Last revised: January 6, 2023
Click reload or refresh for latest version
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
RoCa: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2017 I wrote extensive reflections on these texts around a word common to all three: “righteousness” (Hebrew: sedeq; Greek: dikaiosunē). Preaching the Gospel of New Creation places justice at the center of God’s project of New Creation. More below.
In 2023 the game-changing book has come onto the scene, Anthony Bartlett‘s Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence. The crucial center of God’s justice is the nonviolent power of love. It is the power which saves humankind and creation from human violence. Until everything is centered on the nonviolence of God, our messaging of the Gospel of New Creation will fall short of the mark of faithfulness to God. Jesus the Messiah is the one who can bring us into that full and true faithfulness. Being baptized into the historical events of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, is having one’s humanity made new in identity with the project of New Creation that these events launch. Circling back: at the center of faithfulness to this project is faith in the nonviolent God and the divine nonviolent power of love.
The First Reading for this day begins with the first “Servant Song,” Isaiah 42:1-14. Bartlett’s book endeavors to read the evolution of God’s nonviolence as slowly emerging in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, climaxing in the Gospels and letters of Paul. A key moment is “The Servant” (ch. 4 in Signs of Change), of whom Bartlett writes,
[T]hey [the prophetic community] really are witnessing a single individual who did seem to them to be struck down by God, for that is what they say: “we accounted him . . . struck down by God.” At this point, they are exactly the same as the “friends” in Job, who righteously conclude that Job must have done something wrong, so severe are his sufferings.
However, something occurred which showed this group a new and revolutionary truth. They conclude, in the present tense, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases,” and this conclusion comes subsequently to their previous, now-seen-as-incorrect penal and retributive conclusion. They understand, therefore, that the way the servant bears their infirmities and diseases is not by othering, by scapegoating, but by a totally unheralded novum in the human scene. It depends on the revolutionary empathy of nonviolence. (78)
* * * * * * * *
2017: These comments center on an exegetical note on all three texts. All three lessons make mention of righteousness, dikaiosunē (in Greek).
- Isaiah 42:6: “I have called you in righteousness.”
- Matthew 3:15: “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”
- Acts 10:35: “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does [righteousness] is acceptable to him.”
One important note on the dik- word group before we reflect on “righteousness” in these texts. dikaiosynē is the noun; dikaioō is the verb, most often translated as “to justify.” So it has long been an issue that the most common translation of these two words with the same Greek root are translated with two different English roots. Some suggest we be consistent, but then we still have two choices: either we translate the verb as “rectify” or “make right” to match “righteousness,” or we translate the noun as “justice” to match “justify.” I find this instructive to the point of raising the question: isn’t what we are talking about here involve our conception of justice? How do we conceive of God’s justice vs. human justice?
Reflections on “Righteousness,” on “Justice”
For conventional culture and religion, according to mimetic theory, righteousness is derived from the societal order created by righteous violence, the violence justified in its use to thwart unrighteous violence. Just as Jesus came proclaiming the Culture of God as a order distinct from human cultures, so also a new brand of righteousness is revealed. As St. Paul proclaims, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22). (See the page for Reformation Day for more on Romans 3 and the translation of the dik– word group.)
In the excerpts which follow, the Girardian distinction between “myth” and “Gospel” is also crucial. Both involve stories of dying and rising gods. But Girard proposes that the crucial difference is the voice or perspective: myth is told from the perspective of the dominant group who have perpetrated a collective murder as the basis for their societal order; Gospel is told from the perspective of the victim. Ordinarily, the voice of the victim doesn’t survive; but the Resurrection begins a new day in human history because the voice of the victim establishes a beachhead in the world. This also represents a flipping of the usual basis of ordering a society: the new order prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable, those usually victimized, instead of privileging those in power. And righteousness, or justice, involves delivering from oppression and caring for the marginalized, rather than aligning with a moral code that serves the majority as a basis for punishment.
