06 May 2014

Never be hungry again

3rd Week of Easter (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Stephen stands accused of blasphemy before the Sanhedrin, facing conviction and execution. Rather than backtracking on his earlier remarks, Stephen goes for broke and tells the truth: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit [. . .] You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.” Like most people who are told an uncomfortable truth, the crowd is none too happy; “they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him.” At this point in the confrontation, Stephen's lawyer could've called for a recess. His publicist could've released a statement clarifying his remarks and calling for calm. Then Stephen could appear on Oprah, apologize for his intolerance, and announce that he was checking into into rehab for treatment. All would have been forgiven. But b/c Stephen is filled with Holy Spirit and unable to lie, he says, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And b/c the crowd hates the truth and will not hear it, “they cry out in a loud voice, cover their ears, and rush upon him together.” Stephen is stoned to death, dying with the name of Christ on his lips, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. . .do not hold this sin against them.” Had his executioners been paying attention, they would have understood Stephen's death as a sign of God's presence; they would have received his dying words as a gift freely given.

On a day sometime before Stephen faces his own hostile crowd, another like-minded crowd confronts Jesus: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do?” It's important to understand what they are asking for here. They aren't interested in words of wisdom, or profound teaching. They don't want a clever exegesis of the Law. The crowd is demanding a miracle, a performance that can only be explained as an act of God. And not just any old miracle but one that benefits them immediately. They note that God gave them manna in the desert. So, they want Jesus to do the same. They want concrete, irrefutable—and dare I say it, edible—proof that Jesus is who he says he is. Rather than promising them additional tax breaks, or a new government food program, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Eat this bread and never hunger; believe in me and never thirst. This is not the miracle they were hoping for.

Stephen, somewhere along the way, heard and believed upon the Christ. He ate the bread of life and drank from the chalice of salvation. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and went out to preach the Good News. The crowd clamoring for his blood didn't see Stephen as a miracle, as a sign of God's presence. They saw a blasphemer quoting Samaritan heresy. They wanted humble contrition from him, but they got the truth. Like the crowd that demanded a concrete sign from Jesus, they wanted a sign from Stephen that their lives were not about to be turned upside down. They wanted consolation, assurance, a guarantee that they everything they thought they knew about God was just right. Stephen disappointed them, and so did Jesus. They got the truth, and it set their teeth on edge.

The crowds that gather before the Church now haven't changed in 2,000 years. Neither has the truth. Stephen didn't apologize nor did he clarify his remarks. Jesus didn't do any magic tricks nor did he argue a thesis. Confronted by demanding mobs, Jesus and Stephen do exactly what they were sent to do: they spoke the word of truth for all to hear. Stephen forgave his killers even as he died, revealing the way of mercy. Jesus reveals the way to salvation, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

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