Last revised: June 4, 2020
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DAY OF PENTECOST — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor. 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
RoCa: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor. 12:3-7, 12-13; John 7:37-39
Opening Reflections: In Memory of George Floyd
On Memorial Day May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by four now-fired and indicted Minneapolis police officers. This was the Monday before Pentecost Sunday 2020. People began to flood the streets in protest — as if the spirit of prophecy was let loose in their midst. In other words, another fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of God’s spirit being poured out on all the people.
In the Gospel Readings of recent weeks, we have seen how the Spirit is the Paraclete, that is, the Advocate for all the victims of sacrificial violence — like the many millions who are crying out this week in advocacy for George Floyd, and for all the innocent African Americans murdered over four hundred years of white supremacist rule in America. There is a rage. There is a great sorrow. But there is also a strong commitment to nonviolent protest. Yes, there is some spill-over into destruction of property. But with the rage and sorrow of so many centuries built up, the miracle is that the shouts of anger and protest are largely nonviolent.
On the first Pentecost, the Spirit first appears like a “violent wind.” It is the fulfillment of Isaiah 59:19-21:
So those in the west shall fear the name of the LORD, and those in the east, his glory; for he will come like a pent-up stream that the wind of the LORD drives on. And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the LORD. And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.
May the voice of advocacy for justice in this land continue “like a pent-up stream that the wind of the Lord drives on.” May this time of prophecy yield a greater justice for all, continuing in the mouths and actions of our children and of our children’s children. Another life of an unarmed black man has been senselessly taken by those sworn to protect us. May this time be different. May the voice and spirit of advocacy bring new, permanent acts expressions of justice. May the lives of black citizens, who began in this country in slavery defined as 3/5 of a person, at long last have their lives fully valued in word and deed. The Spirit of Advocacy is crying out across our land, “Black Lives Matter!”
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. If we were to raise the question “Why is the Church necessary for salvation?”, the Pentecost text and Alison’s treatment of it could provide a good start on an answer. In the interpretation of original sin guided by Mimetic Theory, personal fallenness is related to living in a fallen state of human community. The mimetic rivalry that grips each person’s life feeds off of the scapegoating mechanisms that grip human community, and vice versa. Thus, for a person to experience salvation there must also be a re-socialization that transforms the powers of the scapegoating mechanisms into the power of life received through self-sacrifice. As part of Alison’s brilliant laying out of original sin in light of Mimetic Theory, he devotes Chapter 6 to what he calls “ecclesial hypostasis,” a living under the power of community formed around the forgiving victim, Jesus Christ, as opposed to living under the power of the “an-ecclesial hypostasis,” or life under the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism, as Robert Hamerton-Kelly calls it. (I propose that Paul used the language of “life in the Spirit” and “life in the flesh” to name these two ways of community living.)
Alison makes use of the Pentecost story, as remedy to the Tower of Babel story, as a gathering of what has been scattered. In this vein, he also cites Luke 11:23: “He who does not gather with me scatters.” (Note: Gil Bailie in his taped lectures on Luke uses the gathering-scattering motif a great deal in his interpretation of Luke’s gospel, especially over the last several tapes in the series.) Alison concludes:
In the account of Babel . . . God is still a continuation of the ‘envious’ God of Genesis 3:22. In Jesus’ phrase, however, the essential evangelical work of anthropological de-mythification has been carried out: it is God who founds, and men who scatter. Thus the representation of Pentecost as the undoing of Babel is not only a fulfilment of the prophecies that God would gather his scattered people together. It is a decisive recasting in anthropological terms of human foundational order: The real foundation is God’s foundation of the new people of Israel in Christ. It was not that God had scattered the people of Babel, but their foundational order, one grasped at avidly so as to avoid being scattered (Gen 11:4) was in fact cast in the mode of human scattering. All human societal foundations are futile exercises in the production of a fragile order. The only real foundation is the one given in Christ’s gathering. Behind the New Testament reworking of biblical images there is a quite specific understanding of the universal futility of human social order that is being overcome by the revelation of the true foundation. (p. 167)
Later in his work, Chapter 9, “Reimagining the Symbol of Original Sin,” this pairing of the Pentecost and Babel stories once again comes into play. As Alison brings his argument to a climax, he sums it up by laying out a new Testament re-working of all four major stories in Genesis 3-11:
In order to understand the positive sense of the self-giving up to death of Jesus, the apostolic witness makes use, in different places, of four quite distinct stories from Genesis, all of which are interpreted in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. To illustrate the sense of Christ’s death, he is shown as moved by a self-giving which is the undoing of Adam’s appropriation of divinity to himself (Paul’s argument about Adam’s desire in Romans 5-7, and the illustration of Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2). He is shown as undoing the order based on fratricidal murder from the beginning (John’s reference to ‘Your Father. . .’ in Chapter 8, and the development of that in 1 John 3). Baptism into Christ’s saving death is shown to be the real sense behind the story of Noah’s Ark (1 Pet 3:20-1). Finally Christ is shown as undoing the scattering of all humanity following on the attempt to appropriate human unity by human effort alone at Babel (Luke’s presentation of Pentecost in Acts 2). That is to say that four quite distinct moments of Genesis, relating to desire, to murder, and to foundation of sociality, are shown to be capable of a strictly Christological interpretation. Any symbol, then, of human origins that is capable of conflating these moments within a strictly Christological interpretation has the advantage over other putative symbols of being exactly in line with the risen Christ’s own hermeneutic of scripture as explained on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27). It is precisely because it permits the construction of such a symbol that mimetic theory recommends itself in this context. (pp. 245-246)