Gil Bailie, for example, puts the difference between these two forms of righteousness, or holiness, thus:
The spirit born of the sacrificial murder inspires the community of its perpetrators to remember the murder as holy and creative. The Spirit of the Gospels, on the other hand, remembers the false accusations, sordid plots, the sham trials, and the weak faith of those who fled. Those inspired by the Paraclete awaken from illusion and experience dis-illusionment, contrition, and cultural alienation, as did Peter and Paul. The truth to which the Paraclete will lead humanity is not a truth that can be acquired by a simple intellectual transaction, the way, for instance, knowledge can be acquired in a classroom or in a book. The truth (aletheia) that the Paraclete reveals is a cure for the kind of forgetfulness that myth makes possible. It is a revelation that occurs as those to whom it is revealed stop forgetting the price they have paid for their social and psychological poise and for their religious righteousness. That is why, again according to John’s Gospel, the Paraclete draws those it inspires to the Cross, for the Cross is the counter-mythological, meta-religious revelatory image par excellence, the pivot around which a worldwide anthropology revolution is now turning. (Violence Unveiled, p. 130; my italics)
A crucial text in this regard comes from John 16, putting together most of the themes that Bailie strikes above:
And when the Paraclete (see below) comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. (John 16:8-11)
Also in Violence Unveiled, Bailie is elucidating the text of Act 8 about Philip and the Ethiopian, who’s reading Isaiah 53 — cousins to the texts for today. Acts 8 and 10 are companion stories about discovering God’s mission to the Gentiles, sandwiched around Luke’s account of the calling of the apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, in Acts 9. Isaiah 53 is the last of the Suffering Servant Songs of Second Isaiah, while our First Lesson from Isaiah 42 is the first of those songs. Bailie writes about the biblical insight into ‘mob righteousness’:
What makes the text so haunting and bewildering is that it tells the story of mob violence, and its perspective is to a great extent that of the victim. Not altogether so; it is laced with the perspective of the religiously scrupulous and righteously indignant community that persecuted the victim. In other words, it is a text in transition, one that clearly is moving away from myth — the story that flatters the victimizers and sanctions their violence — and toward “Gospel” — the story that reveals the violence, strips it of its religious justifications, and reveals to the world a God of powerless love. The Ethiopian has in his hands, therefore, a text of inestimable anthropological value, inasmuch as it is a candid presentation of cultural violence shorn of most of the mythological trappings. It reveals a truth myths suppress in order to make culture possible. It is a truth that slowly works its way to the surface of the biblical text beginning with the Cain and Abel story in Genesis and culminating with the crucifixion.The Bible’s anthropological distinction lies in the fact that in it an empathy for victims again and again overwhelms the Bible’s own attempt to mythologize its violence and venerate it as divinely decreed. Ask ten people what they think of the Hebrew Scriptures — the “Old Testament” — and even if they’ve never opened it, eight of the ten will tell you that they are put off by its violence. The world over which myth presides with its majestic poise is no less violent. Its violence is simply better veiled and suffused with grandeur. As a gentile, the Ethiopian would have been accustomed to having official tribal violence shrouded in an aura of myth. The passage from Isaiah, however, is haunted by a crude specter of mob violence. Since the Ethiopian is still bound up in mythological thought patterns and the primitive religious cosmology made plausible and morally palatable by myth, he hasn’t a clue to the meaning of the text from Isaiah. Philip, on the other hand, has known the passion story. He has been effectively exposed to the story of righteous violence in which an innocent victim died forgiving his murderers, realizing that “they know not what they do.” With that story as his interpretive key, the few mythological vestiges that survive in the Isaiah text offer no serious impediment to Philip’s revelatory interpretation of it. The mob was wrong and its sense of righteousness was a delusion. It is the victim who is the chosen one of God, the agent of God’s self-revelation to the world. (p. 44; my italics)
This is the twin insight that should inform our reading of righteousness in these texts before us: (1) the standard righteousness of conventional culture and religion derives from a righteousness of a violent mob and is a delusion, a false sense of being superior to “sinners”; and (2) God’s revelation of a new righteousness in Jesus Christ derives from the opposite, i.e., the righteousness of the mob’s victim. It turns what we ordinarily mean by righteousness on its head. Jesus became for us one whom we ordinarily declare as unrighteous, so that we might be baptized into the righteousness achieved in his death and resurrection. Even though we are his persecutors, in faith we may have righteousness graciously imputed to us
What kind of righteousness is achieved through his passion? Raymund Schwager does a good job of working this through in Jesus and the Drama of Salvation.
