Last revised: April 21, 2020
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EASTER DAY — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 10:34-43 or Jer. 31:1-6; Col 3:1-4 or Acts 10; Matthew 28:1-10 or John 20
RoCa: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
Opening Comments: In Memory of Pastor Tom Truby
That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:37-38)
“This sentence enchants me,” proclaimed Pastor Tom in his 2017 Easter sermon on this Acts 10 reading. He can’t preach this sermon in 2020 because he has recently passed into the arms of his loving God. We in the Theology & Peace community will miss Pastor Tom. Our prayers for Easter comfort and joy are with his wife Laura, family, and Clarkes United Methodist community.
If Tom was here to preach this Sunday, he just might preach a version of this sermon again. And those who read these opening reflections in his memory might choose to preach a version of it. Because in the midst of this 2020 global pandemic, the theme of Pastor Tom’s 2017 is eerily prescient: “The Setting Loose of a Virus of Love.” Easter 2020 will be like no other in history, as most churches around the globe will have doors closed in favor of online worship. Easter sermons will be preached to ‘stay-at-home’ virtual congregations, proclaiming God’s victory over the forces of sin and death as tens of thousands of God children fight for their lives against a deadly disease. The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah will be preached amidst the grief of so many whose earthly bodies have already succumbed to this life-taking virus. The life-giving power of the Spirit unleashed on Easter will be praised as a virus of love standing against contagions of fear and hatred, offering deep healing.
There’s no question that the promise of God’s victory over the powers of sin and death will be big in the days ahead. The suffering is unspeakable. And yet there’s even more cause for hope with the Good News of Easter. Pastor Tom began his 2017 sermon, “I find it difficult to explain the importance of the resurrection in terms other than assurance of life after death and yet that explanation seems thin to me.” The work of René Girard was one of the central things in his life which helped him to begin articulating the significance of the resurrection beyond the afterlife. Resurrection signals a new creation in which humankind can begin living into nothing less than a new Way of being human, following in the footsteps of Jesus the Messiah.
New Creation offers a hope which can guide us into an even greater payoff for the challenging days ahead. Yes, resurrection brings comfort in the face of enormous loss and grief. But it also brings us the healing Spirit whose work can move us forward in the new Way of being human. This terrible crisis also means the opportunity to more fully realize what has been wrong with our fallen way of being human. It shines a brighter light on the injustices of the tremendous inequality brought about on the current path of laissez-faire capitalism and its underlying anti-government politics, which is giving rise to a revival of authoritarianism. People of Easter can be crucial agents during the pivotal weeks ahead in which the global family begins to take steps ahead in the new Way of being human — even as we are realistic that the old satanic powers seek to submerge us deeper into the deadly way of our origins. We are bold to follow our Risen Lord who in his earthly life “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Through the Spirit of Easter which looses a virus of love, God is with us through this valley of shadows.
The most relevant reading for Easter 2020 — the challenge before us of calling our fellow citizens to a new Way of being human — is the Acts 10 text (within the larger story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10-11). See much more below.
Note: Since John 20 is an option for the Gospel in all three years of the lectionary, I have put together a separate page for John 20:1-18 (updated on Holy Saturday).
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 100-105, 128. The two featured passages in Alison’s treatment of universality are this story of Cornelius and Rev. 7, where he says for example:
Well, what Peter is saying when he affirms that God has revealed to him not to call anyone profane or impure is that the heavenly counter-history, the subversion from within of the story of this world, has an indispensable grammatical rule: that no discrimination against any sort of repugnant person can resist the crucible of learning not to call them profane or impure. The story of heaven is the story of how we learn not to call anyone profane or impure, so that a story is created in which there are, in fact, no impure or profane people, where not even disgusting people consider themselves disgusting, but rather where we have learnt to disbelieve, and to help them to disbelieve, in their own repugnancy.
This links to a discussion of the scapegoating mechanism in that our linguistic construction of insiders and outsiders support the making of victims. So, says Alison:
what I wanted to suggest is that Jesus’ resurrection is at the same time the revelation of that lie: the victim is innocent, and is hated without cause. That is to say, the mechanism which founds social order stands exposed, and for this reason it begins to become impossible to believe in the real blameworthiness of the victim.