His focused development of the Babel/Pentecost pair basically repeats the argument as stated earlier in connection with ecclesial hypostasis, except for placing it in this wider context of Christological re-interpretations which bring his argument to a conclusion. He is in keeping with Girard that the Genesis myths already begin the process of de-mythologizing of other mythologies. But he carries the process further by showing how a Christological re-reading of these texts further de-mythologizes the remaining mythological elements in the Genesis texts. Acts 2 performs such a re-reading on Genesis 11:
The final ‘moment’ in the Genesis account of origins to receive a Christological re-reading in the apostolic witness is the account of the scattering of humanity at Babel. In the Lucan account of Pentecost we have an account of how the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified and risen Lord began the dynamic of forging a new unity of the whole of humanity from out of every race and tribe and nation and tongue. This, the beginnings of the catholicity of the new people of God, is strictly dependent on the self-giving up to death of Jesus: it is the risen dead-one who makes possible this unity. The story of Babel is the inverse of this: men, who have only one tongue and few words (Gen 11:1), seek to make a secure unity for themselves by building a tower. God, alarmed that if they succeed in building the tower, nothing will be impossible for them, scatters them and confuses their language. We have the same pattern of mimetic desire as in Genesis 3, and a similar reaction from God. Human identity has to be grasped and appropriated so as to make security, God scatters that identity lest humans, having achieved this identity, stop at nothing. This is similar to the way in which, in the earlier story, God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden lest they eat of the tree of life and eternalize their fallen state. Appropriative desire and a rivalistic God are the two similar elements.
Our Christological re-reading suggests that what we have originally is groups scattering from each other, and forming separate languages which are in hostility to each other, as their respective sacrificial systems break down time after time, and they fail to keep unity in the wake of successive attempts to grasp onto unity and security by (at least initially, human) sacrifices. All sacrificial systems based on grasping security by victimizing tend to fail to produce unity, and groups forge language from their sacred victimary systems. This is the direct inverse of the self-giving up to death of Christ, who permits the forming of a sociality without any ‘over against’, and in which all the scattered groups are able to find the real center of their language, their representational center. In the Christological re-reading, it is man who scatters himself, not God, because of the inherent futility of any building of social order at the expense of the victim. In between the original scattering and the Christological gathering we have a Jewish re-reading of the scattering derived from their understanding of being gathered together out of the Babylonian Empire. The ‘confusion’ of tongues (Heb: balal) is an etymological joke at the expense of the arrogance of the imperial Babylonian attempt to dominate the earth, and the unfinished tower is a mocking look at one of the huge Ziqqurats which had the pretension (in Babylonian religion) of uniting heaven and earth. Once again, we have an original tale of cultural scattering, a Jewish re-reading of this, and a Christological re-reading of the Jewish partial demythologization. This Christological re-reading gives us back a plausible account of the theological elements proper to the original scattering seen in the light of the death that made possible the un-scattering. (pp. 251-252)
2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace, Ch. 1, “Nailed to the Cross.” Marr begins his presentation of René Girard’s Mimetic Theory — which he prefers, taking a cue from Robert Hamerton-Kelly, to call “mimetic realism” — with the Pentecost story, setting the scene:
Unlike Joel’s prophecy, the sun was not turning into darkness and the moon into blood, but Peter’s message was about to be enough to make them feel as if that was exactly what was happening. The cosmic applecart was being upended, and nothing would ever be the same. (4)
What was the nature of this revolutionary event and its significance? In the aftermath of the cross and resurrection of Christ, the key to human knowledge was being poured out on all people:
What was new was that Peter persuaded the people to see that their act of mob violence had been perpetrated against a victim who did not deserve to suffer at their hands. A new miracle, greater than speaking in tongues, was making it possible for them to hear Peter tell them what had happened fifty days ago, to hear Peter deeply enough to be cut to the heart and ask what they should do. The Tower of Babel was being reversed in two ways: 1) by replacing the scattering that occurred when all languages were confused with a gift of understanding languages that gathered people back together, and 2) by people gathering with God rather than against God. The reversal of confounding languages communicated in plain words the truth that the confused languages had hidden: collective violence is ultimately directed at God. This revealing truth was delivered not in accusation but in the astounding spirit of forgiveness. (5)
After elaborating what Girard’s mimetic realism adds to this knowledge, Marr summarizes this new knowledge at the close of this chapter:
. . .for those of us who believe that the Bible attests to truth revealed by God, the centrality of Jesus’ death by collective violence and his Resurrection in the Gospel message suggests that understanding and repenting of our participation in persecutory violence is fundamental to the Christian life. The Christian view is grounded foremost in the reality of the victim as victim. I say this advisedly because if a victim acts out of rage and creates victims, then those victims move to the center where Jesus is and the victim-become-oppressor moves to the periphery where the stone throwers are. There are many books on epistemology, the philosophical discipline that explores how and if humans attain knowledge. The Gospels show us that the place of the victim is the fundamental locus for knowledge and the prerequisite for any other knowledge. Insofar as we persecute others, our minds are darkened. Insofar as we sympathize with the victim as victim and, if necessary, enter that place and suffer persecution ourselves, we have the beginning of the knowledge that opens our hearts to God. Moreover, the contrast between a group mechanism of scapegoating and a gathering of community based on forgiveness makes it clear that a sound Christian spirituality is not an individual matter but is a matter of relationships. Relationships with people are inextricably bound with relationship with God. We are not alone with God; we are together with God.