What we have found so far leads to a strange conclusion: people are simultaneously involved in two situations. As responsible for sins, all belong to the great band of those who form an alliance against God’s anointed, judge him, drive him out, and reject him. As victims of their own and others’ sins, they find themselves part of the universal community of those with whom the crucified one identified himself and for whom, through his ordeal of being struck and killed, he turned evil actions toward the good. Consequently the fundamental line of separation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the princes of this world does not run primarily between groups of people, as the apocalyptic pictures of judgment repeatedly suggested. What we have is not one part of humankind standing — as sons of God — over against the other part — as sons of darkness. Such conventional notions have almost inevitably led to the spiritual self-righteousness of those who have counted themselves among the sons of light, and too often they have given rise to intolerance and aggression in God’s name. The great dividing line runs rather through individual people themselves. As a responsible doer of sin each one is an enemy of Christ, and as victim of evil each one is within the domain of his redeeming power. (pp. 192-193; my italics)
In other words, the delusion of one’s superiority to “sinners” is exposed. It is the move that Paul is making in Romans 1-3, where 1:18-32 represents the delusion sense of superiority that Paul is arguing against, in favor of getting to the point of, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Crucial, in fact, is to see how the Johannine Jesus flips the very understanding of sin itself — a re-centering from sin as the breaking of the group’s moral code that elicits punishment, to sin more centrally as the system of order itself that punishes. Righteousness, or justice, in this sense is not about punishment and reward; it’s about healing that which breaks from community itself, including our system of punishment itself to the extent that it brings division in human community. (The go-to book on making this paradigm shift in the experience of righteousness, justice, is Derek Flood‘s Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, which provides a wholistic interpretation of Scripture as God taking us on a journey from our human experience of justice as retributive to God’s experience of justice as restorative, healing.)
Finally, I would like to apply some of these thoughts on righteousness to the kind of drama we have experienced since 9/11/01. James Alison, in a talk called “Contemplation in a World of Violence” (on Girard and Merton, at Downside Abbey, Bath, England, Nov. 2001; now ch. 1 in On Being Liked), reflected on the experience of those of us who have watched in horror from a distance. He suggests that we can get easily caught up in that “satanic righteousness,” but that, in Christ, we can also learn to look away from the fascinating violence and learn to respond with compassion. He writes:
And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. The de facto President fumbling at first, a moment of genuinely humble, banal, humanity, then getting his High Priestly act together by preaching revenge at an Episcopal Eucharist. The Queen “getting right” what she “got wrong” last time there was a similar outbreak of sacred contagion around an iconic cadaver, by having the American National Anthem played at Buckingham Palace.
And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like “to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.” And beneath the militant goodness, suddenly permission to sack people, to leak out bad news and so on, things which could take advantage of the unanimity to avoid reasoned negotiation.
And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.
What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic. When we are baptized, we, or our Godparents on our behalf, renounce Satan and all his vain pomps and empty works. And here we were, sorely tempted at least to find ourselves being sucked up into believing in just such an empty work and pomp. A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.
When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel (and it is the title of Girard’s recent book) “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” This is the solemn declaration of the definitive loss of transcendence of the satanic show: we no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it. The pomp has nothing to do with heaven. It has nothing to do with God.
And this of course was apparent to us as well even, and perhaps especially, in our secularity. There was the sort of sacred grief I described, but there were also, mixed up with it, genuine outbursts of compassion: wonder at the two who jumped out of the building holding hands; a warmth of heart as the news came out of the messages of simple love bereft of any huge religious significance left on answering machines. At the same time as the sacred violence extended its lure, we also made little breakthroughs of our own into simply liking humans. I don’t know how it was for you, and I may be particularly personally insensitive, but I was unable to see anything of the humanity involved while watching the moving images on film, because I am so used to the moving images telling a story in which the people killed are simply stage extras, whose thoughts and emotions and broken families we aren’t expected to consider. It was only when reading about the incident in the next day’s papers that the human dimension managed to start to break through for me.
