Last revised: May 24, 2014
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FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
RoCa: Acts 7:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
1. René Girard, Things Hidden; there’s a section on “The Martyrdom of Stephen,” pp. 170-174 (link to an excerpt of these pages within a longer portion on “The Passion“). He argues that Jesus’ death does not mean that no one else will be unjustly persecuted and killed. Stephen is the first of Christian martyrs who will follow. And subsequent history continues to reveal myriads of innocent victims. But the Cross begins the process of fully revealing their victimization. Girard concludes this section:
For no further sacralization is possible. No more myths can be produced to cover up the fact of persecution. The Gospels make all forms of ‘mythologizing’ impossible since, by revealing the founding mechanism, they stop it from functioning. That is why we have fewer and fewer myths all the time, in our universe dominated by the Gospels, and more and more texts bearing on persecution. (p. 174)
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, comments on the stoning of Stephen, pp. 270-271, as a story that ties together his closing stories such as those from the Buchenwald death camp and of a girl murdered by the Salvadoran military.
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 79-80. After discussing the Ascension, Alison lays out three additional stories with the image of the heavens opening: Jesus’ baptism in John (1:51), this passage about the stoning of Stephen, and the new heaven and earth in Rev. 21. He concludes this section:
Look at the progression in our three stories of the open heaven: first we saw the witness chosen to see heaven open, one of Jesus’ companions chosen to be able to bear witness to everything lived and worked by him; then we saw the ‘ordinary Christian’, that is, someone who was not an apostolic witness, who learns to create his own diverse story in the light of the risen victim; and finally we understand that the whole project which Jesus initiated is the coming down of a new, collective, story, woven out of the many stories of those who have allowed themselves to be illuminated by the God who gives himself to be mediated by the slaughtered lamb. That is, the stories of those who, in the superlative language of the seer, have washed white their garments in the blood of the lamb. (p. 81)
Of the Stephen martyrdom he writes:
Luke apparently writes like a Hollywood scriptwriter, and if his account were to be taken to the screen, we could imagine the moment at which Stephen fixes his gaze on the heaven. He is standing in the midst of a raging Sanhedrin, bathed in a strange light, sweet celestial chords can be heard, and then comes the martyrdom. Well, thrilling though it be, it don’t think that it’s really about that. It makes more sense to understand that what Stephen was doing was what Jesus had promised Nathaniel that he would be able to do: see heaven open and the rest. This was precisely what began to happen from the Ascension. It was not just that the last seconds of Stephen’s life were bathed in this heavenly light, but that what enabled him to tell the story he told to the High Priest and his colleagues was exactly the fact that he was already living this vision; he was able to tell the new story which the risen victim had made possible, and, furthermore, live out this story in an absolutely coherent way, as if death did not exist, and do it to the end. He even managed to finish off his own opera-plot in a faithful imitation of that of Jesus (which is also a diverse creation), by praying that his death not be held against his executioners. That is, he ends his own creation with the last act of disassociating himself from the violent story of this world, which is to leave it behind, with no resentment, no desire for revenge. (pp. 79-80)
3. Gil Bailie, “At Cross Purposes” tape series, tape #4. Here are my notes / transcription:
***** Notes from Gil Bailie’s “At Cross Purposes,” tape 4 *****
- In the NT we have three prominent scapegoating events: the death of John the Baptist, the Crucifixion, and the stoning of Stephen. One can see in these three a short ‘before and after’ history of the revelation of the cross. John was too scandalized by Herod, too caught up in the morality. His moral outrage caused him to get into a sort of moral ‘food fight’ with Herod, and his death, therefore, did not have the same consequences as the cross. Then, there’s the story of Stephen, different from the John the Baptist story.
- Stephen tells salvation history (the same thing as this seminar is attempting to do, trying to tell about history). In troubled times we have to reconnect with this history to rediscover our hope. It’s only when we realize that we are still in the history of the promise that we can become hopeful.