The only problem is that one reaction to this can be complete secularization, which hasn’t worked very well in our time. Alison suggests the possibility of building a new nonviolent sacred order without victims. This is done by beginning with God’s victim, the Lamb of God:
this is the great secret of catholicity: while every local culture tends to build its frontiers by means of victims, it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim that we can build a culture which has no frontiers, because we no longer have to build any order, security, or identity over against some excluded person, but the excluded one himself gives the identity by allowing us to share in the gratuity of his self-giving.
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, the chapter entitled “Hope and Concupiscence.” Alison shows how the Resurrection breaks down many former dualities. Chief among them is the social duality such as that between Jew and Gentile. Acts 10 is an example of the gradual process: Peter has to be pushed by God into entering Cornelius’ house and then has an “Aha!” moment. One theme for preaching might be that the Resurrection provides a new basis for human sociality that does not depend on having a common enemy, that does not pit some against others.
3. James Alison, On Being Liked, the Introduction makes ample use of this passage, pages vii-xi; and then again on pages 101-102. For example, here some brilliant bits from the book’s introduction (remember the title!):
There is much, much more going on here than meets the eye. What looks, in cinematic terms, like a straightforward scene from a pentecostalist or charismatic rally, is in fact a cultural earthquake of immeasurably greater proportions. For the first time what had seemed to be an intra-Jewish story is being told to people who, as they hear it, are interpreting it not simply as an intra-Jewish story, but as something of significance for the rest of humanity. . . .
Cornelius and his household were “God fearers,” pious gentiles who were “fellow travelers” with relation to the Jewish worship of God. They went along with synagogue worship, no doubt impressed by the uncompromising anti-idolatrous monotheism in the midst of the smorgasbord of competing cults available in the Eastern Mediterranean basin. But they did so as half-insiders, half outsiders. They agreed that they were impure, second-class citizens in a religious system where first class citizenship was available by joining a particular race through circumcision. And this distinction, between impure and pure, seemed to be an unalterable part of the package: God delighted in the purity of his chosen people, and hated the impurity of the nations. In the frozen frame we see the dawning realization that God likes the impure people. That God wants them to be on the inside of God’s story just as they are. God is not confronting them to get them to repent, or even inviting them to become something else. God is possessing them with delight, and they are delighting in the being possessed. They are starting to tell a story, which in theory is an impossible story, of how they have come to discover themselves liked by God. And of course, the moment that this “liking” sinks in, it radically relativizes the purity law. That law comes to seem merely something cultural, and not at all something divine, because it is nothing at all to do with God’s favor.
Please stick with the frozen frame a moment longer: the richness of this astounding moment in human cultural history is to be found there. The Holy Spirit is creating a new and impossible story in the midst of religious and cultural fixity by enabling both the previously “impure” and the previously “pure” to work out a new story, together. It is not that the previously impure are seeking approval. They are not. They just find themselves on the inside of the story, starting to work out what it means. The “authority” on the “pure” side finds his world being deconstructed in what must have been a very muddling and painful way before recognizing that that deconstruction and that pain was a good thing, come from God, and not a loss of face, or of argument, or of principle. He is at his most authoritative when he comes to be able to recognize that. (ix-xi)
4. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 317-327, part 5 within chapter 7, “Induction into a people.” He introduces his reading of Acts 10,
So, given that the standard mechanism for group formation is one in which the quickest shortcut is “Who am I supposed to be not like?” or “Give me difference!” what is it going to look like to start not to be over against anyone at all? What is it going to look like to start finding the similarity with the other, rather than being able to grasp onto some pseudo-difference in order to make yourself feel good? Well, we’re given a picture of exactly this happening in the passage at which we are now going to look. (317)
And so the story of Peter and Cornelius leads in us a new way of forming human community:
So let us be clear here. Peter finds himself addressing outsiders, Gentiles. True, the sort of Gentiles who know what the Jewish law is about and respect it, people who live in close proximity to observant Jews. But people who have accepted second-class status in this sphere, and would not have been deeply scandalized if Peter had asked them all to come out so that he could speak with them, rather than Peter himself risk impurity by entering a Gentile dwelling. Nevertheless, Peter has already come into the house. And it is here, in a Gentile household, that he utters the following line, which I would strongly suggest that you underline about three hundred times with all the highlighters and coloured markers that you can muster:
but God has shown me that I should not call any human common or unclean.
