Last revised: April 29, 2021
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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
Opening Comments: Redeeming the Christian Religion
In 2021, one of the many scandals of GOP politics is to scapegoat transgender people to rile up the base. Republican-majority state legislatures are pushing another round of laws to hinder transgender rights. A few years ago it was bathroom laws. This time around it is laws to hinder both participation in public school sports and paying for medical procedures that benefit the health of transgender people.
A eunuch is a transgender person in an ancient context — quite different than today’s context in many respects, but bearing some similarities in terms of discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Today’s First Reading from Acts 8 glimpses the way in which religion itself is being redeemed from oppression of those perceived as outsiders like eunuchs, such that the professed Christianity behind GOP politics of hindering transgender rights is exposed as a fraudulent expression of those who bear Christ’s name. Mimetic Theory helps us to understand how human religions begin as the basis for cultures of sacred violence structured around the scapegoating of those deemed to be Other. The Judeo-Christian scriptures give us the narrative of how the true God is taking that sinful beginning, exposing it, and offering us instead the possibility of a religion redeemed to fulfill its role of helping all God’s children to flourish.
In the case of the eunuch of Acts 8, the cultural religion of sacred violence is reflected in the texts of the Torah that make transgender people outsiders to the cult (e.g., Deut 23:1). But this eunuch has discovered the prophetic texts of the later Isaian tradition which turn the suffering of such scapegoated peoples into the promise of flourishing. Philip has come upon the eunuch reading the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. The eunuch was undoubtedly also well aware of the text a few verses later:
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. (Isa 56:3-5)
From the Suffering Servant to the flourishing of our usual scapegoats: that’s the promise of those who become connected to the life of Jesus the Messiah.
There is also an apocalyptic note in the day’s Gospel Reading which, if read in light of Mimetic Theory, can help us to understand why significant portions of our populace are willing to follow someone like Trump into agendas of oppression. Jesus says, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). The crucial element to reading this verse is to imagine who gathers up the withered branches and throws them on the fire. The Christian-religion-in-need-of-redeeming sees God as perpetrator of such a sacred fire; God gathers up the wicked and throws them into the fires of hell. Mimetic Theory, on the other hand, imagines God as a vine which gives life, while seeing human keepers of the sacrificial fires as the ones who gather up those withered branches cut-off from the vine.
Rather than imagining a god who casts evil-doers into hell fire, let’s call to mind something like the January 6 insurrection as an example of an event of human sacrificial violence. Donald Trump is a skilled stoker of sacrificial fires who gathers those cut-off from the true life-giver into events of sacrificial violence. He has no standard political agenda on issues that actually enhance people’s lives and help them to flourish. His entire schtick is to identify supposed enemies for a base of white folks who see themselves as victims and crave the perpetual sacrificial conflicts of Us vs. Them. He is a Great High Priest of old-time sacrificial religion. Those who choose to follow him find themselves cut-off from the Suffering Servant who lets himself be treated as an identified Them, and thus they are also cut-off from the true God of life and unity. Consequently, the withered branches of those who follow someone like Donald Trump find themselves gathered up in events of sacrificial violence, like the January 6 insurrection. They falsely believe that their freedom comes from a distorted American individualism that views being connected to anything, even sources of life and flourishing, as against their freedom. They resist things like wearing masks, social distancing, and getting vaccinated during a killer pandemic — another manifestation of their being cut-off and withering. Like their sacrificer-in-chief, their only agenda becomes identifying enemies and working against them — hence, things like focusing on taking away the rights of transgender people. Tragically, they see it as the way to their flourishing, when it is actually the way to withering and being gathered up into events of sacrificial violence.
Jesus was sent into the world to reveal the Way of flourishing and bearing fruit, through being connected to the source of life and unity. Who are the eunuchs and Philips of our day to help lead us into the Way of abundant life?
1. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, p. 104. This passage serves as a transition from the end of a chapter on a reading of the Hebrew Scriptures from the perspective of Mimetic Theory to a chapter on the Christian Scriptures. In short, it serves a similar function as the following essay by Dizdar, as an illustration of how the Scriptures shed light on one another. Before using Philip and the eunuch as the closing transition to chapter 3 (“The Voice of Job”), then, the paragraphs preceding it provide a crucial summary of the importance of the Hebrew scriptures to Christian theology; they are worth quoting:
Critics of Christianity attack the “violent God of the Old Testament” as the sociopathic cousin in an extended family of much better adjusted deities. But the offense of the Bible might be put the other way around. It suggests that the better-adjusted deities are (literally) a myth. Take the crudest form in which the biblical God appears — a vengeful divine warrior crushing enemies, a deity who delights in blood as the cost and sign of commitment and reconciliation. This is the place to start because this is what the gods of the traditional sacred are. And they are no less powerful where people have stopped going to the religious temple or altar.