- Since he is beneficiary of the revelation of the cross (unlike previous prophets such as John), he’s telling it with a little extra. He’s telling it in a line with Abraham and Moses, etc., but there’s something else that the Sanhedrin hasn’t seen yet, namely, the violence that was the glue of holding together community. ‘You haven’t seen the victim. Can you name a single prophet that your ancestors did not persecute?’ Similar to Jesus’ curse of the Pharisees, in which he names Abel as a prophet, this presumes a redefinition of prophet as the one killed by his people. Prophetic of what? The truth of the cross. Stephen also calls attention to all of these prophets. (End of side one.)
- Stephen is the first Christian historiographer. Increasingly, Christian historiography has become a matter of looking back at our own culture, discovering our own betrayals, discovering our own violence, discovering our own victimizations, rehabilitating our victims, and repenting of our own victimizations. This is by influence of the Gospel. Only biblical cultures have ever done this. The alternative historiography is mythological. It consists simply of looking back to locate the heroes and the heroic events. Since the Gospel influence has worked this in western cultures and other cultures haven’t had this influence to the same extent, it’s easy to fall into a kind of craziness of assuming that only the West has done these things. It’s not true at all. We have to understand the historical uniqueness of our own culture.
- Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” In other words, ‘Your still in the mythological world, with pagan hearts and pagan ears.’
- “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” This is the moment when the mob process begins. He’s saying to people who need to hear it, some important things that they don’t want to hear. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” A dangerous thing to say to people who are about to persecute you. They close in on him, proving that he’s right.
- “But filled with the Holy Spirit.” As was said earlier, there’s only two places to go to see the truth about humanity and God: on the cross and at the foot of the cross. Stephen is now on the cross. “He gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!'” This is what Andrew McKenna calls the “victim’s epistemological privilege.” He’s the only one with perfect lucidity at this moment.
- And he’s not glaring back at his accusers. If he glares back at his accusers, then he’s right back to where John the Baptist was at with Herod. He’s into that little scandal, and nothing will come of it. Like Jesus, Stephen keeps his eyes on God, so that he can do what needs to be done right there: forgiveness. The only one in the position to forgive is the victim. In going around and forgiving people, Jesus was using his power as the “Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.”
- Julian of Norwich says this in one of her writings: “God lays upon everyone he longs to bring into his bliss something that is no blame in his sight, but for which they are blamed and despised in this world. Scorned, mocked, and cast out. He does this to offset the harm they should otherwise have from the pomp and vainglory of this earthly life, and to make their road to him easier, and to bring them higher in his joy without end.” Being in that position of being the accused, cures us of a lot of our craziness.
- Stephen is trying to tell them of this vision he is having precisely because they are closing in on them. And because of that is says, “But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” Covering their ears. Satan means the Accuser. The word Paraclete means the lawyer for the accused. Stephen tells them that they are resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen was speaking on behalf of all those prophets who had been killed, and they were resisting it. Now, they covered their ears. It means they really didn’t have pagan ears, after all. It means moral complicity. After the cross, the same kind of blockage is being removed, and Stephen has been making it explicit to them. The Word is out. And now, keeping it out is a sinful act. We’re morally complicit. When Jesus is on the cross, he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” They don’t need to put their hands over their ears. This is what human history is about, now that the revelation is out. Jesus says, ‘Before I came there wasn’t any sin; now there’s sin.’
- Nevertheless, Stephen dies doing what Christ did, praying for forgiveness: “Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'”
- In order to understand what’s happening in history, we have to start here. In other words, after the revelation, when we have to find ways of covering our ears, closing our eyes to this truth.
- One last point: the stoners through their coats at the feet of Saul. The realism of the NT is crucial. Peter caved in. He was the strongest of the disciples and caved in. It tells us that the power of the crowd is unbelievable. Peter caves in under the circumstances we might cave in. If we were getting on a plain and an armed terrorist dashed in threatening to kill the Christians, would we stand up? Here, Paul approves the stoning, as most of us would when it fits our political reflexes. The next we know of Saul he’s on the road to Damascus and the cock crows. He realizes that he is a persecutor and becomes one who tells the story.
- The moral of this story is that every time we try to expel the Gospel, which the Sanhedrin is trying to do again here, we reenact the event that revealed it. We reenact the Paschal story and therefore reinforce the revelation. That’s why the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. There’s no getting rid of it.