The scapegoating mechanism has much to say about human desire, but it conceals at least as much as it reveals. When everybody agrees to gang up on one vulnerable person or one vulnerable group, it seems that the group is united in and possessed by this one desire. And yet this unification of desire has been spawned by systemic conflict. In this conflict, did everybody have a different desire, or was there already a unified desire that could not be shared as handily as the desire to focus on a victim who is blamed for the discord? Girard suggests the latter. We will take a close look at how Girard understands shared desires that lead to conflict. More importantly, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost suggests that God is seeking to gather us in a shared desire that does not require a victim. This will be a gathering of peoples seeking to do away with victimization for the sake of God’s desire. (27)
3. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 75-76. In commenting on the Tower of Babel,
A story that explains the multitude of languages and diversity of human tribes and groups. Here again God is in rivalry with human beings as in Eden: he behaves like human beings. He prevents “megalopolis” pretensions by scattering people, creating barriers of language and understanding between groups. The tower of Babel is a story that recognizes that people are divided and work against each other. It seeks to explain how this came to be. The explanation is that God sees human beings establishing their own transcendence, and works forcefully against them. This seems unworthy on God’s part. Ultimately it demonstrates that the Biblical God is working against the pretensions of human tribes, nations and cities of being absolute to themselves. The Tower with “its top in the heavens” implies victory over the “other” whoever that might be. God sets out to undo this, but still, at this point, by means of violence.
Compare Acts 2.1-11 where the Spirit of Jesus poured out, enables each person to understand the apostles’ preaching “in their own language.”
Like “forgiving seventy times seven” this inverts the solutions of God in Genesis, while actually fulfilling their intention.
4. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden, p. 97. In chapter 5 on “Good Power and Bad Power,” bad power is defined in terms of dominating others for self gain. A section on good power begins including a reference to Pentecost:
Power cannot be inherently bad because in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke and Paul it is a name used for the Holy Spirit, who is described as dynamis, or power (Acts 10:38; Luke 1:35; 24:49; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:5). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. Then you will be my witnesses . . . to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Humans, once they contact their Inner Source, become living icons, not so much to a verbal message as to the Divine Image itself (see Isaiah 43:10). By any analysis, that is true, humble and confident power. It is the ultimate meaning of a well-grounded person.
Paul states the divine strategy well in Romans 8:16: “God’s Spirit and our spirit bear common witness that we are indeed children of God.” The goal is a shared knowing and a common power, and totally initiated and given from God’s side, as we see dramatized in the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13). Like the very conception in the womb of Mary, it is “done unto us” and all we can do is allow and enjoy and draw life from such a gift of power. One would be foolish to think it is one’s own creation.
To span the infinite gap between the Divine and the human, God’s agenda is to plant a little bit of God, the Holy Spirit, right inside of us! (Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 14:16ff.). This is the very meaning of the “new” covenant, and the replacing of our “hearts of stone with a heart of flesh” that Ezekiel promised (36:25-26). Isn’t that wonderful!
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 40, “The Spirit Is Moving! (Pentecost Sunday),” uses this passage as a primary text.
6. “Gathering” and “scattering” represent a theme highlighted by Gil Bailie throughout his lecture series on “The Gospel of Luke.” Inspired by his work, I preached my 1998 Pentecost sermon on this theme of “Gathering the Scattered Children of God.”
7. Along these lines, link to a listing of passages on “Gathering” and “Scattering” in Luke / Acts.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 1997 I preached on what it means to be a prophet, a sermon entitled “Where Everyone’s a Prophet . . . And Everyone Profits.” Peter’s sermon text from Joel speaks of the Spirit being poured out on everyone so that they can be prophets. This has provided a great temptation throughout Christian history to emphasize some sort of ecstatic experience as the meaning of prophethood. “Speaking in tongues” is held up as the model for being a spirit-filled prophet. But, when we read the gospels carefully, what is the NT re-interpretation of what a prophet is? Mimetic theory helps to make the NT interpretation of prophet clear: being a prophet means to take the perspective of the victim, if not to actually become a victim yourself. It is to speak to one’s community from the only standpoint which has the true power to unify, the position of the victim. With the scapegoating mechanism, the victim also provides the means of unifying, but only when the victim remains silent, and so it is a corruptible and false unity. Only when the voice of the prophet is heard from the position of the victim can the Holy Spirit work to build a true unity, a Holy Communion. Such prophecy manifests the Holy Spirit that was poured out on Pentecost when the potential victims, the disciples of Jesus, came out from hiding and preached to the people of the one whom they crucified but whom God raised.
