Today we hear the final part of the death of the Deacon, Stephen. Surrounded by the people, elders and scribes, Stephen continues to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus and compares their rejection of Jesus to the rejection of the prophets by their ancestors. Angered by Stephen’s testimony, the mob throws him out of the city and stones him to death. A brutal scene, indeed. The gentle Stephen whose responsibility was the care of the widow and orphans thus became the first to die for witnessing to Jesus.
There is a noteworthy part of the story which tells us that the mob, as they prepared to stone Stephen, put their cloaks at the feet of a bystander named Saul. After Stephen has been killed, the author of Acts comments, “Now Saul was consenting to his execution.” That’s got to be one of the coldest statements in the whole of the book of Acts. Later in his life Paul deeply regrets his hardness of heart at this moment in his youth.
In our Gospel this morning we have Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life. As you recall, this dialogue between Jesus and the “crowd” comes about as a result of the feeding of the 5000. Many who experienced that miracle followed Jesus and caught up with him the next day in Capernaum. They wanted “more” and they referred to the manna during the Exodus. Jesus reminds them that the bread that fed the community during the Exodus was sent from the heavens by God. He then identifies himself with that living Bread and teaches that the one who eats that bread will live forever. The crowd can’t accept that Jesus is the Bread from heaven and so walks away. It was a pivotal moment in Jesus life as the crowd never came back though it was the occasion for Peter to make his great profession of Faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of everlasting life.
The events we read about today are remembered not just because they were things that happened to Jesus during his life and were part of the history of the early church. We are invited to remember them because these same kinds of struggles often happen in our own lives as we live out our lives of faith. Can we honestly say that we have never dismissed someone who didn’t seem to conform to our expectations? Have we ever responded with anger to someone who challenged us? Perhaps our prayer today should ask God to help us find His presence in the expected ways and people that God sends into our lives.
Fr. Michael Higgins, C.P. is the director of retreats at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.