Last revised: September 11, 2003
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HOLY CROSS DAY (September 14)
Numbers 21:4b-9; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
 

Numbers 21:4-9

Reflections and Questions

1. This lesson is chosen, no doubt, to go with the John 3 allusion to the serpent on the pole being lifted up. John 3 puts the story to Christological use. Its original roots in mythology are a different story. It would take quite a study to find all the parallels in mythology and to assess the way in which the Hebrew tradition appropriated such stories. The most obvious link is with the Asclepius, the ancient Greek god for healing. His symbol was two snakes entwined around a pole (which I believe is where the AMA gets its symbol). The idea was that opposites which war within are brought into harmony, resulting in healing.

2. A sermon could make use of modern medical practices as illustrations. I have given sermons on these texts around the theme "Facing the Snake that Bites You." Modern medicine has seemingly gotten away from the links between our physical and spiritual health. Does its focus on physical causes and treatments, especially its 'addiction' to using drugs, merely cover over the deeper symptoms of our sickness? Conversely, does the cross of Jesus help us to really get to the roots of our sickness by making us "face the snake that has bitten us"?


1 Corinthians 1:18-24

Resources

1. René Girard. The notion of skandalon (1 Cor. 1:23) is crucial for Girard, devoting a section to it near the conclusion of Things Hidden, pp. 416-431. On skandalon and the cross, Girard has this to say (after quoting 1 Peter 2 on Christ the cornerstone which the builders had rejected):

The Cross is the supreme scandal not because on it divine majesty succumbs to the most inglorious punishment -- quite similar things are found in most religions -- but because the Gospels are making a much more radical revelation. They are unveiling the founding mechanism of all worldly prestige, all forms of sacredness and all forms of cultural meaning. The workings of the Gospel are almost the same, so it would seem, as workings of all earlier religions. That is why all our thinkers concur that there is no difference between them. But in fact this resemblance is only half the story. Another operation is taking place below the surface, and it has no precedence. It discredits and demonstrates all the gods of violence, since it reveals the true God, who has not the slightest violence in him. Since the time of the Gospels, mankind as a whole has always failed to comprehend this mystery, and it does so still. So no empty threat or gratuitous nastiness is involved in the text's saying exactly what has always been happening and what will continue to happen, despite the fact that present-day circumstances combine to make the revelation ever more plain. For us, as for those who first heard the Gospel, the stone rejected by the builders has become the permanent stumbling block. By refusing to listen to what is being said to us, we are creating a fearsome destiny for ourselves. And there is no one, except ourselves, who can be held responsible.

Christ plays this role for all who remain scandalized by the wisdom embodied in the text. His role, though understandable, is paradoxical, since he offers not the slightest hold to any form of rivalry or mimetic interference. There is no acquisitive desire in him. As a consequence, any will that is really turned toward Jesus will not meet with the slightest of obstacles. His yolk is easy and his burden is light. With him, we run no risk of getting caught up in the evil opposition between doubles. (pp. 429-430)

I find this paradoxical distinction important: modeling Jesus, who himself offers not the slightest of obstacles, can free the disciple of skandalon in his or her own life; yet the cross itself, and Christ as the Crucified One, is skandalon by virtue of what it reveals to us, i.e., the very process of skandalon that we do not want to hear or see. See "Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon."

2. Gil Bailie leads off his chapter 13, "Where Are the Philosophers Now?" (in Violence Unveiled), quoting 1 Cor. 1:19-20 (pp. 234-235).

3. James Alison has several references. In the section which gives the book (Raising Abel) its title, Alison tells of "The Time of Abel" with a parable about Abel raised to come upon his brother who slew him like a thief in the night; but instead of the feared vengeance, Abel comes to forgive his brother. Alison writes:

This is the time of Abel, the time of the scandal revealed, where there is no longer any formula for reunion, where there is no easy peace, and in the midst of which the one who refuses to participate in the current game runs the risk of being lynched, but also has to take great care that her way of playing the game is not to seek to be lynched, to sacralize herself as a victim. This is one of the possibilities which only the scandal of the Cross has made viable.

