Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Into Your Hands, O Lord, I Commend My Spirit.

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 7:51—8:1a
Stephen said to the people,
the elders, and the scribes:
“You stiff-necked people,
uncircumcised in heart and ears,
you always oppose the Holy Spirit;
you are just like your ancestors.
Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?
They put to death those
who foretold the coming of the righteous one,
whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.
You received the law as transmitted by angels,
but you did not observe it.”
When they heard this, they were infuriated,
and they ground their teeth at him.
But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to heaven
and saw the glory of God
and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and Stephen said,
“Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man
standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out in a loud voice,
covered their ears,
and rushed upon him together.
They threw him out of the city,
and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they were stoning Stephen,
he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Then he fell to his knees
and cried out in a loud voice,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them”;
and when he said this, he fell asleep.
Now Saul was consenting to his execution.
We continue the story of Stephen, although most of his long discourse to the Sanhedrin on the history of the Jewish people has been omitted in our readings. Today’s reading describes the climax of the story.

He calls those who have arrested him “uncircumcised in heart and ears”. Although they are physically circumcised, their behaviour is more like the uncircumcised pagans around them. They were resisting the spirit of God, who spoke through Moses and the prophets. Paul will speak later on of the ineffectiveness of bodily circumcision if there is not a corresponding circumcision of the heart. It is not circumcision which makes the Jew but his commitment to following God’s will. (And might say that it is not just the pouring of water at Baptism that makes the Christian. To ‘be’ a Christian means a lot more.)

Stephen attacks his judges as doing what their predecessors did to the long line of prophets God sent to his people. Now they have killed Jesus, the greatest prophet of all. It is not Stephen but they, his judges, who are not keeping the Law.

This, not surprisingly, infuriated the council members but Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, now had a vision of God in glory and Jesus standing at his right hand. He told the court: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was the title that Jesus had used of himself to emphasise his links with Messianic prophecies and, in the New Testament, it is very unusual for anyone but Jesus himself to use this title. The Sanhedrin knew very well that the one he was speaking about was the one they had had executed for his own blasphemies. To say that this executed blasphemer was now sharing God’s own glory was beyond the beyond. In horror, they cried out, stopped their ears to prevent them hearing any more obscenities.

All thought of a proper trial went out the window. Stephen was driven beyond the walls of the city and stoned there and then, just as Jesus, too, was crucified outside the city on Golgotha. Almost as an aside, Luke tells us that the witnesses put their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul, who looked on with approval. It was the right of the hostile witnesses in a case (here, perjured witnesses) to initiate the execution of a sentence.

Yet we can surmise that it must have been this experience which sowed the seeds of Paul’s future Christian faith. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.” As he saw Stephen dying with such dignity and grace, he must have been deeply moved - and disturbed.

As he dies, Stephen follows the example of his Lord. He surrenders his life into God’s hands: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and he prays for his executioners and all their supporters: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

So many elements in Stephen’s death resonate the experience of his Master:
      » His performing wonderful signs among the people
      » His uncompromising challenges to the authorities on their integrity (or lack of it)
      » The inability of his opponents to best him in debate
      » The throwing up of false witnesses to discredit him
      » A trial involving these false witnesses
      » The vision of God in glory totally accepting Jesus
      » The total surrender of his life into God’s hands
      » The forgiveness of his executioners.

All in all, Stephen is the paradigm of the perfect follower of Jesus and hence a model for our lives.
So we have here too the ingredients of a true Christian life:
      » Total commitment to Jesus as Lord.
      » Readiness to speak up for one’s faith in spite of hostility and opposition.
      » Readiness to lose one’s physical life, one’s possessions for the sake of the Gospel vision. 
      » An unconditional love for all, including those who would hurt or destroy us.
      » A policy of active non-violence whatever the provocation.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 31
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety.
You are my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake you will lead and guide me.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me,
O LORD, O faithful God.
My trust is in the LORD;
I will rejoice and be glad of your mercy.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your kindness.
You hide them in the shelter of your presence
from the plottings of men.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
+++    +++    +++    +++
John 6:30-35The crowd said to Jesus:
“What sign can you do,
that we may see and believe in you?
What can you do?
Our ancestors ate manna in the desert,
as it is written:
He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

So Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses
who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God
is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

So they said to Jesus,
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
We continue the discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life.

Again the Jews ask Jesus for a sign, a sign like the manna that their forebears enjoyed in the desert. They quote Scripture at him: “He gave them bread from the heavens to eat” (Exodus 16:4-5; Numbers 11:7-9; Psalm 78:24)

As a gift from God the manna was said to come from the sky (“from the heavens”). Some think it was identified with a natural substance which can still be found in small quantities on the Sinai peninsula. Here it is understood as something preternatural and Jesus sees in it a forerunner of the Eucharist. Also the manna, thought to have been hidden by Jeremiah, was expected to appear again miraculously at the Passover as a sign of the last days. “A popular Jewish expectation was that when the Messiah came he would renew the sending of manna. The crowd probably reasoned that Jesus had done little compared to Moses. He had fed 5,000; Moses had fed a nation. He did it once; Moses did it for 40 years. He gave ordinary bread; Moses gave ‘bread from heaven’”

Jesus replies that the manna was not the real bread from God; it was only a sign or symbol. It fed the body but not the spirit. “God’s bread is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They ask for that real bread “which gives life to the world”. Clearly they were speaking in a materialistic sense. It reminds one of the Samaritan woman at the well who asked for the water which would prevent her ever again being thirsty and spare her having to come to the well every day.

Jesus now tells them solemnly: “I AM the bread of life.” The “I AM” strongly identifies Jesus with God and this is the first of seven “I AM…” statements that appear in John’s gospel. The phrase – in Greek ego eimi recalls the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14ff). Both the manna and the recent feeding of the 5,000 are action-parables of God [I AM] giving himself to his people.

And Jesus goes on to clarify the meaning of his statement: “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” To “come to Jesus” is to bond oneself closely to him and all he stands for. And we have seen what “believe in” entails. It implies much, much more than just “receiving Jesus in Communion”.

To eat that bread of life we have to soak ourselves in the life of Jesus, to penetrate deeply into the Word of God that comes to us in the Gospel and the rest of the Scriptures, to assimilate his Way into our own lives. The Eucharist we celebrate is the sign of that bread of life which, in fact, is available all day long to those who are in close contact with Jesus.

Those who live in that close relationship with Jesus are the ones who are truly alive – here and now. Am I one of them? How deep is my faith? my Christianity? my knowledge of and commitment to the Gospel? my understanding of the place of the Eucharist in our Christian life?

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