This simple sentence is the first hint of what is to come in the next few verses: this scene will be the only time in the New Testament that Peter uses what we now call the Petrine authority, the power of the keys that he was given by Jesus. He uses that authority to unbind the Gentiles, which is to say, to open heaven for the non-Jewish portion of the human race. He does so as a result of his own experience, in which what appeared to be a vision about ritually unclean food had become inseparable from the shame of his betrayal of Jesus. He has understood, in fact, from his own experience, the relationship between the expelled victim and the rituals and prohibitions by which people keep themselves with a fake goodness at a distance from the victim. Peter now knows that he can no longer in good conscience regard the purity laws as genuinely holy. He’s still not quite sure where all this is leading him. . . . (323-24)
As is often the case, the best stuff comes with Alison in his mining the gold from reading a text. In this case, it comes a number of pages later, where Alison is also realistic about how this happens in history. It happens not as an insight that prompts us all to begin acting more rationally. The power of the Three Days continues to work in history as a bloody process yielding new life:
We’ve seen how a single anthropological earthquake, an act of communication which was a turning around from within all the normal markers of human culture, instantiated something, began a new “being together,” and a new being together which is in principle over against nothing at all. This means that the new “being together” is universal, or catholic, which is just a Greek word meaning “according to the whole” or “universal.” We are of course used to the word “Catholic” having acquired a tribal meaning — something like “loyal to the Pope” or “as opposed to Protestant,” or meaning some kind of spiritual or liturgical flavour within Christianity. However, this is a debasement. Because the notion of catholicity is not an add-on to the Gospel, it is not an optional extra, once you’ve got your basic Christianity sorted out. It is an essential dimension of what Jesus was about.
What Jesus inaugurated was the possibility of a being together in which there is, in principle, no social “other.” There is no group, or nation, ethnicity, gender, or any other identity that we typically create in a binary fashion (slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female, black or white, straight or gay and so on) that is in principle not able to be brought into the gathering, the ekklesia, the new people of God. For such people live in a reconciled way thanks to their living Forgiving Victim. And this means that the one thing that the catholicity of the Church can never be is a matter of identity politics. Identity politics come from the deepest and most primitive tribal notions of identity built over against another. And there can be no greater betrayal of catholicity than attempting to create an “in group” called Catholics. What sort of group definition could possibly persist in the face of there being no “in group,” because there is no “out group”? It is worth remembering how we are supposed to be living a sign of this, and how frequently we betray it, short-changing the Kingdom we are being inducted into by grasping onto a cheap shot of identity politics.
So one act has inaugurated one new way of being together, and this implies no over and against, no social other. And thus, the chance of universality. However, I would like to point out that this matter of universality is not something that happens by decree. It is not that someone says “Oh, now we have a universal Saviour who has saved us universally. Therefore we must now treat everyone with universal benevolence.” This would make what happened principally a moral, or an intellectual matter. Rather like the French Revolution decreeing Égalité: as if the mere decreeing brings it about. No, the universality that is part of the essence of the Christian faith works in a much more contingent manner.
It comes about in every particular place where there is an “in” group and an “out” group, by means of the usually rather bloody overcoming of the war between the “in” group and the “out” group, usually by someone bearing witness to the truth. In other words, getting it in the neck. And then other people standing up for the person getting it in the neck. And then other people beginning to realize that the game is over. In other words, catholicity is not a decree, it’s a process, and a process of reconciliation produced by witnesses to the truth. It can happen wherever a group of people defines itself over against another, which is to say, absolutely everywhere, and amidst every group. We know of no ethnic group anywhere on the face of the planet, no gang in the periphery of any major city, which is not inclined to build its unity at the expense of a social other. And this means that catholicity is everywhere latent. The possibility of it is just there, wherever people are doing that. Wherever people sacrifice, it is possible for the sacrificed one to become the Christ.