The God described in the Bible appears in a variety of characterizations. The God represented in the passage about collective stoning in Leviticus looks different from the God presented in Amos or Isaiah, for instance. Such diversity is a cue for valuable critical-historical investigation. That investigation can lead to a strategy of interpretation in which some textual traditions are preferred over others or earlier, more “primitive” ideas of God may be disregarded in favor of what are taken to be later, more sophisticated ones. If applied narrowly, this approach would suggest that there is no truth revealed in the earlier or the contrasting pictures of God that would be lost when we pass on to later, preferred ones. And this leads us to wonder why the historically or theologically less valued elements should have a place in scripture at all. But at least in some cases this variety embodied in the biblical narrative may be a crucial part of the truth that it has to impart. According to the picture we have been building, certain characterizations of sacrificial violence and God’s relation are a crucial part of the whole narrative. They reveal something very important, something not duplicated elsewhere, and something of continuing relevance. They are a necessary part of our understanding, even while they are not themselves a sufficient model for our behavior.
Why, then, doesn’t the Bible just describe these things as the nature of other gods and religions, and make it clear that this does not apply to the true God, the biblical God, our God, who is always untouched by them? Then we could have the benefit of the analysis of such practices without any suggestion that they belong to our own faith. But such externalization would dramatically amplify the dangers of triumphalism that have been real enough as it is. Instead, the Bible’s presentation makes it uncomfortably clear that this description does apply to our God and our religion, since they can easily be entangled in just the same sacrificial dynamic and have been. The scapegoat critique in the biblical tradition emerges as a critique of that tradition. This is the weight of the prophetic voices, who reminded Israel that despite the calling of the new and true God they steadily fell away into the old ways, doing so even in the name of God. The way the story is told to us who belong to it forbids that we should suppose we are exempt from the danger it discovers.
What is violence doing in the Bible? It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community. It is showing us the religious dynamic of scapegoating sacrifice that arises to allay such crisis. It is letting us hear the voices of the persecuted victims and their pleas for revenge and vindication. It is showing God’s judgment (even violent judgment) against violence, and most particularly, God’s siding with the outcast victims of scapegoating persecution. The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims. This landscape is either the product of an idiosyncratic, bloodthirsty imagination or the actual landscape of history and religion. If the latter, then what is remarkable is not that the scriptures describe it, but that we should think it normal not to.
We have explored some of the elements in the Hebrew scriptures that bear on our topic. I have emphasized several that were picked up in later Christian tradition, and will consider a few more in the next section. This is not mere background material. It unveils a truth without which Christians would be incapable of formulating their own faith, even as they saw their faith extending and realizing that truth. (102-3)
2. Draško Dizdar, “Finding the Way: How to Study Scripture with the Help of Scripture and the Desert Fathers,” in Violence, Desire, and the Sacred, Vol. 1, pp. 34-49. This essay on biblical hermeneutics from the perspective of Mimetic Theory begins with quoting the exchange between Philip and the eunuch:
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” the eunuch responded. Acts 8:30-31
He then proceeds with a “close reading” of the passage, as “an example of scripture explicitly teaching us how to read scripture.”
3. Brian McLaren, two of his works; A New Kind of Christianity, pp. 181ff.; and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, p. 176 (a brief mention in the context of preaching on Acts on the theme, “God includes the racially and sexually other!”). This passage plays an important role in A New Kind of Christianity, chapter 17, “Can We Find a Way to Address Human Sexuality Without Fighting About It?” Here’s a sample:
. . . this man is returning from Jerusalem, where he had been hoping to worship. What would have happened to him there? As an Ethiopian — a “person of color,” we might say — he was obviously not Jewish, which would exclude him from full participation in temple worship. (Remember that a riot breaks out in Acts 21 simply because Paul is accused of bringing a tan-skinned Greek fellow into the temple precinct. Think what would have happened if a coffee-colored Ethiopian dared enter.) But there was a “court of the Gentiles” in the temple. Perhaps he could have at least worshiped there, from a distance? Sadly though, even second-class participation would have been forbidden, because for the Jews castration was considered a “defect.” The defect disqualified a person from priesthood, and this disqualification for priests was specified to be in effect “throughout their generations.”