***** End Bailie Notes *****
1 Peter 2:2-10
1. skandal-, the stone which the builders reject and stumble over, is a central notion to Girard’s work. Link to the separate page on “Girard and the New Testament Use of Skandalon.” It is also a key Christian notion as this verse from Psalm 118 is the most oft-quoted verse of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament. This passage in 1 Peter 2 brings together several passages from the Old Testament having to do with the stumbling stone:
He will be a sanctuary, a stumbling-stone, a rock to trip up the two Houses of Israel; a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (Isa. 8:14, NJB)So the Lord Yahweh says this, “Now I shall lay a stone in Zion, a granite stone, a precious corner-stone, a firm foundation-stone: no one who relies on this will stumble.” (Isa. 28:16, NJB)
The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. (Psa. 118:22, NJB)
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 28, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
1. Psalm 118:22 is among the most quoted verses in the New Testament from the Hebrew Scriptures: Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7. This is a very significant passage for Mimetic Theory, that God is building a New Humanity by subverting the Old Humanity from within. God takes the foundation of our originating way of forming human community as the foundation of God’s Community (Kingdom). We build community by throwing someone out. God rebuilds our community by starting with the ones we throw away.
2. The other passage from the OT that is most-often quoted in the NT is the conclusion to Isaiah’s call scene, Isaiah 6:9-10:
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
It’s quoted in all three Synoptic stories of why Jesus teaches in parables: Matt. 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10. Significant is that Luke gives it to us through the Apostle Paul, too, as the ending of his account of the Acts of the Apostles: Acts 28:26-27. Also, Matthew underscores this point from Isaiah by adding a similar one from the Psalms, the quote which René Girard borrowed for his Magnum Opus:
This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:35, quoting 78:2-3)
Finally, the verse which comes after Isaiah 6:9-10 is crucial:
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate…”
Let’s bring these two most-oft quoted passages together. What has been hidden since the foundation of our humanity is that we build through rejecting, through collectively murdering or expelling. Jesus is the Forgiven Victim who is raised from the dead as the revelation of this foundation. In the new world of being able to see our scapegoats, God is able to begin rebuilding humanity upon this revelation of forgiveness and grace.
Yet we remain resistant, with the weight of a hundred millennia of anthropology holding us back. The transformation happens slowly — which also brings in Isaiah 6:11 as the apocalyptic element that has been integral to Jesus’ teaching and Mimetic Theory’s reading of it from the beginning. Human history is a seemingly endless recycling of cities laid to waste. We continue to ask with Isaiah, “How long, O Lord?” Mimetic Theory brings both foreboding of just how entrenched in sin we are, but also a sharpening of the revelation that gives hope.
1. The verb meno is a key word in the Johannine tradition, appearing 69 times out of 120 total in the NT. The noun form mone occurs only twice in the NT: John 14:2, 23. In the remainder of the NT, the verb bears its usual, straight-forward meaning of “stay,” “remain,” “abide,” “dwell.” In John’s gospel, I think that even the seemingly straight-forward uses should be seen with its specialized use in the background. The first words spoken to Jesus, for example, are from two disciples who ask, “where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38) Jesus’ response, “Come and see” (Jn 1:38), is loaded in light of all that Jesus says about “abiding” later in the gospel, especially in the Farewell Discourse. Jesus mission might be described as one of revealing the source of his glory, which is to abide in the Father and the Father in him, and to invite his followers to abide in him and he in them. This use of meno peaks perhaps in the Vine and Branches Discourse, in 15:4-10 where it is used 10 times in the span of 7 verses.
But don’t forget to check the First Letter of John where the use of “abide” is combined with ethical reflection and the wonderful linking of this image of indwelling with agape in 1 John 4. And the bonus for this week’s combination of lections is a verse that links it to skandalon, 1 John 2:10, “Whoever loves a brother or sister abides (menei) in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling (skandalon).”
Link to a complete word study on meno in the Johannine tradition.
