Last revised: July 31, 2015
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5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR B
RCL: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
RoCa: Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, ch. 3, “The Ceremony of Innocence Is Drowned.” In one of my favorite chapters of Gil’s book, he leads off with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and then uses it to set-up the discussion to follow, referring to the contemporary Christian as “the modern heir to Philip’s task”:
He will more likely encounter a modern commuter returning home reading a newspaper and being confounded by the stories of fierce ethnic violence in foreign lands, or savage and sometimes gratuitous violence in urban America. If Philip’s modern counterpart is to offer bewildered moderns what Philip offered the Ethiopian, he will have to bring the specifically Christian revelation to bear on these sources of contemporary bewilderment. (pp. 46-47)
The preacher might also attempt such clarifying ministry with his or her congregation.
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio lecture series, tape #10. Link to my (partial) notes/transcription of the lecture on John’s Farewell Discourse.
Reflections and Questions
1. The Ethiopian eunuch may have originally gotten interested in the text of Isaiah from Isaiah 56:3-5:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
This links, through the term “cut off,” to the suffering servant song, Isaiah 53:8: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” A eunuch, without the possibility of offspring, and marginalized for his abnormal sexuality, knows the experience of being cut off. He can even be cut off from the congregation of God’s people per the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” The adventurous preacher might even draw a contemporary parallel to the gay/lesbian persons among us, who we tend to want to cut off from our assemblies.
2. Acts 8:36 — “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?'” — provides a good opportunity to talk about baptism. I’m thinking especially in terms of the all inclusiveness of God’s family. The Isaiah 56:5 text promises a family even to the eunuch. Through baptism, this eunuch is able to experience the grace of being part of God’s family. In fact, this is a household that begins precisely with the “stone rejected.” It is a family gathered around the paschal victim. Link to a sermon “Water Is Thicker than Blood” (a 1994 sermon that came two years into my having discovered Girard but pre-dates any of the Bailie or Alison resources on this page). (Based on a sermon by William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 22, No. 2 (April – June 1994), pages 19-21, adapted from Peculiar Speech; also, The Christian Century, April 10, 1991.)
3. In 2006 my sermon “Even Eunuchs — A Mother’s Day Reflection on Family” weaves together insights from N. T. Wright, Sarah Dylan Breuer, and Miroslav Volf.
1 John 4:7-21
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 44-48, “The Second Step: The Revelation of God as Love” (excerpt). The resurrection confronted the apostles with the task of renewing their understanding of God. The first step was a God pruned of violence. The second step was the revelation of God as love, which is what the cited pages are about (1 John 4 quoted on p. 46), a section very much worth reading in preparation to preaching on this text.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” Contagion, Spring 1997, pp. 120-145. Bailie suggests that there are “two facts that define our moment in history.” First, “the withering of the form of subjectivity” [of the Enlightenment self]. He also uses terms like the thinning of the ontological self (an image he borrows from Henri de Lubac and Gabriel Marcel, which has been a staple of Gil’s over the past several years). Our modern Rousseauesque individualism has led to a situation of mimetic rivalry that levels everyone out to a wide horizon of shallow selves. Second, the rise of collective violence. These two facts are manifest in John 15:6: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Our true depth, or “ontological density,” as individuals comes not from Enlightenment individualism but from being joined to Christ, the branch who connects us with the source of life. Enlightenment individualism has instead given us the manifestation of John 15:6: cut off from Christ the branch, our selves wither, with the end result of a conflagration of violence. Bailie’s most poignant example comes through the writings of 20th century American poet Sylvia Plath, who eventually resorted to suicide. But there are many ways to develop this theme through examples of contemporary nihilism.
2. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 41, “Moving with the Spirit.” McLaren weaves together three images of walking in, abiding in, and being fired by the Spirit:
If you want to gain practice walking in the Spirit or abiding in Christ or tending the inner flame, you can start when you wake up tomorrow morning. Before your feet hit the floor, open your heart to the Spirit. Ask God to help you walk in the Spirit, step by step through the day. Ask God to help you abide in the Vine so good fruit will naturally develop in your life. Ask God to keep the fire burning within you. Just starting the day this way will make a difference
As you build that habit of yielding yourself to the Spirit morning by morning, you can build the habit of checking in with the Spirit hour by hour throughout the day. At each mealtime, you can offer a prayer of thanksgiving and you can reconnect with the Spirit. As you travel from place to place, as you wait for someone, whenever you have a free moment, you can offer yourself to God: Here I am, Lord. Please move in and through me to bless others. Whenever an emergency or challenge arises, you can lean on the Spirit: Give me wisdom, Spirit of God. Give me strength. Give me patience. When you sense that youve let something other than Gods Spirit fill you and direct you anger, fear, prejudice, lust, greed, anxiety, pride, inferiority, or rivalry, for example you can stop, acknowledge your misstep, and resurrender to the Spirit. Its like breathing exhaling an acknowledgment of your misstep and inhaling forgiveness and strength to start walking in the Spirit again. (pp. 242-43)
3. 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,” made these reflections on this passage in 2015, “Possessed by God.”
Reflections and Questions
1. One crucial question: who does the throwing into the apocalyptic fire? Girardian anthropology encourages us to always see the responsibility for violence as human. But isn’t our usual habit of thinking to assume that it’s God who does the throwing into the fire? Let’s be clear. Jesus does not say who does the throwing into the fire. We may have the habit of assuming God, but the text doesn’t say that. It doesn’t even imply it, does it? We can just as easily assume with Bailie that the one cut off from Jesus is susceptible to the apocalyptic fires of human violence.
The scene of being thrown into the fire brings to mind the most common picture of the Lord’s wrath on the Day of Judgment. Girardians argue that the NT is moving toward a version of wrath in which God painfully lets us suffer the consequences of our own sin (cf., the Alison passage cited above; he discusses the transformation of the notion of God’s wrath in discussing God as Love). Example: Romans 1, where idolators are “handed over” (the same word Jesus uses about himself in the synoptics) to the consequences of their actions (for more on this see “My Core Convictions, Part II“). John’s gospel also moves us toward the idea of being judged by virtue of our judging Jesus. It’s not God who actively judges us as much as we judge ourselves by judging Jesus (John 9, especially).
2. The theme of abiding in Jesus is a positive option for preaching. A word study on John’s use of “abide” (Gr meno) attests to its being a favorite term of the evangelist. Abiding in Christ is the way in which we truly can become ourselves. It’s the way in which we find “ontological density,” as Bailie speaks about above.
3. In 2012 the sermon began with the Girardian take on fiery apocalyptic passages above, reinterpreting the traditional view of hell as the urgency to avoid following our leaders into conflagrations (wars). It also views pruning as separate from the throwing branches into the fire — as the positive activity of pruning the resentment out of our lives that leads us into being combustible people who are inclined to conflagrations. What causes resentment? These days our consumerist culture acts as a billows that fans the flames. The final element of the sermon is to go beyond the Vine-Branch imagery to see that Jesus himself, lifted up on the cross, lets himself be disconnected from God. He lets himself be counted among the lowly of history who are so often kindle for the fires. He rescues the lowly to instead be connected to the vine as he himself is rescued on Easter morning. The 2012 sermon is titled “The Urgency of Being Connected.”
4. The first lesson connects with this one through the Isaiah 56:3-5 passages about eunuchs. The latter uses the image of being cut off and being a dried up tree, the same images as John 15:1-8. The first lesson could also provide the link to baptism, which is the sacramental gift of being grafted to the branch of life.