Today we celebrate a secondary feast of St. Stephen and we read about his martyrdom from the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts… the Acts of the Apostles. Note that it’s called the Book of Acts – not the Book of Truths or the Book of Dogmas. Πράξεις των Ἀποστόλων. The Greek word praxis is the root of our English word “practice” – not practice in the sense of a musician or sports team practicing, but in the sense of a law or medical practice: a professional practice with a mission statement.
The distinction between praxis/practice and theory comes from the philosopher Aristotle and his three-fold classification of disciplines as theoretical, productive or practical, and the telos, or purpose, that each serves. The purpose of a theoretical discipline is the pursuit of truth through contemplation; its telos is the attainment of knowledge for its own sake. The purpose of the productive sciences is to make something; their telos is the production of some artefact. The practical disciplines are those sciences which deal with ethical and political life; their telos is practical wisdom and knowledge. (Source: infed.org)
So praxis in its classical meaning implies informed, committed action on behalf of human well being and the search for truth. It is the action of people who are free, who are able to act for themselves. Therefore, praxis is always risky.
These thoughts are relevant to the Book of Acts, because Luke, the author of this book, was an educated Greek and was very clearly well versed in rhetoric and classical Greek ideas about knowledge and education. Stephen is the perfect example of informed, committed action and the risk that comes with it. If he were just another talking buffoon like the ones we see on TV talk shows and cable news, no one would have paid much attention to him. But he spoke with knowledge and insight – especially knowledge and understanding of history. He reminded his listeners of their past history and past failures. That was guaranteed to bring a death sentence upon him. Nations and groups of people like glorified, sanitized versions of their history, not the full, often ugly, truths. The Jews of that time were no different than the Greeks or Americans of today. It’s human nature; it’s the law of society. Go against it, and you risk everything. That’s the risk of praxis. That was the risk Stephen took.
We see another form of praxis at work in our Gospel reading today: The disciples’ boat is tortured, βασανιζόμενον, and Jesus walks on the water to them. They are terrified, εταράχθησαν; they think it’s a ghost! The storm is not only external; it is raging inside them as well. The struggle to be a disciple is part of praxis – the act of following Jesus. But note Jesus’ words: θαρσείτε, εγώ ειμί. Those beautiful words, εγώ ειμί, it is I, I AM. Those same words are spoken to every disciple, every follower of Jesus, in the moment of crisis and doubt.
These words, I AM, accompany the praxis of every disciple. I’m sure Jesus whispered those words to Stephen in that moment of ecstatic vision which also became the moment of his martyrdom. Those words are the key throughout the Bible. They are the words that separate the Bible from philosophy and theoretical knowledge. They are the words of action, praxis. They are the words spoken by God to Moses in Exodus:
“Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’… this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
ThIs became the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And they are the words with which Jesus comforted or challenged people around him, as in John 8:58 – Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” They are also the words inscribed in our ceiling icon!
Buddhists speak of their practice; they don’t speak of Buddhist beliefs, they speak of Buddhist practice. The Book of Acts is not the Book of Beliefs, but the Book of Praxis. In this book we see the practice of discipleship in the early church. And we learn about our Christian practice, our praxis. The praxis of every disciple of Jesus Christ is to follow the one who says I AM.