So, in any group setting, anywhere at all, it is possible to become a witness to what Jesus achieved, a martus to what Jesus achieved, by being prepared to stand in the place of shame, and so turn a particular conflict into a particular sign of the universal overcoming of conflict. The walls begin to come down. But this is a bloody process, not an automatic one. We are not talking of some grand sweep of history in which a peaceful dialectic simply advances. We are talking of a process which, once it has been unleashed, is inevitable, but its inevitability is not despite us, its inevitability includes us in as actors who choose to stand and bear witness over painful time. (332-34)
It is clear that the Resurrection as it plays out in history creates a joy even in the face of continued suffering. We surely need that kind of joy during Easter 2020.
5. Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine, ch. 5, “Sitting with Jesus.” This has become one of my favorite readings of this story about Peter and Cornelius since it adds to the familiar Girardian reading about breaking down the walls of hostility by framing it with the inside of contemplative spirituality. The entire drama is propelled by a vision God gives to Peter while praying in silence! He even poses contemplative prayer against the religious worldview, that “it is the way out of the cramped prison of dualism”:
Because of this mystical experience, Peter was willing to accept an invitation to enter the home of a Gentile — something he had never done before. When Peter arrived at the home of Cornelius, a military officer in the occupying Roman army, Peter said:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. . . . I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:28, 34-35)
The implications of this breakthrough are incalculable. Peter’s new perspective opened the door for the gospel of Messiah to be preached to Gentiles, and this changed the world. But how did Peter arrive at this new perspective? How did Peter become open to a revolutionary concept of inclusion that would challenge all the established norms of his religious worldview? The answer is contemplative prayer.
Peter had been a disciple of Jesus for three years. He was a witness of the risen Christ. And now, ten years later, he was the leading apostle of the new Christian faith. But Peter had a limited Hebrew-centric worldview. For Peter, Yahweh was the God of Jews only. Jesus was the Messiah for Jews only. The body of Messiah was for Jews only. If Gentiles wanted to be accepted by Yahweh and saved by the Messiah, they had to become Jews first. That meant being circumcised, keeping kosher, and observing Torah. Peter was locked into a Jewish-only perspective of God, Jesus, and the gospel. This was not just Peter’s theological perspective, it was his personal identity. It was how he understood his place in the world. What Peter knew for sure was that to be accepted by God one had to be a Jew! Gentiles were persona non grata, they were not welcome at God’s banqueting table.
But Peter’s ethnocentric perspective began to change when he had a contemplative breakthrough while praying on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop. In a trance he was shown non-kosher food and told by God to break the law of Moses and eat it! Peter was being instructed to transgress the Torah! Talk about cognitive dissonance! But Peter got the message — he was to stop thinking of other people as non-kosher and unacceptable to God. Now Peter would break the Jewish law he had always observed and enter the home of a Gentile! Without a contemplative breakthrough this would have been utterly impossible. (95-96)
6. Grant Kaplan, René Girard, Unlikely Apologist, pp. 145-46. In a chapter where Kaplan is using James Alison as his guide for “Imagining a Mimetic Ecclesiology,” he hones in on this passage as the biblical witness to renewed human community. I will extend the excerpt by a paragraph since he ties Acts 10-11 to my favorite passage, Eph. 2:
Alison bases much of his ecclesiology on his exegesis of key New Testament passages. Read as a whole, the New Testament sends mixed messages about this new sense of universality and belonging. The Acts of the Apostles, the Johannine letters, and the Pauline letters describe communities fairly eager to keep certain people out. Mimetic theory suggests reading scripture as self-corrective and highlighting particular passages to demonstrate how God reveals through scripture. Alison unpacks the importance of the baptism of Cornelius in Acts 10. This chapter tells how Peter received a vision to eat nonkosher animals (Acts 10:15), which compelled Peter to extend this vision to Gentiles. In the same chapter, Peter declares, upon sitting down to eat with Cornelius, “God has shown me not to call any person profane or impure” (Acts 10:28). Gentiles can enter the communion of Israel now called the Church.