The task is to live in the midst of this, learning not to be scandalized either by oneself or by the process, nor by finding oneself living out simultaneous contradictions. Being scandalized means, in the first place, always being in flight from one form of the sacred to another, in a series of strokes of the pendulum where the most that we manage to hide from ourselves is the identity of what is apparently different. The only one who can cease fleeing from these strokes is the Cain who accepts forgiveness, accepts that he has no city, and that there is no need to seek to found it, because the Son of Man has no place, like Cain, and his story is built wherever, and has no abiding city, because the new Jerusalem is coming down from heaven.

When Jesus says, "And blessed is whosoever is not scandalized by me" (Matt. 11:6) and Paul preaches the scandal of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:23) they are revealing, and making habitable, life in the time of Abel. Whosoever is not scandalized by Abel, who does not have to flee in scandal from the sacred to the secular, and back again to the sacred, without ever leaving that same cyclical movement, is being enabled to accept the contradictions which move him or her, and, in the midst of them to stretch out a hand to the victims of the scandalized sacred in which that person has, him or herself, participated, and to some degree participates still. The peace which Christ gave and which the world does not give, the creation of habitable time, is this peace of Cain in the time of Abel, in patient and humble hoping for the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. (p. 137)

And here is a tantalizing piece from The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes:
A further consideration about the nature of the universality of the foundation of the new Israel is brought to light by consideration of Paul's teaching on justification being made available by grace through faith. What Paul preached was the intelligence of the victim, or, in his words, the Messiah as crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God. The power is the creative construction of the new humanity made possible by the victim, the wisdom is the intelligence of the victim, which, had the powers of the world possessed it, they would never have crucified Jesus (1 Cor 1:17-25; 2:6-8). The grace in question in any discussion of justification by grace is the grace of the self-giving victim. What this grace has brought about is a new way of being human which knocks down the wall that separated Jew from gentile. That is to say, the grace which justifies does so by bringing into existence a new unity of humanity which does not justify itself over-against any other group. Any group which justifies itself over against any other group is still tributary of the mechanism of the formation of identity by victimization. The making just that comes from grace is precisely the construction of a new unity that is not based over-against any other, but receives its identity as given from the self-giving victim. That is to say, the foundation of the New Israel, a collective identity is the making present of this justification by grace through faith. Those who through faith in the presence of the self-giving victim come to form part of and construct this new Israel are, in as far as they form part of and create this new unity, being justified by grace through faith. (p. 93)
4. Mark Heim, a two part essay that first asks why the cross is becoming more of a scandal again in the modern world: "Christ Crucified: Why does Jesus' death matter?" (The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, Vol. 118, No. 8, pp.12-17). Heim lays out the problems that modern folks experience with the traditional theories of atonement, and with the sheer violence of the cross itself. I came to the end of this first part back in March 2001, wondering, 'Is he going to suggest Girard's work as an answer to the problem?' I was very excited, when the next issue arrived, to find out that that was exactly what he did. "Visible Victim: Christ's death to end sacrifice" (The Christian Century, March 14, 2001, Vol. 118, No. 9, pp.19-23) is an excellent introduction to Girard's work around the modern reaction of scandal to the cross. Link to an online version: Part 1, on atonement theories in general; Part 2, on Girard's anthropology as a key to a more plausible atonement theory.

Reflections and Questions

1. My favorite story on the scandal of the cross relates an experience with an A/V sales rep. We were using a video projector to project PowerPoint versions of song texts, sermon outlines, etc. The challenge was that it was a rather small worship space and the altar cross was suspended from the ceiling. It seemed that everywhere we tried to place the projector and screen, the cross hung in the way. Finally, the sales rep said, "A lot of churches are just taking the cross out of the sanctuary anyway." And noting my reaction, "Does that offend you?"

