The mystery of our spiritual union with Christ lies at the heart of the liturgy for the Fifth Sunday of Easter this year. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7), we learn that a clear perception of the diversity of offices and duties in the first apostolic community arose very quickly.
In verses 1-7, the Hellenists were not necessarily Jews from the diaspora, but were more probably Palestinian Jews who spoke only Greek. The Hebrews were Palestinian Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and who may also have spoken Greek. Both groups belong to the Jerusalem Jewish Christian community. The conflict between them leads to a restructuring of the community that will better serve the community’s needs.
The essential function of the Twelve (2-4) is the “service of the word,” including development of the kerygma by formulation of the teachings of Jesus. In verse 2 we read: “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.” Some scripture commentators think that it is not the serving of food that is described here but rather the keeping of the books that recorded the distribution of food to the needy members of the community. At the Apostles’ invitation the disciples chose seven men: “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus. The Apostles prayed over them and laid their hands upon them” (5-6).
The real purpose of this whole episode is to introduce Stephen as a prominent figure in the community whose long speech and martyrdom will be recounted in Acts 7. After Stephen and the others are chosen, they are never presented carrying out the task for which they were appointed (2-3). Rather, two of their number, Stephen and Philip, are presented as preachers of the Christian message. Stephen is the most representative of the group of seven companions. Our tradition sees in this group the origins of the future ministry of “deacons”, although we should keep in mind that this particular ministerial distinction is not present in the Acts of the Apostles.
Let us remember that in addition to charitable work, Stephen carried out the work of evangelization among his own people- the so-called “Hellenists”. Luke insists on the fact that Stephen, “full of grace and power” (8), presented in Jesus’ Name a new interpretation of Moses and of God’s Law itself. Stephen reread the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of Christ’s death and Resurrection.