the breaking in of God’s will into a situation where we thought ours was set. This has happened before, and will happen again.