For Alison the passage implies much more than a permission, following a very strange vision, to allow the baptism of a non-Jewish man. He calls Acts 10:28 “one of the most important lines in our history” and “an extraordinary anthropological earthquake.” The connection to the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism is direct: once one realizes the innocence of the victim, then the need for excluding individuals or whole groups of people dissolves. Rather than simply switching sides, like a liberal who becomes a conservative, now even more convinced that the entire fault lies with the other, biblical revelation calls into question such patterns of identity-seeking. This transformation means the creation of a universality hitherto unimagined. Acts 10 reveals the particular quality of Christian universality: “This is the great secret of catholicity: while every local culture tends to build its frontiers by means of victims, it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim that we can build a culture which has no frontiers because we no longer have to build any order, security or identity over against some excluded person.”
To my knowledge, Alison does not offer any commentary on Ephesians 2:11-21, yet it is a passage that perfectly summarizes the effect of the Christ event on the community Paul addresses: the Gentiles. The letter sets out to explain how the Christ event changes everything for non-Jewish believers. Prior to Christ’s resurrection, the Jewish community had understood Gentiles only in a negative capacity (“uncircumcision,” 2:11). Christ, who “is our peace,” proceeded to “break down the dividing wall of enmity” (v. 14). The metaphors that Paul uses to describe this reconciliation — “brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13), “reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross” (v. 16) — interweave the soteriological with the ecclesiological. As a sacrament of salvation, the Church’s catholicity, which fulfills the Christ’s intention to “create in himself one humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (v. 15), points to the new belonging liberated from a process of exclusion. The Church, paradoxically, is a community that undermines the logic of community as commonly practiced, much as the Eucharist is a sacrifice that undermines the logic of sacrifice. The Cross, according to Ephesians 2, makes this community possible. (145-46)
7. Mark Heim, Saved by Sacrifice, pp. 145, 208. For example:
A key example of this repentance is the vision he receives from God to regard no foods as unclean. When the Gentile Cornelius sends for Peter to come to his house, Peter says, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). Thus he enters the house that is ritually impure for him as a Jew, and eats there, sharing the gospel with Cornelius. The work of the Spirit, testifying to the risen victim, is to bring Peter across the very barrier that would otherwise mark Gentiles to him as outsiders and likely scapegoats. This is the shape of the good news of the resurrection we have seen repeated in many texts. (208)
8. James Warren, Compassion or Apovalypse?, pp. 276-78, 337.
Reflections and Questions
1. James Alison (in The Joy of Being Wrong cited above) shows how the Resurrection breaks down many former dualities. Chief among them is the social duality such as that between Jew and Gentile. Acts 10 is an example of the gradual process: Peter has to be pushed by God into entering Cornelius’ house and then has an “Aha!” moment. One theme for preaching might be that the Resurrection provides a new basis for human sociality that does not depend on having a common enemy, that does not pit some against others.
2. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” Here is the heart of the matter: Humankind declares Jesus guilty and executes him; God declares Jesus innocent and raises him. As I suggest in section 4 of the former introductory page for this website, this pattern of preaching in the early church is highly resonant with mimetic theory. The latter is a hermeneutical tool that helps us to more clearly see the nonviolence of God in contrast to our human violence.
One thing I’ve wondered about in these typical sermons of Acts, however, is that they never quite get to universalizing what happens to Jesus. When Peter speaks to Jews at the outset, he tells them that “you” killed Jesus. Here, in addressing Gentiles, he says that “they” killed him. When does the revelation of the cross as universal get to the point of saying “we” killed Jesus?
St. Paul takes this latter tactic due to his personal experience of having persecuted Christ; he is able to identify himself as a persecutor. But this is in his own letters. Luke’s accounts of Paul’s first sermon in Acts follows the same pattern of blaming the Jewish leaders (13:27-28). It begins to change a bit with his sermon in Athens (Acts 17).
1. This passage is the beginning point for James Alison‘s eschatology in Raising Abel. You will find it on the dedication page as well as the opening to chapter 1 (p. 15), which bears the title “Fix Your Minds…”, and on the first page of ch. 6 (p. 117).
2. Another possibility for a Girardian reading of these lessons presents itself from chapters 7 and 8 of Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong. In the section titled “Creativity and Creatureliness” (pp. 203ff.), he describes a certain human creativity as shot through with “vanity.” He then describes being set free from that vanity beginning on page 220 with a reference to Col 3:1-5. (The Col 3 passage is then referenced and quoted three more times over the next several pages [to p. 227].)
