sacrificial love

We walked into an ongoing story here in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today (6:8-15). After hearing about the apostles’ decision to appoint deacons to “wait on tables”––meaning to attend to the corporal works of mercy––now we hear specifically about Stephen, the first deacon and also the first martyr. It is helpful to recall that these three things are so closely tied to each other so as to almost not be three different things: service, Eucharist, and martyrdom, like Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, “consecrating” the bread and wine, and then giving himself over to death. Service is a kind of martyrdom. Service is also the way we become Eucharist (by being broken open and passed out) as well as our entrance ticket to the feast (First wash somebody’s feet and then come and eat.) Martyrdom, handing our lives over, is a kind of Eucharistic offering, like the John the Baptist’s head being offered on a platter and St. Ignatius being ground like wheat in the lion’s jaws. And so we’re back to Holy Week. Stephen becomes an icon of the icon.

I especially want to highlight that Eucharistic element of that, because we are also beginning to listen to chapter 6 of the Gospel of John today, which includes the “Bread of Life” discourse.

Acts says, concerning the people with whom Stephen was debating, that they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke, and I want to say that they could not withstand it because they could not understand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke. And so, as my Jewish yoga teacher said once about Jesus, “I finally understand this guy: you either have to follow him––or kill him!” And so it will be with Stephen. They have to get rid of him; he’s just too beautiful. Acts says his face was shining “like an angel”! There is a wisdom in here, the wisdom of agape, the wisdom of Eucharist, the wisdom of martyrdom, that simply doesn’t make sense to the ordinary way of thinking, the way of power and dominance––like Jesus before Pilate. As a deacon, Stephen himself was serving the people what Jesus calls in today’s gospel the bread that endures for eternal life; as a matter of fact he himself is becoming that bread of that endures for eternal life, offering himself up.

Br. Timothy and I were talking about this this morning: what will we want to have accomplished with our lives in the end––reputation, a new road (!), buildings, books, CDs? Food that perishes! Or will we have been a part of building a better world? Have we moved the world forward toward the Reign of God, even, maybe even especially anonymously? Have we been true Eucharistic offerings, true servants? And most of all have we loved, I mean given ourselves in love, eucharistically––not demanded love or craved it, but allowed ourselves to be consumed?

Isaiah passed around a recent article from the LA Times on faith-based films. The author, Justin Chang, ended with a simple but profound sentence, and may have touched on why Christian media often misses its evangelical mark. Jesus’ message, he says, “was predicated on sacrificial love”––there’s Stephen again. And “any attempts to seize political power or wage war in [Jesus’] name are in fact a rejection of his truth.” And anything less than spreading a gospel of sacrificial love is simply what he calls “message mongering,” propaganda, control, enforcing an ideology, its own kind of totalitarianism. As Jesus himself says, This is the work of God, to believe in the one whom God sent. And to believe in the one whom he sent is also to believe, to trust, in the efficacy of the gospel of sacrificial love. We could expand on that: any attempt to spread the gospel that is not rooted in self-sacrificial love is not really spreading the gospel.

And Jesus was like that because God is like that. Our postulant Bryan and I are reading Robert Barron’s book And Now I See, and this section from chapter 10, about “The Lordliness and the Loneliness of God” struck me. Because God is the ground of being…

God is like the rich dark earth that nurtures the foliage of the garden. But this must mean that God is lower than all things, indeed, in the most dramatic way possible, at the service of them all. … God is the meanest slave who cares, every moment, for the very existence of the one he creates. If the slave is the one who cares completely for the good of the other, God is the slave of the slaves, since his being is to be, in the most radical sense, a gift to the world.[1]

God, too, is sacrificial love. If God and therefore Jesus’ lordliness is not counterbalanced by Jesus’ and therefore God’s humility, Jesus’ lowliness and self-offering, then we have missed something essential at the heart of the Christian revelation. Let’s pray that we too could be at the service of each other and the world, in imitation of the self-giving of Stephen, of Jesus, of God, and therefore––as a community of believers, and as individuals––be a Eucharistic gift to the world.

cyprian, 16 april 18, monday of the 3rd week of Easter

[1] And Now I See, 143.

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