And this is the vital thing to understand in any use of the language of the satanic. It is a failed transcendence. It fails to grip us completely. The unanimity does not last. Even in as strongly religious a society as the United States. Reasoned discussion starts to break out. Penitent questions start being asked. A group of Jews and Catholics went together on the Friday after the 11th to a mosque south of Chicago, and circled it, holding hands, to protect those within it throughout their Friday prayers from any potential violence or abuse. The lie does not command absolute respect. There are already in our midst outbreaks of truth, of non-possessed humanity.
In 2017 these reflections on righteousness interact with the theme of the Gospel about hearing God’s voice as that of a loving parent. If we go back to our exegetical note at the top: How do we conceive of God’s justice if we come to know God as a loving parent in Jesus? The excerpt from Alison helps make the connection to baptism, that we are baptized into a denunciation of satanic righteousness. The synoptic Gospels also make this connection by recounting how Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit from baptism to wilderness temptation.
Jesus’ baptism story — especially in Matthew, where we alone get the comment about “righteousness” — helps us, I think, to read the foundational story of Genesis 2-3 about our beginnings as a species. Adam and Eve listen to the voice of Satan such that God’s true voice is lost to them. Instead of God as a loving parent, Satan the Accuser gets them to hear God’s voice as a Judge who decides good and evil — the significance of the tree from which they eat. A parent loves all children unconditionally. A judge decides between good people and bad people, reward and punishment. The so-called Knowledge of Good and Evil is born out of hearing God’s voice as a judge instead of a parent.
Jesus came to get us to listen to God’s voice as a parent once again, to hear that unconditional love that seeks to move us into being the best that we can be. It’s not that we never do wrong. We are limited creatures in need of constant growth and healing. But when we hear God as a judge between right and wrong, we expect a justice, a righteousness, of retribution, of reward and punishment. If we follow Jesus in hearing God’s voice as a loving parent, it’s not so much about reward and punishment as it is about being loved into more fruitful living. We know God’s justice to be a steadfast love that delivers us, restores us, and transforms us.
1. Anthony Bartlett, Signs of Change, ch. 4, “The Servant.” Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of the four “Servant Songs,” and Bartlett comments specifically on this song on pp. 74-75.
2. One of the “Suffering Servant Songs,” it is among the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that get wide mention in Girardian literature. René Girard himself first broached the subject in Things Hidden:
In the first books of the Bible, the founding mechanism shows through the texts here and there, sometimes strikingly but never completely and unambiguously. The mechanism never really gets described as such. By contrast, the prophetic books offer us a group of astonishing texts that are all integrally related, as well as being remarkably explicit. These are the four ‘Songs of the Servant of Yahweh’ interpolated in the ‘Book of the Consolation of Israel’ in the second part of Isaiah, perhaps the most grandiose of all the prophetic books. (They are located at Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12.) Modern historical criticism has isolated these four ‘Songs’, recognizing their unity and their relative degree of independence from the material surrounding them. This is all the more praiseworthy in that no one has ever been able to say what gives them this singular status. Speaking of the return from Babylon authorized by Cyrus, they develop as an enigmatic counterpoint the double theme of the triumphant Messiah, here identified with the liberating prince, and the suffering Messiah, the Servant of Yahweh. To recognize the relevance of our hypothesis to the Servant, we need only quote one or two key passages. In the first place, the Servant appears within the context of the prophetic crisis for the purpose of resolving it. He becomes, as a result of God’s own action, the receptacle for all violence; he takes the place of all the members of the community:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
All the traits attributed to the Servant predispose him to the role of a veritable human scapegoat.