3. Alison also places his writing of Raising Abel into a moving autobiographical context in the recent paper from which I’ve previously shared portions with you (regarding Elijah and Paul’s letter to the Galatians on Proper 8&9), “Theology amidst the stones and dust,” now ch. 2 in Faith Beyond Resentment. He concludes the following autobiographical portion with the theme of dying and rising with Christ in Col 3:
***** Excerpt from Alison’s “Theology amidst the stones and dust” *****
Some years ago, in a Latin-American republic which I will not name, I found myself in a strange situation. I had arrived to take up a new job as a teacher of theology. After three days, my boss called me in and said: “Bad news, James. I’ve received a ‘phone call from fourteen religious superiors who are meeting in another country to tell me that if I don’t sack you immediately on the grounds that you are a militant homosexual, then those superiors will not send any pupils to our course” — a threat which implied the non-arrival of the money necessary for the course to function. Now please note this: the superiors made no allegation of a homosexual practice on my part, and at no time in the investigation which followed did they raise that as a question. The accusation was one of, let us say, a political or ideological militancy. My boss, an honest heterosexual, who found it difficult to understand the force of the violence unleashed by the gay question in the ecclesiastical milieu, absolutely refused to sack me, offering to resign his post rather than to accept such blackmail. A higher superior intervened, suggesting to the fourteen superiors that they had acted without the proper procedure, and that each one should put into writing and sign any accusation that he might have against me, so that the accused could answer his accusers. That is, the superior insisted on due process. No written charge was made. When an informal enquiry wondered whether there might be some accusation that one of them might like to mention, but not write down, again there was no accusation, though one or two apparently said “Of course, I don’t know the guy personally, but I have it from a very good source that…”Well, this is the story of a fairly brutal piece of violence, and I could embellish it in such a way as to win your sympathy, presenting myself as a victim. In that case the very act of telling the story would be something like a denunciation, and there would be goodies and baddies in the story. If that were the case, I would have learnt nothing from the incident, but would have adopted one of the perspectives which our culture offers us, that of the sacred victim; and I would have adopted that perspective as a weapon with which to attack one of the stereotypical “baddies” with which our culture also supplies us, the obscurantist and violent group of ecclesiastics. Thank God, much though I would have liked to present things in this way, God did not indulge me. Some weeks later, still devastated by what had happened, I went off to make a Jesuit retreat, and in the midst of that retreat something totally unexpected reached me: a perspective which I had perhaps understood intellectually, but which had never got through to my gut. It was the absolute separation of God from all that violence. I understood something new: that God had nothing to do with what had happened, and that it was simply a mechanism of human violence, nothing more. What enabled me to reach this, and here I am talking, of course, of the human means, was the realization that, since of this group of fourteen, I had only ever met three, all that violence (and apparently they had worked themselves up over this for a couple of days, finding it difficult to get round to the agenda of their meeting) could not be taken personally. Rather it was a mechanism within which the participants had got themselves caught up in such a way that they couldn’t perceive what they were doing. The moment I realized that I was dealing with a mechanism whose participants were its prisoners, at that same moment I was able to take distance from what had happened, and forgiveness started to become possible.
However that perception was not all. For, when I understood that God had nothing to do with all that violence, I began to understand something much more painful: the degree of my own participation in the mechanism of violence, not as its victim, but as a manipulator. For the charge that I was an “Internationally known homosexual militant” did not fall like lightening from a clear sky. Rather this incident was the third time that my behavior and attitudes in different countries had provoked a similar rejection. In fact, even though I have been “out” since I was eighteen, I had always denied being a militant, answering those who had been enraged by my attempts to open the possibility of honest and open speech, that they should indicate to me a correct and non-militant way of speaking with honesty about a matter which affects so many people in the ecclesiastical milieu, and which leads to gossip, accusations, and frequent injustice. Of course, within the ecclesiastical milieu, there is no such correct way. The very fact of suggesting that there is, in this field, something real in which we are involved, and about which we must try to speak if we are to have a modicum of transparency and honesty as Catholic Christians, the very suggestion is only perceived, and can only be perceived, as a threat. Where denial, mendacity and cover up are forces which structure a reality, the search for honest conversation is, of itself, the worst form of militancy.