What is the NT interpretation of “prophet”? Luke, who wrote this passage from Acts, is perhaps the clearest on this matter. I began the sermon with the rather dazzling picture of prophecy in this Pentecost passage, getting all of us excited about that, and then asking what is Luke’s overall picture of the prophet. I basically moved, then, into a short bible study on the Lukan picture of prophecy. It begins with his crucial introduction of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4; Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah about the pouring out of the Spirit to bring good news to victims; he follows it with a discussion of the prophet Elijah coming to the side of a poor widow during a time of famine and finishes with the remark that a prophet is never accepted in the prophet’s hometown. The response of the crowd is to instantly make a prophet out of Jesus (in Jesus’ own terms, not theirs) by unsuccessfully trying to make him a victim of their lynching.
The next crucial place is the sermon on the plain (6:20-26), where the beatitudes and woes might be seen to be a further commentary on the Luke 4 passage. In the latter, Isaiah 61 speaks of the prophet’s good news to the poor and other victims; these beatitudes of Luke 6 basically repeat this same good news to the same group of folks. And the climax of both the beatitudes and woes definitively lays out the role of the prophet: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets… Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23, 26). There is also the lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13:33-34): “‘Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Finally, there is that quintessential Girardian text (which Girard himself remarks on, for example, in Things Hidden, 166-67) among the woes to the Pharisees (Luke 11:47-51): “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.” It is this kind of re-interpretation of the very meaning of prophecy that I think Jesus performs with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27): “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
2. In his excellent commentary on Luke-Acts (The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Fortress Press), Robert C. Tannehill corroborates my reading of prophet. He essentially lays out much of the bible study on Luke’s understanding of prophet. In bringing his argument to a conclusion, Tannehill couples his findings on prophetic destiny with another important Lukan theme: the necessity of a suffering Messiah. Here is what he has to say:
A reminder of the previous discussion of Luke 24:26 (“Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things?”) may suggest why it would seem natural to include Jesus’ death in God’s “fixed purpose and foreknowledge” [Acts 2:23]. His death was no surprise to God, nor should it be to those who meditate on the pattern of prophetic destiny that the narrator finds in Scripture and recent history. The destiny of God’s prophets includes suffering and rejection, for they must speak God’s word to a blind and resistant world and must bear the brunt of this resistance. (p. 37)
I thought it interesting that a biblical scholar would reach a Girardian conclusion independently of a Girardian reading. Yet he falls short of full Girardian insight. He sees that the NT, Luke in particular, interprets prophetic destiny in terms of suffering and rejection. And he makes the connection with divine “purpose and foreknowledge.” But he doesn’t come to see the reason why; he doesn’t come to see the anthropological necessity. The closest Tannehill comes to a reason for persecution of the prophets is: “for they must speak God’s word to a blind and resistant world.” The latter is true enough, but mimetic theory helps the prophet to also understand why the world is blind and resistant. Mimetic theory helps us to understand what it is that generates such blindness and resistance. Moreover, it helps us to understand the necessity of rejecting and causing the prophets to suffer, in the first place, which derives from an anthropological necessity due to our fallenness under the powers of the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. The “world” is resistant to God’s word, causing suffering to those who speak it, precisely because God’s word means to reveal to us our anthropological need to have someone suffer and be rejected. The crucifixion of the prophet Jesus, and God’s subsequent raising him from the dead, reveals these powers for all to see, making a prophet out of anyone who catches the Spirit of that revelation.
3. In teaching the Spring Term 2000 of the intro religion class at Carthage College, I heard from the students often, in one form or another, the question, “Do you have to go to church to be religious?” Many of them wanted to answer “No” to that question in order to justify themselves.
In response I tried to get them to seriously engage Emile Durkheim‘s answer, writing early in the 20th century (1912). Defining religion in the opening chapter of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life [a recent translation by Karen E. Fields, The Free Press, 1995], he said that “the idea of religion is inseparable from the idea of a Church; it conveys the notion that religion must be an eminently collective thing.” (Link to an excerpt of the last five pages of chapter 1.) But he rather prophetically goes on to notice a new trend:
What remains are the present-day aspirations toward a religion that would consist entirely of interior and subjective states and be freely constructed by each one of us… It is possible that this religious individualism is destined to become fact; but to be able to say in what measure, we must first know what religion is. . . . (p. 44)
At the beginning of the 21st century, what has happened to religion in modern society? Has it gone decidedly away from many millennia of human religious traditions and now become ‘an eminently individual thing,’ rather than “collective”? Is this a good trend?
My Carthage College students would seem to be evidence that the trend Durkheim prophetically pointed to has taken hold. I tried to challenge them with what might be at stake with the social/community aspect of religion. Durkheim helps us to see that all religions prior to our time have emphasized the social/community aspect.
While Durkheim’s work is prophetically descriptive, Girard’s work is generative. It suggests to us how these things come about. I think that mimetic scapegoating theory can help us find an explanation to both elements of this issue, why religion has previously been social and why it has recently become more individual.
The origins of religion are rooted in the need to not have community collapse under the chaos of escalating mimetic violence. Religion was born to save human communities from disintegrating. The scapegoating mechanism which underlies all religion and culture substitutes lower doses of sacred violence in the face of the threat of all-consuming profane violence.