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:2-3)
If these traits make him similar to a certain type of sacrificial victim within the pagan world — for example, the Greek pharmakos — and if the fate he undergoes, the fate reserved for the anathema, is similar to that of the pharmakos, it is nonetheless no ritual sacrifice that we are dealing with. It is a spontaneous historical event, which has at once a collective and a legal character, and is sanctioned by the authorities:
By oppression and judgement he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off from out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:8-9)
This event therefore has the character not of a ritual but of the type of event from which, according to my hypothesis, rituals and all aspects of religion are derived. The most striking aspect here, the trait which is certainly unique, is the innocence of the Servant, the fact that he has no connection with violence and no affinity for it. A whole number of passages lay upon men the principal responsibility for his saving death. One of these even appears to attribute to men the exclusive responsibility for that death. ‘Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted’ (Isaiah 53:4).In other words, this was not so. It was not God who smote him; God’s responsibility is implicitly denied.
Throughout the Old Testament, a work of exegesis is in progress, operating in precisely the opposite direction to the usual dynamics of mythology and culture. And yet it is impossible to say that this work is completed. Even in the most advanced texts, such as the fourth ‘Song of the Servant’, there is still some ambiguity regarding the role of Yahweh. Even if the human community is, on several occasions, presented as being responsible for the death of the victim, God himself is presented as the principal instigator of the persecution. ‘Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him’ (Isaiah 53:10).
This ambiguity in the role of Yahweh corresponds to the general conception of the deity in the Old Testament. In the prophetic books, this conception tends to be increasingly divested of the violence characteristic of primitive deities. Although vengeance is still attributed to Yahweh, a number of expressions show that in reality mimetic and reciprocal violence is festering more and more as the old cultural forms tend to dissolve. Yet all the same, in the Old Testament we never arrive at a conception of the deity that is entirely foreign to violence. (pp. 155-157)
3. James G. Williams has an extended discussion of the Suffering Servant Songs in The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred on pages 157-162 (excerpt).
4. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, also has an excellent section on “The Suffering Servant,” pp. 126-135
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.
4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2014, titled “Preaching Peace by Jesus Christ — He Is Lord of All.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Cornelius is obviously a Gentile, and this story about the first Gentile convert. But is it recognized as often that, as a centurion, he also stood for the reigning sanctioned violence? What do we make of the first major Gentile conversion being one who stood so centrally within the scapegoating structures of his time? Is there a connection with the story that precedes it, the conversion of Saul? Saul is a central figure within the Jewish scapegoating structures; Cornelius within the Roman. They both are dramatically converted. Saul left behind his life of persecuting others. Do we assume the same for Cornelius? Did becoming a Christian mean that he could no longer be a centurion, a soldier? Paul fought for the fact that Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews to be Christians? But what about soldiers, those who carry out sanctioned violence? Can they become Christians without giving up their role in sanctioned violence?
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. 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 tact 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. Anthony Bartlett, Signs of Change, ch. 8, “Jesus,” especially two sections on the relationship between John and Jesus: “Mentor and Master” and “Galilean Semiotics, Different from John’s,” pp. 150-57.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 27-28. He also has a section which goes a long way to shedding light on many of the issues raised here about both the surrender of the Son and the role of the Spirit. His section on the Trinity, “The Revelation of the Triune God in the Redemption Event” (pp. 196-217), is climaxed by the section on the Holy Spirit, “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity” (pp. 209-217).
3. Crucial to this passage is the role of the Holy Spirit, which is enlightened by Girard’s work on John’s Paraclete as the Defender of those Accused. Link to an elaboration of “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”
4. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, also has a couple fine sections on a Girardian reading of the Trinity in Scripture; pp. 49-53, 186-210.
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 94, in a section on Jesus’ “Baptism and Temptations”; pp. 189ff., in a section on Baptism. Marr writes,
As he was baptized, the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
This proclamation refers to two key verses in the Hebrew Bible that tell us what baptism is all about. In Psalm 2, the king, the Messiah is singled out from the raging nations that are rising up against the Lord and his anointed. The inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging against one another. In Jesus, we too are drawn out of this inundation and so freed from raging against everybody else. But we are not freed from being the target of raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath. These baptismal words spoken to Jesus also refer to Isaiah 42:1, the first line of the first song of the Servant of Yahweh. Throughout these songs, the Servant has been called out of a violent society to become instead the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the Psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, (Ps. 2:9) the Servant does not retaliate in any way against the violence inflicted on him. In baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering, but then we are also overwhelmed by God’s vindication of the Servant. (pp. 189-90)
Marr also offered a blog in 2023, “Fulfilling All Righteousness.”
