Acts 7:55-60
PS 97:1-2, 6-7, 9
Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
Jn 17:20-26

Adam Elsheimer stoning Stephen
There is a curious tension (to say the least!) in the Christian life. On the one hand, there is a strong affirmation that “works do not justify,” that nothing that we as humans can ever do can win us the favor of God, much less earn us salvation. But on the other hand, there is a demanding Christian moral code established by Jesus’ teachings in the gospels which includes such mandates as turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and forgiving this who persecute us. It is difficult to reconcile how this moral code fits into a Christian conception of soteriology, particularly when we hear that it is by things such as these that we will be judged, as we hear in our second reading from Revelation:

I, John, heard a voice saying to me:
“Behold, I am coming soon.
I bring with me the recompense I will give to each
according to his deeds.

A cursory blog post can in no ways to justice to this central tension within Christian morality, but our readings for this Sunday do give us a sense of how we might go about resolving this tension between grace and works.

In our gospel reading from John, Jesus prays

And I have given them the glory you gave me,
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 . . .
. . . that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.

Here, Jesus links perfection to the indwelling of God in the person. The Christian life is directed heaven-ward by the power of God’s love in each person.

In our first reading, we see that love at work in the witness of Stephen who filled with the Holy Spirit is not only able to offer up his life to God, but also imitate the love of Jesus so perfectly that in his dying breath, he prays for his persecutors:

”Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Stephen’s actions are the epitome of mercy, which Pope Francis has called the “bridge that connects God and man” (Misericordiae Vultus 2). It is in Christian mercy that we see how the complex relationship between grace and works finds a resolution. The experience of mercy begins with the recognition that God loves us and nothing can separate us from that love, despite our unworthiness. As Pope Francis says “Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive” (ibid. 3). Thus, mercy is a grace, a gift that God gives us of a relationship with Him that we ourselves do not and indeed cannot initiate. But then, filled with God’s merciful love, we are empowered to live according to the extraordinarily high moral standard that God calls us and indeed by which He will judge us, a standard which places mercy at the forefront as “an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’” (ibid. 9).

The feast of the Ascension of Jesus turns our eyes heavenwards to where Jesus sits at God’s right hand. But it also reminds us that Jesus calls us to be with him in this exalted heavenly place and has empowered us through the gift of his spirit to achieve this goal. Stephen serves as a model, turning his eyes first heavenward for the divine aid that allows him to then direct God’s merciful gaze on those who are least deserving and most in need of God’s love.