Well, my reply, while formally correct, allowed me to hide from myself something which my various accusers had perceived perfectly clearly: that I was myself on a sort of crusade, that I had a zeal, and that this zeal was of a prodigiously violent force, powered by a deep resentment. In fact, I was wanting to create for myself, taking advantage of the ecclesiastical structures which sustained me, a space of security and peace, of survival, so as to avoid what I had seen happen to gay people in country after country: social marginalization, destruction of life projects, emotional and spiritual annihilation. That is to say, my brave discourse was a mask which hid from me my absolute cowardice of soul, for I was not prepared to identify myself fully with that reality, which I knew to be mine, with all its consequences. At root, I myself believed that God was on the side of ecclesiastical violence directed at gay people, and couldn’t believe that God loves us just as we are. The profound “do not be” which the social and ecclesiastical voice speaks to us, and which forms the soul of so many gay people, was profoundly rooted in my own being, so that, au fond I felt myself damned. In my violent zeal I was fighting so that the ecclesiastical structure might speak to me a “Yes”, a “Flourish, son”, precisely because I feared that, should I stand alone before God, God himself would be part of the “do not be.” Thus I was absolutely dependent on the same mechanism against which I was fighting. Hiding from myself the fact of having despaired of God, I wanted to manipulate the ecclesiastical structure so that it might give me a “self”, that it might speak to me a “Yes” at a level of profundity of which the ecclesiastical structure, like any human structure, is incapable. For the “Yes” which creates and recreates the “self” of a son, only God can pronounce. In this I discovered myself to be an idolater. I had been wanting to negotiate my survival in the midst of violent structures, and negotiation in the midst of violent structures can only be done by violence. The non-violent, the blessed of the gospels, simply suffer violence and perish, either physically or morally.
I am attempting to describe for you the form taken in my life by the irruption of the extraordinary grace which I received during my Jesuit retreat. Of course, I am describing schematically something which was a non-schematic whole, and which I have taken several years to begin to understand. First there was the perception of the absolute non-involvement of God in all that violence, then the perception of my non-innocence, and of my idolatrous and violent manner of having been caught up in all that. And then, at root, what began this whole process of beginning to untie myself from the idols I had so assiduously cultivated, what I had never dared to imagine, the profound “Yes” of God, the “Yes” spoken to the little gay boy who had despaired of ever hearing it. And there, indeed, I found myself absolutely caught, because this “Yes” takes the form, not of a pretty consolation for a spoiled child. Rather, from the moment it reached me, the whole psychological and mental structure by which I had built myself up over all the previous years, began to enter into a complete collapse. For the whole structure was based on the presupposition of a “No” at the center of my being, and because of that, of the need to wage a violent war so as to cover up a fathomless hole. The “I”, the “self” of the child of God is born in the midst of the ruins of repented idolatry.
A further point in this narrative, if you can bear it. In the months following this incident, I had to give a theology course. I called the course: “Fix your minds on the things that are above,” taken from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Ironically, I managed to give the whole course, which has even been published in book form, without tumbling to the significance of the verse which follows the one I had chosen:
“for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3)
But it was exactly this that, at last, I was learning. The whole of my previous life had been marked by an absolute refusal to die. The absolute refusal to take on my baptismal commitment. Of course, because I was unable to imagine that my “self”, the “I” who will live forever, is hidden with Christ in God. And that was why I had to fight all those battles. The “I” who was present in all those battles was the old Adam, or Cain, a “self” incapable of understanding that it is not necessary to seek to shore up for itself a place on this earth, to found a safe space, to protect itself violently against violence. The “I”of the risen one only becomes present when, at last, the old “I” is put to death. And, thank God, this was exactly what the fourteen superiors had managed to set up for me. With the force of what Paul calls the Law, that is the mechanism of violent exclusion dressed up as the word of God, they had at last managed to kill that resentful old man. In its place, being something rather like a still small voice, something which I can in no way possess, nor grasp, is the “I” from which I now start to live. The “I” that is hidden with Christ in God, little by little, and somewhat tentatively, begins to build a new life story in the midst of the ruins of the previous collapse. (Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 36-40)
*****End of Alison Excerpt*****
4. James Alison‘s works, in general, all proceeding from the resurrection, illustrate the theme of not only this text but this joyous day. I share with you excerpts from one of his key chapters, chapter 4 of The Joy of Being Wrong, entitled “The Resurrection and Original Sin.” The first section of this chapter (and first excerpt) is the title section of the book, “The Joy of Being Wrong.” The second section (and excerpt) is “The Johannine Witness,” one of Alison’s brilliant explications of John 9 (see Lent 4A for the full bibliography on John 9).