It was only a week or so later and we were at a music recital for one of our sons in a local 'evangelical' church. I looked at the large cross mounted on the wall above altar. Then, I noticed a video projector mounted on the ceiling facing the altar. Sure enough, upon a second, closer inspection, there was the large screen mounted on the ceiling above the cross -- which would completely cover over the cross when pulled down.


John 3:13-17

Resources

1. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of John" audio tape series, tape #4. Bailie reads John 3 and 4 together. He gives a very helpful contrast: (1) Nicodemus: upright leader of the Jews, strict, orthodox Pharisee, a moral paragon, a man; (2) The Samaritan woman: a heretic by Jewish standards, a loose woman of moral disrepute, a woman. Also, the setting: at midnight vs. noon; and the theme: birth vs. marriage. These are two contrasting stories of encounters with Jesus, with the second one very definitely yielding faith. (The first outcome is left hanging; we don't immediately find out Nicodemus' ultimate response.) Link to my notes / transcription of Bailie's lecture on John 3-4.

2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, the first section of chapter 4, pp. 115-119, which is the title section of the book. Beginning with the Resurrection, Alison traces the transformation that took place for the apostles. The fact of the resurrection first caused a transformation of how the apostles experienced death. It was a three step process: first, that "whatever death is, God has nothing to do with it." Second, that we are the ones most intimately involved in death, that it is not merely biological but part of a sinful reality: "the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death. In human reality, death and sin are intertwined." Finally, the third step is to see "that the human reality of death itself is capable of being forgiven." Here, he cites John 3:16-17:

The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. It was not just that God loved his son and so raised him up, but that the giving of the son and his raising up revealed God as love for us. It is to exactly this that bear witness the remarkably similar passages found in John 3:16-17 and Rom 3:21-26, as well of course as 1 John 4:9-10.
Link to an excerpt of "The Joy of Being Wrong."

3. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 45ff. In the context of discussing the revelation of God as Love, using John 3:16 as a prime example, Alison poses the story of Genesis 22 as a story that can be demythologized by John 3:16:

Now, this "giving his only Son" is not an idea pulled out of a hat. It is, itself, the demythologization of a story from the Old Testament: the story of Abraham who was prepared to give up his only (legitimate) son to God, by sacrificing him. But look at what has happened meanwhile: in the first story God is a god who demands sacrifices from humans, including the one sacrifice which really mattered, even though, in the story as we have it in Genesis 22, God himself organizes a substitute for the sacrifice. In any case, we still have a capricious deity. What we see in the New Testament, completely in line with the change in the perception of God that I've been setting out, is that it is not humans who offer a sacrifice to God (by, for instance, killing a blasphemous transgressor), but God who offers a sacrifice to humans. The whole self-giving of Jesus becomes possible because Jesus is obedient to God, giving himself in the midst of violent humans who demand blood, so as finally to unmask and annul the system of murderous mendacity which the world is.

Once more, if you think I'm making this up, everything which I have been saying is beautifully and exactly resumed in the first epistle of John. There we see what the message is, the nucleus of the Gospel:

This then is the message which we have heard of him [i.e., Jesus], and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is: what Jesus came to announce was a message about God, and God's being entirely without violence, darkness, duplicity, ambivalence or ambiguity. This message is then unpacked by the author in the following verses, and then he gives us the famous summing up of where this process of the changing perception of God has led to:
...for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)
Here we have the element of the discovery of the absolutely vivacious and effervescent nature of God leading to the realization that behind the death of Jesus there was no violent God, but a loving God who was planning a way to get us out of our violent and sinful life. Not a human sacrifice to God, but God's sacrifice to humans. (pp. 45-46)
Reflections and Questions

1. This lesser festival will now forever fall three days after the anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, 2001. What significance does the cross bear toward such acts of sacred violence -- and the acts of sanctioned violence in response? Mimetic theory puts the cross at the very center of understanding human violence.

2. See also the page for Lent 4B (some of which has been copied here), which shares both the First Lesson and Gospel Lesson.

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