Acts 7:51—8:1a; Ps 31:3cd-4, 6, 7b, 8a, 17, 21ab; Jn 6:30-35
Everyone who follows Jesus picks up his cross everyday. Everyone who follows Jesus prays this prayer of Jesus from the cross: “into your hands, O LORD, I entrust my spirit.” If we pray this way everyday—then when suffering and death come our way we will be ready and able to respond. Saint Stephen responded to those who stoned him the same way the Lord Jesus responded to those who crucified him by asking the Father to forgive his enemies. At this point in Saint John’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus is not dealing with enemies, rather, he is responding to those who demand a sign. They demand show us your credentials just as Moses showed our ancestors that he was authentic by the sign of manna. Saint Stephen’s martyrdom becomes his ultimate sign; The Lord Jesus gives what Moses can’t, real heavenly bread.
Saint Stephen’s final act of preaching left the people, elders, and scribes with on other choice. They were “stung to the heart; they ground their teeth in anger at him.” It wasn’t bad enough that he compared this generation to every previously stiff-necked generation. This generation had the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Lord Jesus, the Just One, and his listeners have to take some responsibility for rejecting and executing the Lord. Saint Stephen went too far. After laying the blame for the Lord Jesus’ death upon his listeners, Saint Stephen “looked to the sky above and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.” This was too much: this was complete blasphemy. To see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God is to say that the Lord Jesus and the Father are co-equal. The onlookers could not hear such a witness so they held their hands over their ears: “hear no evil.” Religious indignation and zeal struck out immediately and Saint Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned. Such a teaching must be silenced, and stoning is far more effective than commanding him not to preach about the Lord Jesus. Saint Stephen was so completely identified wit the One he proclaimed that in death he prayed as the Lord Jesus had prayed. However, notice the change, Saint Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Already the first Christian Creed is heard in the prayer of the martyrs, “Jesus is Lord!”
The Lord Jesus is also struggling with a very demanding crowd. They want him to prove himself. Like Moses revealed his credentials through providing manna in the wilderness, the crowd wants Jesus to give them “this bread always.” The Lord Jesus reminds his listeners of something they don’t want to hear “it was not Moses who gave you bread from heavens; it is my Father who gives you the real heavenly bread.” Faith-filled Israelites believed that the Torah provided continuing nourishment for the people after the manna ceased. The Lord Jesus points out that the Father gave them both the manna and the Torah to nourish them, not Moses. The Father provides real, authentic, true heavenly bread through the Lord Jesus, but this gift is not just for Israel as was the Torah and manna. Rather, it is nourishment for all who hunger and thirst, “no one who comes to me shall ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me shall ever thirst again.” The Lord Jesus himself is the bread that provides life and refreshment for the whole world. Now all can find rest from the endless search for wisdom. This true, real, authentic bread from heaven gave Saint Stephen strength to die, and it gives us strength to live.