Yet the religious use of violence is still violence. In former ages religion has been reasonably successful in veiling its violence qua violence. Sacred rituals of sacrificial violence were seen as simply that, i.e., sacred rituals of sacrificial violence. They were not perceived as violence in the fashion that we now do today. So why the change? Why has the sacredness of this violence been unveiled such that we simply see it now as violence? That’s what this evangelical anthropology is all about … to help us understand this vital question. The Cross of Christ, beginning with the tearing of the Temple curtain at the moment of death, has let loose its unveiling power. And the Paraclete (see the gospel reflections below) has continued the work of this unveiling over the next two millennia to the point that the average person now clearly sees and experiences the violent aspect of religion as violence.
With the violence unveiled, what alternative does the modern person have to find peace in community? They turn inward, trying desperately to settle for an internal, individual peace.
The question I continued to pose to my students, though, is: can we ever ultimately attain peace if it is only an inward, individual peace? In fact, doesn’t social/community peace end up being essential to one’s inner peace? That’s what’s at stake in going to church, peace. We can’t have it without finding how to live with one another in love. I believe that, at the same time that mimetic scapegoating theory (a latter-day work of the Paraclete) helps to continue the Cross’s work of unveiling religious violence, it can also help to resharpen for us the gospel’s alternative that took hold in this world on Pentecost.
4. Another possibility is to explore the image of fire for Pentecost. The most common religious significance of fire has been the sacrificial fires of sacred violence in its plenitude of forms. Is the image of hell fire the standard bearer for all these forms? I explored this question in a sermon entitled “Fire of Love.”
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
1. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 147ff. Chapter 7, borrows 1 Cor. 12:3b for its title: “On Learning to Say ‘Jesus Is Lord’: A ‘Girardian’ Confession.” It begins by quoting the first three verses of 1 Cor. 12. Here is the opening section, entitled “The Tale of Two Spirits”:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:1-3)
The whole of what I want to say is in this passage. Many of us are used to a cheap reading of these words. All we need to do is avoid saying “Jesus is cursed,” which it wouldn’t occur to most of us to want to say anyhow, and instead to say, or to sing, repetitively and maybe obsessively, “Jesus is Lord.” This would be a way of proving to ourselves that we have the Holy Spirit, and are on the right side. Now of course, this is nonsense. The devil can quote scripture, and Paul is proposing for us something much more dense than a merely verbal test of our orthodoxy. This passage suggests that there are two forms of cultural life at work. In one of these, people are moved by spirits which incline us to dumb idols, and which issue forth in someone being cursed. This is the cultural world in which social belonging and religion lead people to maintain their group unity by fixing on someone or some group who can be thrown out, anathematized, cursed. The semi-conscious group dynamic of ganging up against one — the “however you may have been moved,” with Paul’s implication that there are evil spirits at work here — leads to a sense of unity. And the unity needs “the cursed one” to be able to maintain itself.
Paul is suggesting that there are some people who have been trapped into understanding Christ’s death and resurrection from within the cultural mentality, making of Jesus the “cursed one” which the group needs to maintain its unity and its sense of goodness.
The other form of cultural life, which moves beyond being trapped, knows that no form of social and cultic belonging can survive the perception that our victim was in fact God himself, present in Jesus.
When our expulsion of him was revealed for what it was, at the resurrection, far from our being given a superior crutch by which to keep our world of moral and social order intact, what we received turned out to be the explosion of our cultural order, a major question mark over any of our attempts to shore up social unity, and the beginning of an entirely new way of human being-together, gradually constructed without the need for a sacrificial victim.
Now it would be easy enough to demonstrate that for far too long, Christianity in both its Protestant and Catholic “orthodoxies” has relied on an explanation of salvation which did in fact fall straight back into saying, with many a polite circumlocution: “Jesus is cursed.” All the bastardized Anselmian substitution theories which tend to underlie seemingly attractive presentations of the Christian faith in fact turn on God cursing Jesus so that we can be “saved.” Jesus as cursed comes to be the necessary bit of the formula which allows the sleight of hand by which salvation is proclaimed without having any difference to the social and moral enclosure within which we live. Cursed Jesus is simply the guarantor of an independent and pre-understood definition of good and evil into which we are required to fit as best we may.
I mention this en passant, rather than trying to argue with it. It is one of those things which cannot really be argued against. For those who hold it, it has a dangerously sacred status. For those who have moved beyond it, it needs no arguing against.