5. Another key moment in The Joy of Being Wrong, centered on the resurrection, are the second and third sections of chapter three, entitled “The Resurrection” and “The Intelligence of the Victim” (link to excerpts relating to “The Intelligence of the Victim“).
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 23, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation; in Schwager’s wonderful laying out of the Jesus drama, the Resurrection is the Fourth Act: “Resurrection of the Son as the Judgement of the Heavenly Father,” pp. 119-141. The entire portion is worth the reading, including what I see as the key portion from a Girardian perspective, pp. 130-137.
2. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, Preaching Peace, emphasize the resurrection as God’s vindication of Jesus Christ in the page for Easter A. Hardin, in the “Anthropological Reading,” also takes on the similarity to dying-and-rising myths:
There have been those who have from time to time treated the resurrection from the perspective of world religions and found analogies to Jesus dying and rising in other ancient dying and rising God myths. Yet, nowhere to be found in any myth is a dying with forgiveness and nowhere in any myth is the rising the vindication of a life of forgiveness and non-retaliation. Yes, there are similarities to Jesus’ dying and rising with other myths, but this is because Jesus’ life, death and resurrection radically alters, deconstructs and restructures our myth making. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the end of human culture founded upon violence and the opening of the Way of the kingdom of God, the way of life and light, joy and peace, reconciliation and love.
3. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 632-646 on Matthew. More generally, in the essay “My Core Convictions” I summarize the importance of this book, under the docrine of heaven, as follows:
3.4 Heaven. N. T. Wright had originally planned to end Vol. 2, his work on the historical Jesus, with a chapter on the Resurrection. But he found popular Christian piety about heaven to be so off the mark that he ended up writing an entire 800-page volume on it, The Resurrection of the Son of God. His main point in this book is that the popular Christian thinking about heaven is more from Plato than it is from Jesus and our Jewish heritage. Most Christians think in terms of heaven as a separate place where one goes after death, accompanied by a hope along the lines of, ‘This earthly life is but a desert dreary, heaven is my home.’ The grave problem with this thinking is that a first-century Jew, namely, Jesus and all the apostles, would never have a hope in terms of devaluing the Creation. Their faith in God is faith in the Creator who lovingly created the heavens and the earth. Such a God would not scrap the earth in favor of a heaven as a holding tank for migrated souls (Plato’s hope). The Jewish/Christian hope is for resurrection of the body and the fulfillment of Creation. Popular Christian thinking prays that souls go to heaven when the body dies. The Lord’s Prayer prays that, “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as in heaven.” In other words, it prays that heaven comes to us on earth, not that we go to heaven. Heaven is the unseen dimension of Creation where God’s will resides. We pray for God’s will, for heaven, to merge with earth and bring it to fulfillment. Devaluing the earth in favor of a heavenly home gives us an excuse to treat it sacrificially, that is, as another victim of our sacred violence.
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “If You Want to See Him, Go to Galilee“; and in 2014 “An Earthquake that Saves.”
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “The Earthquake That Saves“; and in 2020, “The Shaken Empty Tomb.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I had a very Girardian Easter sermon in 1998, entitled “A Sonrise Story,” that brings out James Alison‘s theme of a new creation begun at the resurrection. It makes tangential use of Luke’s Easter sunrise story; this sermon would probably work just as well with Matthew’s version.
As an option for the Gospel in all three years of the lectionary, I have put together a separate page for John 20:1-18 (updated on Holy Saturday).