A sermon preached to the Episcopal clergy of Dallas , April 13, 2016. The texts were the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:51 – 8:1) and the “I am the bread of life” passage, John 6:30-35.
Starting with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, we have in the last 80 years or so seen an endless procession of books offering us strategies for … well, winning friends and influencing people.
It appears that Stephen did not read any of them.
When I read this passage from the Acts of the Apostles I find myself remembering Frederick Buechner’s line: “Nobody ever invited a prophet home for dinner more than once.”
And yet, when Stephen chastises his audience for their failures to listen to the prophets, while we’re told they are enraged, they keep listening. They keep listening, perhaps, because they realize this is the sort of thing that prophets do. Only a few years earlier they had heard John the baptizer talking to them in this way, demanding their repentance. And of course a long line of prophets had preceded him in such denunciations. Possibly by this point in the history of Israel listening to this kind of speech had become a kind of performance art, something that people might talk about later on and say, “Now, that was good. He got us worked up there, didn’t he? Of course, he’s no Jeremiah, but still…”
But then Stephen goes too far. Denouncing the children of Israel for their unfaithfulness – well, that’s par for the course, that’s part of the game, is it not? But saying that this Jesus who was so recently crucified, who suffered the most shameful of deaths, is standing at the right hand of God? That cannot be tolerated.
To “stand at the right hand of God”: this is, after all, a Messianic designation — see for instance the opening of Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” It seems likely that it was this claim for Jesus that broke the crowd’s patience with Stephen — especially since many of those listening to Stephen had shouted, not many days earlier, “Crucify him!” But in any case Stephen goes to his death, the first martyr for the cause of Jesus the Christ.
If we turn from this pivotal event in the early life of the Church, and go back in time to our Gospel reading, a moment from early in Jesus’s public ministry — here too we have a scene describing an encounter between a prophet and his audience, but this one is less contentious. No one is enraged; no one gets stoned; but the audience is, shall we say, somewhat skeptical.
(This is one of those relatively rare instances when the lectionary gives us only part of a story; you can’t really make sense of what’s happening here without looking a little earlier and a little later in the story. It’s easy to see why the lectionary-makers did this: John 6 is so rich, and so absolutely central to the Gospel, that it gets broken into small chunks for our rumination. But we need to keep a somewhat larger piece in mind when when we’re chewing on one of those small chunks.)
Now, the skepticism of this crowd is not invincible. They’re willing to be won over. All they’re asking for is a sign. In general, Jesus is extremely unsympathetic to demands for signs: as he says elsewhere, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” But this time he lets it go — which is interesting, because if a crowd ever deserves a good tongue-lashing, it’s this one.
Why? Because they had just received, one day earlier, a sign, an astonishing one: the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus had filled their bellies, and they liked that, so they’ve climbed into boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee to find him and get a refill. Jesus knows what they want, and says so — this is from just before our passage for today — :“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”
So he’s onto them, but they’re still determined to wheedle something out of him. “Look, Rabbi,” they say — they start this conversation by referring to him respectfully as Rabbi, teacher — “we’re not here for the food, far from it, we just want you to demonstrate your authority so we will know that you are indeed speaking and acting on God’s behalf. So what would be a good sign? … Now, how about manna, or something like manna — bread, maybe? That worked for Moses.”
A transparent ruse! And yet Jesus does not lash out at them. He is remarkably patient. He just wants them to understand the situation. They got fed yesterday, but today they’re hungry again. In fact, even if what they really wanted was a sign, they would be hungry for a new sign tomorrow, too. Signs are not any more filling than bread. Wouldn’t they prefer the bread from God that gives life to the world?
Indeed they would. They like this idea very much. On the basis of this offer they elevate their respect for Jesus: before he had been Rabbi but now they call him Lord — Kyrie. Now, this is a curious form of address. It doesn’t mean the LORD God, which is why many modern translations render the word as “Sir.” But that may be misleading too, in the other direction. That Messianic passage from Psalm 110 I mentioned earlier — “The LORD says to my lord,” etc. — in the Septuagint “my lord” is also Kyrie.
So this crowd is treating Jesus with extreme deference — as long as they think they have a chance of manipulating him into providing them this bread from Heaven that gives life to the world. Because wouldn’t that be great, to have such bread? Maybe it would last a long time; maybe it could be stored safely; maybe they wouldn’t have to row back and forth across the lake to chase down this rabbi, or prophet, or whatever he is, to get more of it.
Unfortunately for them, Jesus doesn’t cooperate. He simply says: “I am the bread of life” — a statement that means nothing to them. (If we follow the rest of John’s narrative, we see that this is but the first of a series of “I am” sayings, some of which — especially “Before Abraham was, I AM” — get Jesus into a lot of trouble. But I don’t think anybody could have read a claim to divinity into this first “I am” statement. It only seems portentous in retrospect.
This much is clear, though: Jesus is telling them to stop thinking of their bellies, stop trying to manipulate him into performing a work that will get them what they already want. They need to turn to … to him. Not to his message, not even at this moment to the Father who sent him, but to himself. (“I and the Father are one,” he will explain later. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”)
So, no, he doesn’t cooperate. And, we’re told in verse 41, the crowd “grumbled” about him. They’re not angry — not yet — but they grow irritable. He isn’t what we thought he was. Or thought he might be.
If you take the whole of John 6 and link it to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, you can see the arc of the natural, unredeemed person’s attitude towards Jesus and the message of the Gospel. First curiosity; then perhaps excitement; then discontent; then hatred. What begins with the gathering together to hear a new voice ends with the flinging of stones, or, if we do things judicially rather than in the heat of temper, the nailing of a body to a cross.
And this happens because we want Jesus to give us the food we already know, already like. In our natural state, we can’t abide it when he insists on giving us instead the food that, though we refuse to acknowledge it, we desperately need. One of the saddest aspects of the Gospel story is this: only when they do not yet know what Jesus offers do the people in the crowd make requests of him. Once they hear what he has come to give them, they turn aside. They go away.
May we never turn aside. May we never prefer our familiar food, our daily bread, to the food that Jesus offers: himself. May we say, this day and every day, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And may we be granted the great, great privilege of sharing this food with others who have never tasted it. Amen.