What I am interested in is something different. I am interested in sharing with you what I hope you agree to call an experience of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit which allows the words “Jesus is Lord” to become not a slogan, but a gasp at the three-dimensional wonder of Yahweh in our midst as one of us, with all the mystery of the Lord’s vulnerable revelatory power intact. (pp. 147-149)
The lectionary’s choice of beginning at verse 3b is rather strange, leaving out the other spirits that make the Holy Spirit holy, set apart. As Alison puts it, the New Testament gives us an anthropological understanding of two spirits that gather us into community in opposite ways, the holy one a subversion of the sinful one. The conventional spirit behind human culture is one that causes us to curse someone. Jesus becomes the cursed one of human culture, and the Holy Spirit leads us to change our tune from cursing to praising. It’s not an easy transformation, as a close reading of Paul’s words should indicate: one can only come to say “Jesus is Lord!” by the Holy Spirit.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 216. The climax of this argument is the notion of a reciprocal bestowal of love between the Father and Son such that it is constitutive of another person, the Holy Spirit, whose mission is “to unite people with Christ and with one another” — which is the point at which Schwager cites 1 Cor. 12:4-13 and John 7:37-39 as illustrative. Here is the larger context for that citation:
Thanks to the clear perception of several distinctions within God himself, the question about the one origin (unica spiratio) of the Holy Spirit from the reciprocal love between Father and Son can be more easily approached. Since what the Son gives back to the Father is distinct from the principle by which he is a person, he can distinguish his love from himself and let go of it. It is not identical with him in an undifferentiated way; it is in fact not even the fruit of his own person alone, for it is attracted by the other side, by the generous goodness of the Father. The Father too distinguishes his love for the Son from the principle by which he generates and constitutes him. He too, then, can let go of his love as his own. Here again, it is not merely the fruit of his own working, for it is related to the Son, insofar as he is already constituted and it is attracted by his thankfulness. The reciprocal love is therefore not put together from the Father’s own love and the Son’s own love, but both let go of their love as their own, so that it becomes one common love. The Father loves the Son on account of his thankfulness, but the Son is thankful because he sees the love of the Father. Thus the Holy Spirit is the free-moving love itself. (1) The reciprocal love between Father and Son can therefore be freely active and become its own person, because both let go of it as their own. In the history of salvation, something common and moving freely between Father and Son is seen first of all in the message of the kingdom of God at hand. Jesus announces it entirely as the kingdom of his Father and at the same time speaks completely in his own name (“Amen, I say to you”). The word of proclamation belongs entirely to both and at the same time is detached from both: “Everything is given over to me by my Father; no one knows the Father, only the Son and that one to whom the Son wants to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). This word, which arises completely from the reciprocity of the Father and Son and speaks of it, originates from within their intimacy and is addressed to other, human hearers. The word of proclamation shows itself thus as the first figure in salvation history by which reciprocal love (Holy Spirit) becomes manifest.
Full reciprocity and commonality is revealed even more clearly in the last three acts of the drama. The Son gives himself to the Father in dying, the latter answers in the resurrection, and both together send out the Spirit. Thus the three different forms of bestowal are already repeated within each act, even if in a differing way. The Son can only entrust himself completely in dying because he is already gripped in his depths by the God who is not a God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:26ff. and parallels). It is precisely in the act of surrender to the Father, which includes the Father’s communication to him, that the Spirit springs up for humankind (“streams of living water” [John 7:37-39; 19:34-37]). Even the resurrection is not a one-sided deed of the Father, for by it he answers the Son who “with loud cries and tears offered up prayers and supplications to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The immediate common fruit of the request on the part of his Son become man and of the heeding of the heavenly Father is the pneumatic body of the risen one as “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:44ff.), which is communicated to humankind (Acts 1:2; 2:33).
The model of reciprocal bestowal proves, then, well suited to bringing out the innermost dimensions of the dramatic salvation event. At the same time it becomes clear how reciprocal love flows into such an event of release that we can no longer speak of two acts in opposing directions, from Father to Son and from Son to Father. Each one lets go of his love as his own in favor of the other, so that this love can be constituted as the one common love and can become a person.
Because the Son himself is, at one and the same time, receiving and actively letting go and because the Holy Spirit is pure letting go, the Father is able to communicate himself through them to creatures without the distinction between creator and creature being abolished. Communication takes place at the level of these persons and their free existence and not at the level of the one essential being. Since, further, the Holy Spirit according to his entire personal character is reciprocal love, letting go of itself, it is to him that the mission in salvation history falls: to unite people with Christ and with one another. This throws light on the statement that he creates the one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:4-13). His particular nature makes it also comprehensible that Christ can live as the most inner being in the faithful: “I have been crucified with Christ; no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19ff.).
We next ask, in whom does the Spirit work? Here there arises a problem which can show up again the consequences of the two complementary trinitarian models. If one thinks in a linear way from the viewpoint of the procession and mission model, then it is natural to suppose that the Holy Spirit only unites those people with Christ who have already heard of the crucified and risen one and believe in him (for the Son precedes the Father). That axiom with such difficult consequences, “outside the church no salvation,” seems to go together with this view. In distinction to this, we have seen that one must speak of Christ already on the cross identifying with all humans. This is essentially brought about by the Spirit. (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 214-216.)
You might also check the context of the section “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity” (pp. 209-217).
3. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace, p. 154-56, 304. Marr twice elaborates on the Pauline metaphor of the Body of Christ, once in Chapter 6 on “The Body of Christ,” and then a brief summary in the “Glossary of Terms”:
Body of Christ. Image for the Church used by St. Paul. (1 Cor. 12:12-31) Suggests unity-in-diversity among the members. Also suggests a collective participation in Christ. (304)
The 1 Corinthians version of this metaphor is commented on near the middle of the chapter. I share a paragraph from near the end, which reflects on the significance of this image for the modern individualism:
Modern western notions of individualism that began to escalate in the seventeenth century are the results of this weakening of bonds that Dumouchel writes about. As we shall see later, an emerging sense of individual responsibility can be traced back to the Gospel as it seeks to wean us from the persecutory crowd. The conversion of Paul is a prime example of this. Unfortunately, the escalating individualism of modern times has largely lost its roots in the relationship with Christ, with each of us being parts of Christ’s body. Paul Nuechterlein posted a brief note on his website about aspen trees. They look like a forest of individual trees, but it turns out that they all share one network of roots. This is quite a powerful image of what it means to be rooted in Christ. This escalated individualism skews many ethical issues, especially those of social dimensions. One of the reasons the Gospel’s demand for social solidarity seems so onerous is that we tend to hear it through the filter of “the contract of indifference.” That is, we think the entire burden falls on each of us individually. We forget that we are invited into a family, a family that is the Body of Christ. We do not each have to take responsibility for others on our own little lonesome. That would be rugged individualism all over again. Instead, we are encouraged to take responsibility for others as members of a Body. Jesus reaches out to everyone through each and every one of us. Our personal responsibilities are collective responsibilities. (160-61)
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 179-180, as part of the section “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” pp. 174-182.
1. v. 23: an tinōn aphēte tas hamartias apheōntai autois, an tinōn kratēte kekratēntai. The NRSV translates, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But N.T. scholar Sandra Schneiders (Jesus Risen in Our Midst) translates it quite differently, “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they are forgiven to them; whomever you hold are held fast” — stressing that it is not about “retaining sins.” There are two essays on forgiveness of sins in Schneiders’ excellent book; I recommend reading them in interpreting this verse.
The closest parallels to this verse are in Matthew’s Gospel: the so-called “keys to the kingdom” in Matthew 16:19, where Jesus tells Matthew, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And then in a chapter on forgiveness (Matt. 18), where Jesus tells Peter to forgive a virtually unlimited amount (“seventy times seven”) and then tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus repeats in Matthew 18:18 what he had earlier told Peter, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The overall context of Matthew’s considerable teaching on forgiveness should be seen as distinct from this Easter-evening commissioning scene in John’s Gospel.
Gail O’Day, in her Johannine commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible (vol. 8), makes the point about the Johannine context being different from the parallels in Matthew, and goes on to insightfully explain the Johannine context:
It is critical in the interpretation of v. 23, therefore, that this verse be heard in its Johannine context and not be read anachronistically through the lens of the Reformation. First, Jesus’ words in v. 23 are addressed to the entire faith community, not to its apostolic leaders. Any discussion of this verse, therefore, must be grounded in an understanding of forgiveness of sins as the work of the entire community. Second, the community’s enactment of Jesus’ words in v. 23 depends on both Jesus’ words of sending in v. 21 and the gift of the Holy Spirit in v. 22. The forgiveness of sins . must be understood as the Spirit-empowered mission of continuing Jesus’ work in the world. Third, although vocabulary of forgiveness and retaining is foreign to John, “sin” (ἁμαρτία hamartia) is not. Because the community’s work is an extension of Jesus’ work, v. 23 must be interpreted in terms of Jesus’ teaching and actions about sin. The crucial texts in this regard are 3:19-21; 8:21-24; 9:39-41; and 15:22-24. In John, sin is a theological failing, not a moral or behavioral transgression (in contrast to Matt 18:18). To have sin is to be blind to the revelation of God in Jesus (see Reflections on John 9). Jesus brings people to judgment by his revealing work and presence in the world.
In v. 23, then, Jesus commissions the community to continue the work of making God in Jesus known in the world and thereby to bring the world to the moment of decision and judgment with regard to sin (cf. 15:22-24). The description of the Paraclete’s activity in 16:8-9 supports this reading of 20:23, because the Paraclete is to “prove the world wrong about sin . . . because they do not believe in me.” When the believing community receives the Spirit in v. 22, they are empowered to carry out this work of the Paraclete. Jesus’ words in v. 23 are a more specific form of his words in v. 21: The community is to continue what God sent Jesus to do. (p. 847)
James Alison also has a take on v. 23 in the context of John’s Gospel as a proclamation of New Creation, of God in Jesus’ death and resurrection opening up to us the proper work of the Father. Creation has been bound up by sin, and the work of the Father is a continuing opening up of that which is bound. Jesus speaks of doing the Father’s work when healing in John 5 and 9. He promises the disciples in John 14 that they will do greater work than he. In John 20 he commissions them for that work, with the language of “forgive” and “retain” being about opening up in creation that which is bound by sin. For more on this, see Alison’s 2020 Pentecost homily (on YouTube and further cited below).
2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace, p. 121:
Aren’t we told that those we loose on earth are loosed in Heaven and those who are bound on earth are bound in Heaven? (Mt. 16:19; Jn. 20:23) Sounds like we have the power to bind other people for all eternity, and God’s hands are tied for as long as we want them to be. How much power is that? Not so fast. Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed, even encouraged to bind on earth? Why are we slower to see that maybe we are being encouraged to loose on earth? Let’s return to Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive and Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit which is what seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth. We are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us.) If we remain bound to our resentments, we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound with others by forgiveness.
3. James Alison, a video homily for Pentecost A; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. In this homily Alison begins with the Acts 2 passage linking its imagery (such as the “violent wind”) to Isa. 59 and then Gen. 11, the Tower of Babel. But he also comments on this John 20 passage as a commissioning — that we are the ones sent out to open up creation in new ways.