But even more sweeping, Deuteronomy graphically extends the exclusion beyond the priesthood to everyone: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (23:1). So our castrated official has come to worship in Jerusalem, but he has undoubtedly been turned away; his racial and sexual identities have put him outside the worshiping community. In this light, do you feel the full pang of the question he asks as the chariot passes some water? “I have just been rejected and humiliated in Jerusalem, but you have told me of a man who, like me, has no physical descendants, a scarred and wounded man who like me has been humiliated and rejected. Is there a place for me in his kingdom, even though I have an unchangeable condition that was condemned forever by the sacred Jewish Scriptures?”
Philip doesn’t speak. Nor does he leave for Jerusalem to consult with the apostles there, nor does he convene a five-year committee to study the subject. Instead, he simply acts. The audacity of his action is seldom appreciated, I fear. As the horses are reined in and the chariot comes to a stop in a cloud of dust, he leads the eunuch down from the chariot and into the water, and there he baptizes him. The sign of the kingdom of God that began in Jesus — a place at the table for outcasts and outsiders — continues in the era of the Acts of the Apostles. The poor are accepted, and the sick. Samaritans are accepted, and Gentiles, including Africans, and here, even the “sexually other,” those considered “defective” who will never have a place in traditional religion or in the traditional culture based on the “traditional family.” The ‘old “other-excluding” sanctions — against the uncircumcised, against the “defective” — even though they were claimed to be in effect “throughout their generations” — have been buried in baptism, left behind as part of the old order that is passing away. As Philip and the Ethiopian disciple climb the stream bank, they represent a new humanity emerging from the water, dripping wet and full of joy, marked by a new and radical reconciliation in the kingdom of God. (182-83)
4. Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, ch. 4, “Genital-Free Africans,” pp. 93-115. The episode between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch leads into a wider conversation about the early church as portrayed in Acts. Here is a snippet that conveys a central tension in the drama of the early church:
According to the law, a eunuch is excluded from the assembly (Deut 23:1). The law is very clear on that point. As a good conservative Jew, Philip should have viewed the eunuch as “damaged goods” and refused to baptize him on that basis. If Philip baptizes the eunuch, he will be breaking a serious rule that he was raised to respect and follow. A rule that determined your standing with God.
This is the tension throughout the early church. What do you do when your religion isn’t big enough for God? What do you do when your rules and codes and laws simply aren’t enough anymore? What do you do when your system falls apart because the new thing that God is doing is better, beyond, superior, more compelling? (101)
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Proclaim the Good News Everywhere“; a sermon in 2018, “He Went on His Way Rejoicing.”
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.” 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.
2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 275-76, linked with today’s Gospel Reading; see quote below under the Gospel.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” Contagion, Spring 1997, pp. 120-145 (available for download here by subscription/purchase). 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.
In the opening essay above (2021), we advanced Bailie’s insights into John 15:6 twenty-five years in history by interpreting the nihilistic agenda of Trumpism as leading to events of sacrificial violence.
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 you’ve let something other than God’s 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 re-surrender to the Spirit. It’s like breathing — exhaling an acknowledgment of your misstep and inhaling forgiveness and strength to start walking in the Spirit again. (pp. 242-43)
This passage also plays a significant role in McLaren‘s Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words — a significant role in the practice of contemplative spirituality, in general. The 11th of the 12 words is “Yes” (the last being silence, for which he also quotes John 15:5 [p. 224]); McLaren writes:
Whatever our tradition, however, we eventually realize that our yes must become not simply an event, but a practice. Each of us must learn to hold open our yes to the Spirit on a moment-by-moment basis. Jesus used an image for this practice that was both powerful and — to his hearers, anyway — familiar: a branch abiding in a grapevine. The branch can’t bear fruit on its own, he said. But if it abides in the vine, it will naturally bear fruit season after season. Yes, pruning will come, and pruning may be painful, but again, if the branch just abides, just stays, just says yes season after season, that pruning will result in ever more fruitfulness as the years go by (John 15:1-11).
