Monday, April 19, 2010

This Is The Work Of God, That You Believe In The One He Sent.

Monday of the Third Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 6:8-15
Stephen, filled with grace and power,
was working great wonders
and signs among the people.
Certain members of the so-called
Synagogue of Freedmen,
Cyreneans, and Alexandrians,
and people from Cilicia and Asia,
came forward and debated with Stephen,
but they could not withstand the wisdom
and the Spirit with which he spoke.
Then they instigated some men to say,
“We have heard him speaking blasphemous words
against Moses and God.”
They stirred up the people,
the elders, and the scribes,
accosted him, seized him,
and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
They presented false witnesses who testified,
“This man never stops saying things
against this holy place and the law.
For we have heard him claim
that this Jesus the Nazorean
will destroy this place
and change the customs
that Moses handed down to us.”
All those who sat in the Sanhedrin
looked intently at him
and saw that his face
was like the face of an angel.
Today we begin the story of Stephen, who will be the first person to give his life for Christ. He is the first martyr, the first true witness to the Gospel. The passage follows immediately on yesterday’s reading on the appointment of the ‘deacons’, of whom Stephen was one and also following the conversion of some of the Temple’s priests.

We are told at the beginning that Stephen, “filled with grace and power”, was performing great signs and wonders among the people. Until now, we only heard of the apostles, especially Peter and John, working miracles. Now, after the laying on of hands, Stephen is given the same gifts and the same power. Soon, we will see the deacon Philip doing the same.

However, Stephen’s words and action aroused the displeasure of other Greek-speaking Jews. We are told that there were people from the Synagogue of Freedmen, who were probably descendants of Jews who had been carried off to Rome by Pompey when he attacked Jerusalem in 63 BC. They would have been sold into slavery but later released, hence their name. The Cyrenians came from Cyrene, which was the chief city in Libya and North Africa, half way between Alexandria and Carthage. It had a Jewish community. (We remember too that it was a Simon from Cyrene who was forced to help Jesus carry his cross, Matt 27:32.) Alexandrians, came from the city of Alexandria (named after the famous Macedonian emperor). It was the capital of Egypt and the second city of the Roman Empire. It also had a Jewish community. Cilicia was a Roman province in the southeast corner of Asia Minor, close to Syria. Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul, was one of its principal towns. Asia simply referred to just one Roman province in what is now western Turkey. Its capital was Ephesus, which would feature prominently in Paul’s ministry.

These men began debating with Stephen. It is an interesting theory that, since Paul was from Tarsus in Cilicia, he might have attended this synagogue and have been among those who were arguing with Stephen. He certainly was prominent in the stoning of Stephen.

The parallels between his experience and that of his Lord are strikingly similar. Like Jesus and because of Jesus he is “filled with grace and power” and he “worked great wonders and signs among the people”. He arouses the displeasure especially of his fellow Hellenist Jews who cannot deal with the Spirit-inspired power of his words.

As they could not better Stephen in debate, they began circulating distorted versions of what he was saying. They accused him of saying that the worship of God was no longer to be restricted to the Temple. The charges that Stephen depreciated the importance of the temple and the Mosaic Law and elevated Jesus to a stature above Moses were in fact true. And, as far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, no defence against them was possible. But the false witnesses that some Hellenists were bringing forward were actually distorting what Stephen was saying.

So they begin to throw false accusations against him leading to his incurring the hostility both of the people and the Jewish religious leaders. In the presence of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, they distort his words by claiming that Stephen claimed Jesus was going to destroy the temple and change the traditions of Moses.

In a sense, of course, it was true. The coming of Jesus made the Temple irrelevant and the teaching of Jesus would not abolish but would transcend and go far beyond the traditions of Moses.

All of this is very similar to the experience that Jesus went through. All through this, his enemies glared at him with hostility while Stephen’s face seemed like “that of an angel”. The face of an angel produces a feeling of awe. There are echoes here of the face of Moses as he came down from the mountain after being face to face with God and the appearance of Jesus at the Transfiguration. Here, too, the Sanhedrin members are witnessing a transfiguration, as Stephen has a vision of Jesus in glory. (This will occur in tomorrow’s reading.) And, whatever their feelings towards him, he had no hostile feelings towards them. This is the spirit of Jesus. “Love your enemies.”

