In the first reading, we read how the people of Israel had always been resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen came to a point when gentle and persuasive talk could not touch their hearts. So he went on the offensive and told them off, “You stubborn people, with your pagan hearts and pagan ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Can you name a single prophet your ancestors never persecuted? In the past they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, and now you have become his betrayers, his murderers.” Indeed, the history of Israel is a history of infidelity to the Covenant. Instead of submitting to the Word of God as expressed in the laws, they adopted the customs, lifestyle and even the religious traditions of their neighbours. They were unfaithful to the God of Israel who liberated them from Egypt and made them into the People of God. In order to save the people, the Lord in His mercy sent prophet after prophet to remind them and their leaders how they should conduct themselves and walk in the ways of the Covenant.
But again and again, they disobeyed the prophets that God sent as His messengers. Not only did they not listen to the prophets, but they persecuted and killed them. King Jehoiakim killed the prophet Uriah. (cf Jer 26:20-23) Amos was rejected by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel who sought to influence Jeroboam, King of Israel to drive Amos back to Judah. (Amos 7:10-16) Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, the priest who reprimanded the people for disobedience to the commands of the Lord, was ordered by King Joash to be stoned to death. (cf 2 Chron 24:20-22) Elijah too, was pursued by Jezebel for killing her prophets of Baal. (cf 1 Kg 19:1f) Jesus reminded His contemporaries about their resistance to the Holy Spirit when He told them the parable of the Tenants who killed the servants and the son of the owner of the vineyard. (cf Lk 20:9-19)
Indeed, the history of Israel is not different from our history. We also resist the Holy Spirit in our lives. Although we live under the new covenant, many of us are not living the life of Christ. We disobey the teachings of Christ and fail to live the life of Christ. We too do not take the Word of God seriously. We pick and choose what we like and not what the Lord tells us. When we read what we like and reject what we do not like, we are not believing in the Word of God but in ourselves. This is what is happening among us Christians. We seek to interpret the Word of God according to our so-called context. We make the Word of God approve what we seek to do. Whether it is with regard to divorce, same-sex union, euthanasia or abortion, we twist and turn the Word of God to suit our preferences. Instead of hearing the Word of God and taking it for what it really is, we make the Word of God adapt to our sinfulness.
St Paul complimented the Christians for taking the Word of God as it really is. “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” (1 Th 2:13) Writing to the Galatians, St Paul said, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal 1:6-8)
In contrast, we have Stephen who did not resist the Holy Spirit. He shared the same Spirit as our Lord Jesus. He used similar words that Jesus spoke to the Council when He was on trial. He said, “I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (cf Mt 26:64) He was totally receptive to Christ and the Word of God. He saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. His vision authenticated the Lord’s claim to be the Messiah because He was now assuming full authority seated next to God to be the judge. This time, Jesus was waiting to welcome the first martyr into heaven. Of course, this affirmation only confirms the sins of the Jewish leaders in wrongfully putting Jesus to death. As a consequence, they repeated exactly what their forefathers did. “At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they all rushed at him, sent him out of the city and stoned him.”
What Stephen said was not favourable to their ears and so they sought to silence the truth. This is what is happening in the world today as well. People might not kill us for witnessing to Christ but they will seek to oppose us and silence us from speaking the truth about the gospel message of life and love. In the name of secularization and neutrality, the world seeks to extinguish the Christian message and symbols from society. It is not easy today to profess our faith and our beliefs without being hostilely attacked by those who disagree with us. When we seek to express our beliefs, they would stir up others to oppose us on the accusation that we are causing division in society simply because our views do not agree with theirs. If Christians have to share the common view of society, then there is no reason for us to be Christians because the gospel precisely is meant to help and restore society.
Indeed, life is what the Lord is offering us. He is the Bread of life. He said, “He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.” This bread “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Jesus as the Bread of life teaches us the truth through His word. The bread of life refers foremost to the Word of God. In the gospel, Jesus said to the Devil, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4) Jesus makes it clear that the bread that Moses gave was only a foreshadowing of the bread of God. The true bread of God satisfies not just the physical hunger but the spiritual hunger. Only this bread can give life to humanity because this bread is nothing less than Himself.
Fullness of life comes from more than just having a full stomach; it is about our relationship with God. Bread can only give us physical life but Jesus as the Bread of life comes to offer us a new relationship with God through the Word. Only through Jesus, can we come to the Father and know Him. Without Jesus revealing to us the Father, we will not be able to have an intimate relationship with God. Only by knowing and coming to the Father, can our hunger be satisfied and our soul be at rest. This explains why it is through the Word of God that we come to know the Father in Christ. To receive the bread of life is to hear the Word of God and like Stephen, obey it.
This is the way in which we receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God comes to us through our docility and reception of the Word of God. St Peter said, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32) Of course, the full reception of the Holy Spirit includes receiving Jesus sacramentally in the Eucharist, for the bread of life is but the way in which we relate with the entire Jesus, body and spirit. Only then can we be like St Stephen who lived out the Spirit of Christ in him. He surrendered his life to his enemies, the same way the Lord surrendered by saying, “’Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and said aloud, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’; and with these words he fell asleep.” (cf Lk 23:34) Like Jesus, he prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies and murderers. Only with the Spirit of Christ, can we love our enemies and pray for them. But it is such witnessing in the Spirit that hearts will be converted, just as Stephen touched the heart of Saul who witnessed the killing.