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2017, “Son of God, God of Bread, Bread of Fools.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2014, the sermon played with the theme of birthday parties, both the Christmas celebration of birth and also baptismal rebirth. Jesus’ baptism cues us that we are to listen to the voice of an unconditionally loving parent, not that of a stern judge. Is that why Jesus’ has John baptize him? John still seems to be thinking in terms of worthiness, of who is worthy to baptize whom. Jesus in baptism helps us to understand that righteousness is fulfilled by God’s unconditional love. I end the sermon with a Tony Campolo story about throwing a birthday for a prostitute at 3:30 in the morning. Link to “Birthday Parties for Prostitutes.”
2. For the 2011 sermon, “Fulfilling All Righteousness,” I ponder right action by asking what is its source: “Before we know what the right thing is, we need to know where our actions are rooted — what is the source of our actions? What drives them?” Mimetic Theory teaches that the source of sinful action is catching our desires from each other in ways that lead to envy and conflict. The source of right action is God’s loving desire:
And it all begins with baptism, not just as the cleansing of sin as John the Baptist began it. But as the transformation which Jesus began in his own baptism. The fulfillment of all right action begins with the truth that each of us must learn to hear and trust deep down, God saying to each of us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased.”
It could be said that John the Baptist came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him; and after him the disciple Peter. And the disciple Mary Magdalene came to see and love in herself what Jesus saw and loved in her. Jesus sees the “child of God” in people with such clarity and persistence that they begin to see it in themselves. But, in order for him to see the “child of God” in others, he must first know it in himself. In this sense, Jesus’ baptism by water and Spirit is the precondition for the baptism by water and Spirit of all Christians. The one who would awaken others to love must first himself be awakened. Awakening to love is essentially an interpersonal chain. The awakened Jesus awakens others, and then those awaken still others.
This, then, is the deep down source of our actions that we yearn for. It is the deep down source of our actions that begins at our baptisms, as God says to us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased.”
3. Over the holidays (2002), I attended a “mega-church” in South Bend, IN, with family. The service (most of which was the presenters’ acts of serving — the congregation were spectators) was a tightly knit theme around the Trinity titled “One Is Not the Loneliest Number.” It began with a chancel drama about a failed party. The few guests who came left early, leaving the host to first pretend that she was hosting a wildly successful party with all kinds of famous personages; then, to fall back into reality and chide herself about being a loser; finally, to talk to God in prayer and reclaim her identity as God’s child. They followed this with the old Three Dog Night hit, “One Is the Loneliest Number,” and then a lengthy sermon that offered the Trinitarian God as a solution to our times of loneliness. The divine self is itself a community of relations, and we are created in God’s image. We are created to be in community with God and with one another.
It was quite a good sermon that showed the secret of how the Trinity persists in communion by each person in the Trinity deferring to the other. One of the basic texts was the baptism of Jesus, and the Transfiguration, in which the Father defers to the Beloved Son. For Jesus pointing to the Father, he used Matt. 5:16 (“Let your light so shine…”) and John 5:19-20:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.”
For the Spirit’s role of testifying to the Son, he used John 15:26:
[Jesus said,] “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.”
The one thing that would have really helped this sermon would have been to have an evangelical anthropology to add to the theology. The preacher’s next step was to simply say that our community gets messed up in sin, and that Jesus saves us from sin by giving up community on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) so that we might always be able to live in community. What was missing was to show how sin messes us up, how mimetic desire lures us into rivalry with one another, and our fallen human cultures ‘fix’ the problem through sacrificial mechanisms. This deepens the theology, then, too, to something like what Schwager and Alison present (referenced above). The Trinity is not just relations of mutual deferral, but of mutual self-giving. Jesus not only defers to the Father, but the Spirit which the Father sends him at baptism, he gives back to the Father in the cross; and the Father gives the Spirit back in the Resurrection.
Link to an outline of a sermon entitled “One Is Not the Loneliest Number.”