With Stephen, who thus perceived the fuller implications of the teachings of Jesus, the difference between Judaism and Christianity began to appear. Luke’s account of Stephen’s martyrdom and its aftermath shows how the major impetus behind the Christian movement passed from Jerusalem, where the temple and law prevailed, to Antioch in Syria, where these influences were less pressing.

As Christians, we too can expect and should not be surprised to experience hostility and misunderstandings even from our fellow-Christians at times. We are called too to return love for hatred, peace for anger. An attitude which is a real stumbling block to some and utter nonsense to others.
We will see the rest of the story tomorrow.
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Psalm 118
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Though princes meet and talk against me,
your servant meditates on your statutes.
Yes, your decrees are my delight;
they are my counselors.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
I declared my ways, and you answered me;
teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous deeds.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Remove from me the way of falsehood,
and favor me with your law.
The way of truth I have chosen;
I have set your ordinances before me.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
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John 6:22-29
After Jesus had fed the five thousand men,
his disciples saw him walking on the sea.
The next day, the crowd that remained across the sea
saw that there had been only one boat there,
and that Jesus had not gone along
with his disciples in the boat,
but only his disciples had left.
Other boats came from Tiberias
near the place where they had eaten the bread
when the Lord gave thanks.
When the crowd saw
that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there,
they themselves got into boats
and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
And when they found him across the sea
they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered them and said,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
you are looking for me not because you saw signs
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God,
that you believe in the one he sent.”
Following on the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water, we begin the long discourse of Jesus as the Bread of Life. It is presented as a replacement of the manna with which God fed his people during their long trek through the desert in the Old Testament. What we read today is really an introduction. The proper discourse will begin tomorrow. The last part of the discourse is about the mixed reaction of Jesus’ disciples and Peter’s profession.

The day following the feeding the people go in search of Jesus. First, they realise he did not cross the lake with his disciples but, when they go to the site of the feeding, they find he is not there either. Eventually they find Jesus and his disciples in the vicinity of Capernaum, Jesus’ principal base in Galilee.

They ask him: “When did you come here?” In typically Johannine fashion, the question is loaded with deeper meanings, of which those asking it are quite unaware. Jesus’ origin (where he comes from) is a constant source of misunderstanding both on the part of the crowds and of the Jewish leadership.

Jesus begins by telling the crowds that they are coming in search of him not because of the ‘signs’ that he is doing but because of the bread that they had been given to eat. They have missed the point of what Jesus was doing. They have seen the things that Jesus has been doing but have missed the ‘sign’, the deeper meaning behind them. The food they are looking for is not the food that counts. The real food brings a life that never ends and that is the food that Jesus is offering. It parallels the water “springing up to eternal life” which Jesus promised the Samaritan woman (John 4:14).

The source of this ‘bread’ is the Son on whom the Father has set his seal. This ‘seal’ was given at his baptism. It is the Spirit of the Father, who is the power of God working in and through Jesus.

In answer to the question what they are to do in order to do the works of God, they are told, “This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.” For ‘works’ in the Jewish sense, external fulfilment of the Law’s requirements, Jesus substitutes faith in himself as the delegate of the Father.

And he asks us not just to ‘believe’ but to ‘believe in’. It is not just a question of accepting certain statements about Jesus and who he really is. ‘Believing in’ involves a total and unconditional commitment of the whole self to Jesus, to the Gospel and the vision of life that he proposes and making it part of one’s own self. This is where the real bread is to be found.

And we may add that Jesus is not just speaking of the Eucharistic bread but the deepdown nourishment of which the Eucharist is the sign and sacrament but which also comes from the Word of God in Scripture and the whole Christian community experience.

It is important in reading this whole chapter that we do not limit the truth of Jesus as the Bread or Food of our life simply to the Eucharist, which is the sacramental sign of something much larger – all that we receive through Christ and the whole Christian way of life.

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