5. 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 2020, “The Holy Spirit as a Divine Person Who Inspires and Fosters Love.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The theme of much of James Alison‘s work, as it locates its beginning point in the Resurrection experience of the apostles, is that Jesus came to them as a presence of forgiveness. When Jesus appears in these twelve verses and three times says, “Peace be with you,” I think we must understand something deeper than calming their fears and anxieties. John names their fear at the outset as fear of their leaders and what they might presumably do to them. Then, with Jesus’ sudden appearance, there is apparently some further hesitation and fear that is somewhat calmed by Jesus showing them his marks of identity as their Crucified Lord. At that point, they “rejoice,” but then why does Jesus insist on saying again, “Peace be with you”? Isn’t it because what they really need the most at that moment is forgiveness? Isn’t the kind of peace they need the one set in motion by forgiveness?
The ensuing Pentecostal commissioning would seem to support this. As the Father has sent Jesus with the presence of forgiveness, so now Jesus sends them, with the power of the Holy Spirit: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
2. What is retaining sins about? Is this an ironic portion of the commissioning that Jesus throws in to make clear their mission is to not be as the unforgiving servant was in the parable of Matthew 18? How could they retain the sins of any after experiencing themselves this utterly gracious presence of Jesus among them as forgiveness? Had they done anything to deserve Jesus’ forgiving presence with them at that moment? Had Jesus himself shown any hint of retaining their sin?
I made ample use of this John 20 passage in my Epiphany 5C sermon (entitled “A Bad Hire?“) on the first calling of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. The theme I tried to bring out was that Jesus needed to call his disciples a second time. The first call didn’t stick. They all abandoned him at his time of need. So I used these verses from John 20 as an example of calling the disciples a second time. And I made a big deal out of the fact of Jesus calling them again after they had utterly failed. Why would he do that? Is this the case of a bad hire? Or is their failure, along with Jesus’ forgiveness of it, precisely their main qualification for being hired as apostles? Here’s the last several paragraphs of that sermon:
Here’s that second calling of the disciples, and it’s absolutely amazing! His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling “guilty as sin,” and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! And, some time later, when Jesus goes out to hire the person he wants to take this message of forgiveness to the ends of the earth, he hires Saul, one who is guilty of killing some of Jesus’ first messengers. Is Jesus crazy? No, of course not. He’s the Son of God, and so he definitely does things differently from what we would do. To spread a message of forgiveness, he hires not those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He hires those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.
You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are [Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong], with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognizing our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven.
Our Risen Lord comes to us today once again in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. He comes to say to us, “Peace be with you.” Not only that, he comes to call us. He comes to hire us to help spread the news. He comes to ask us to extend this word of healing, life-giving forgiveness to others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Oh, yes, there’s also this second part about, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But after you yourself have had your sins forgiven, could you really retain the sins of another? You see? Jesus has hired the right people, after all. Amen
3. Walter Wangerin, Jr.‘s version of this story in The Book of God lends itself well to a sermon about peace. What kind of peace do we usually think of when we read that Jesus suddenly came into their midst saying, “Peace be with you”? Peace from the inner turmoil of grief and guilt? Wangerin’s story sets the stage with Peter and James arguing, ready to come to physical blows, blaming each other. As James is ready to lunge at Peter, Jesus suddenly is between them speaking his word of peace. A much more dramatic version of “peace,” don’t you think? Link to a sermon making use of Wangerin’s telling of this story entitled “Called as Peacemakers.”
1. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, PreachingPeace.com. It is always worthwhile to check this site for another reading of the text in light of mimetic theory. This week, Pentecost A, there are excellent thoughts about the cross of Christ, his death, as the point of in-spiration for the Holy Spirit — and of the constant failings by Christians to turn it into something else, most often the point of in-spiration for the Satanic impulse to justify scapegoating. Hardin concludes the “Anthropological Reading”:
René Girard has carefully shown that so-called Christian culture follows this false spirit; this spirit that demands victims and requires sacrifice. And Girard has rightly argued that this spirit will end up consuming us all in an apocalyptic frenzy of uncontrolled human retaliation. Who is to say how close we are to this event? But if we do not change, if we do not preach the News that is Good, the Gospel, we hasten our own demise and death will always be feared. For the Johannine author, not only the resurrection but also the cross manifests the power of the Spirit, the inspiration of God. It is not simply how one lives, but how one dies; our final word echoes all the language of our lifetime. How shall we then live? How shall we then die? Whose spirit are we filled with, by whom are we in-spired? Does our blood, our life, like Jesus’, speak a “better word than that of Abel?”
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 19, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Living Water!“; a sermon in 2017, “The Last and Most Important Day of the Festival.”
1. My 1999 sermon, “Spiritual Health Food,” was primarily a reflection on the Acts Pentecost story about the apostles being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” We read, but I didn’t really use, John 20:19-23. In retrospect, this sermon theme fits well with the John 7 gospel option about quenching our thirst. It could be reshaped with that in mind.
Note from Schwager excerpt:
1. “Its substance can be stated quite simply: the Holy Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son. Notice that it is not said that the Holy Spirit is the result or term of this mutual love. He is the love itself” (Coffee , 471).