He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” … The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
This is a crucial Passage for understanding John 14:2. Jesus is not talking about going to prepare places in heaven for us. That’s not his Father’s house. Jesus is going to change the location of his father’s house from the Temple to the Body of Christ — Jesus first, and his disciples to follow. The many abiding places in God’s house is us. This is made clear by the Vine and Branches passage that follows soon after. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus abides in us, and we in him. This passage is not about going to heaven. It’s about spiritual abiding as the foundation of “eternal life” — better translated as “life in God’s new age.”
3. ergon, “work,” is used 27 times in John, the most in the NT (20 in Revelation, 15 in Romans and James, 10 in Acts, are the other highest) — 3 times in 14:10-12.
4. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The grammar is as simple as can be with no surprises in the Greek wording: egō eimi hē hodos kai hē alētheia kai hē zōē. But Christians hear this — along with the next phrase, “no one comes to the Father except through me” — in the context of Christian exclusivism. When one advocates for Christian inclusivism, John 14:6 is often the most immediate reply, cited as contrary to inclusivism. How might we hear it differently? More below in the McLaren citation.
1. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, ch. 19, “How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?”, pp. 207-224. Reading this passage in context is McLaren’s primary task in this chapter arguing Christian inclusivism precisely by offering an alternative reading to these verses so often championed as proving exclusivism. His reading involves several moves. But the central one is to place the passage in the context of the entire Gospel with verse 9 as the key verse: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” McLaren writes:
To me, the dynamic core of this passage leaps out here in verse 9, not back in verse 6: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Here the irony becomes nearly unbearable (to me at least), as we contrast this statement with the conventional interpretation of verse 6. Jesus says in verse 9 that the invisible God has been made visible in his life. If you want to know what God is like, Jesus says, look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character. And what has that character been? One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesuss way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end whether with a visiting-by-night Pharisee, a Samaritan woman, a paralyzed man, a woman caught in adultery, or a man born blind.
But our conventional interpretation of verse 6 seems to say, Forget all that. Forget everything youve seen in me, the way Ive lived and treated people, the way Ive accepted prostitutes and tax collectors, the way Ive welcomed outsiders and rejects. Forget all that. Believe, instead, that God will reject everyone except people who share your doctrinal viewpoints about me, because I wont let anyone get to the Father unless they get by me first by joining my new religion. It makes me want to cry, or groan, or scream.
If you have seen me, you have seen the Father, Jesus says, but our conventional interpretation of John 14:6 turns this all upside down: Reinterpret me in light of your old tribal, chauvinistic, exclusive, elitist views of God and religion. In place of circumcision and dietary laws to exclude the outsiders, now substitute mental markers or belief markers about me. Once this alternative understanding hits you, once you see it, its truly heart-breaking that John 14:6 can be used the way it so commonly is. (pp. 223-24)
2. Gil Bailie, “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” Contagion Vol. 4 (Spring, 1997), pp. 120-145. This essay plants the seeds for Bailie’s next project of elaborating on the implications of Girardian psychology for our times. Several of his lecture series, such as “The Gift of Self,” also lay the groundwork for his plans for a second book. Here a dominant theme comes from Henri de Lubac’s notion of “ontological density.” We become persons of substance and weight when we are grafted to the true Vine. Otherwise, we wither and become dry tinder for any violent conflagrations which come our way. Christ abiding in us, and we in Christ, is the key to being persons of substance, beings with “ontological density” that won’t get blown away into the bonfires of every passing fad.
3. The Johannine Farewell Discourse is a favorite in Girardian literature. The following is a list (not exhaustive) of places where the Discourse is featured: René Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 15, “History and the Paraclete”; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 7.D., “The Gospel of John” (p. 204-210); Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio series, tape #10 (link to my notes / transcription); James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 3, “The Discovery of Jesus’ Imagination”; and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 187-197.
4. Dan Harris, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works — A True Story. This may seem like a strange citation, but in 2014 I was reading this fine book — a personal account of how an atheist-agnostic was brought kicking and screaming into the benefits of meditation. He gradually adopts regular disciplines of meditation, including a 10-day silent retreat, primarily from Buddhist traditions. I find fascinating his proposal that daily meditation should become as routine as brushing your teeth, eating healthily, and regular physical activity. We should see meditation as regular and necessary exercise for our brains — and with them, our minds and spirits. Why? To tame the voices in our heads from running our lives in uncritical and unexamined ways. Meditation is necessary to be able to stop the steady stream of the voice in our head and gain some objective distance from it. He does cover the Buddhist perspective that this is also a taming of desire, but that isn’t the main goal for him.
Mimetic Theory, of course, has its own account of the voice in our head. It comes from the steady flow of mimetic desire. And from a Christian point of view, it’s not a matter so much of taming desire but of reorienting it towards God’s loving desire in Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of stemming the tide of those other voices of desire in our heads so that God’s voice of loving desire can have central place.
In John’s Gospel, from beginning to end, the matter of whose voice is in our head, bringing us into a new aliveness, involves the matter of indwelling, or abiding. The first disciples ask Jesus where he is abiding, and he tells them, “Come and see.” At the end, Jesus breathes his Spirit on them so that it might abide in them. The entire story is about this abiding, this indwelling. God’s loving desire which creates and gives life has come to dwell in us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I believe that folks like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and the Catholic sisters at our local “spirituality center” are helping us to understand the pivotal importance of “contemplative spirituality,” of meditative prayer, to our Christian lives. It truly makes a difference in taming the voices in our heads to make room for God’s voice. Even agnostics like Dan Harris are experiencing the benefits.
5. My 2008 sermon, “Jesus as ‘The Way’“, makes use of several of these insights (especially that Jesus and us replace the Temple as the place of God’s presence in the world) to offer an alternative reading of this passage than the one that has popular for many generations.
Reflections and Questions
1. One might be tempted to pull out an old funeral sermon on John 14:1-6 and re-shape its words of comfort for the broader congregation. But, in light of a fuller exegesis of meno, I’m tempted in the opposite direction: to deepen future funeral sermons with a message of comfort that goes beyond dwelling in God’s heavenly mansion. John’s gospel talks about eternal life as a present reality that begins when Christ dwells in us and we in him. Eternal life isn’t just something that happens to us after this earthly life, up in some heavenly realm. It is something that begins abiding in us as Christ abides in us.
2. See also the Reflections on John 1:29-42 in Epiphany 2A, where meno is introduced.
3. Girardian psychology explodes the modern notion of autonomy to reveal that each of our Self’s is, in reality, an indwelling of the Others. It is the desires of Others which determines our desires. The key to true freedom, then, is not being rid of the Others. That’s impossible. The key to true freedom is which Other most determines our desires. John’s theology of indwelling has this down pat. It is when God’s loving desire comes to dwell in us through Christ that we can begin to become free from the slavish, deadly desires of all the other Others.
4. One word of caution: there are plenty of theologies out there right now which talk about finding the God within us. This is not John’s theology of divine indwelling. The Christian form of a theology of divine indwelling emphasizes the Other-ness of God. God is the Other who lovingly can come to dwell within us, replacing all those other Others whose indwelling only leads to death (and a whole lot of craziness before that!). Most of the modern versions of divine indwelling lose the dimension of Other-ness, I think. They presume a pantheism that says, ‘Since God dwells within everything and everyone, all you have to do is learn to recognize that divine spark within yourself.’ The danger is that these theologies thus ignore the problem of the Other. They are theologies which simply support our false notions of autonomy: We are each little gods whose living together in peace depends on recognizing the gods in others. But this ends up being a polytheism that will lead to about as much peace as one found on Mt. Olympus. No, Christian theology doesn’t lead us to finding the god within each of us. It leads us to inviting the divine, loving Other to dwell within us so that we have a transcendent reference point for living with our brothers and sisters, the rest of God’s children. The children are most emphatically not the heavenly Parent. We are not equal by virtue of us each being little gods. We are truly equal by virtue of our all being children in need of being of one desire with our heavenly Parent. Through Christ, the Son of the Father, we can be brought into that one heavenly Desire called Agape, even as it begins to dwell in us.