Ideally, public gatherings for worship create opportunities for people to reaffirm their yes at least weekly. And special holy seasons — Advent, Lent, and Pentecost for Christians; Ramadan for Muslims; Passover for Jews; and so on — also build reaffirmation and rededication into the annual calendar. But often the reaffirmations that count the most come up unexpectedly. A friend in need on a busy day, a stranger in need alongside the road, an enemy or antagonist in need in the middle of conflict — these “inconveniences” become opportunities to put our own agendas and comfort aside and say yes to abiding in the vine, yes to joining God in compassion, yes to being God’s hands and feet, eyes and ears.
Our yes counts most when we receive mistreatment rather than praise for our effort. That’s why the theme of suffering for doing good is so central to all our spiritual traditions. To say yes to doing good and then be ignored, to say yes to doing right and then be misunderstood and criticized, to say yes to being loving and then to be vilified and even crucified — this is the territory into which we will all someday be invited. This is the yes of “not my will, but your will be done.” (210-11)
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“; and in 2018, “On Being Branches Connected to the Vine.”
4. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 157, 276. The first reference is in a chapter on “The Body of Christ,” offering the vine and branches as a similar metaphor:
Another possible biblical image that could be considered analogous to the Church is that of the vine and the branches. (Jn. 15:1-9) Here, we are all connected with one another through the vine that is Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s desire. The images of the Body of Christ and living stones have contemplative dimensions that sink into us when we quietly pray with and through them, but this image of the vine and branches has the deepest contemplative dimension. (157)
This passage is also prominent in the introductory paragraphs of the dénouement chapter, “Contemplative Indwelling in God’s Desire” — with the bonus of being linked with today’s Second Reading:
The First Epistle of John overflows with declarations of God’s pre-emptive love: “Not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) This pre-emptive love of God is not just a vague benevolence, but a sacrificial act. God has and always will act on our behalf John goes on to describe God’s love as an abiding presence within us, what amounts to being possessed by God: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4:13) Is this just an added treat in life? Surely being possessed by God is much greater than that. Being possessed by God is totally contrary to the many cases of possession that Jesus dealt with in the synoptic Gospels. I suggested above that the people Jesus healed had been possessed by other people. We only need to reflect on how we become possessed by people we are seriously at odds with. If we put John’s teaching of God’s indwelling love together with demonic possession, we are confronted with the conclusion that we are going to be possessed by somebody. It is not possible to remain aloof from the intentions and desires of other people. They will possess us whether we like it or not. The question is: By whom are we possessed? Jesus told a little parable about the evil spirit that was cast out, but then returned to the house with seven spirits “more evil than itself.” (Matt. 12:44 45) This parable teaches us that casting out the spirit that has possessed someone is not enough. One must become possessed by the Spirit of Christ, who is full of love, one who is not in rivalry with us or with anybody else.
Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us another take on the importance of being possessed by God’s love. Once again, we have the language of mutual abiding. The branches depend on the vine for both their lives and the vitality that gives them the power to grow and bear fruit. If we stick to the vine, God prunes our competitive spirit so that we can bear more fruit. (John 15:2) While pruning us, God sustains us in God’s love. This possession protects us from possession by the persecutory crowd and frees us to bear good fruit. This freedom opens our hearts and minds to discern what we can do to help others in need with what resources we have. This freedom is dangerous. It could strengthen us enough to follow Jesus into the depths of the collective evil spirit that had possessed the workers in the vineyard, leading them to put the owner’s son to death. (Matt. 21:33-46) Yet it is in that dark place that Jesus pulled off the greatest exorcism of all time, on the cross. The more possessed we are by God’s love, the more we can trust God enough to make such a journey that takes us through Jesus’ death to his Resurrection.
We can experience this indwelling of God at any time, any place, but most habitually through the practice of contemplative prayer. The disciplines discussed so far for living consciously with mimetic desire all have a contemplative element to some degree or another. Liturgical prayer is enriched by contemplative prayer, and liturgy feeds contemplative prayer. Prayerful reading of scripture leads to contemplative prayer, if we let the words in scripture and other spiritual writings sink deeply into us. Contemplative prayer is the strongest practice for connecting us to God’s desire in a deep way. Unfortunately, although we are experiencing a resurgence of this practice, it still remains a closed book to many. In this chapter, I will provide practical guidelines to help readers learn how to move more deeply into God’s desire. (275-76)
5. Richard Rohr, several books, beginning with Things Hidden, the theme (as with Marr above) is “Mutual Indwelling” (Ch. 10):
To be capable of mutual indwelling, or coinherence, means that religion has achieved its full and final purpose. Bride and bridegroom are together just for the sake of being together! Presence is the naked language of union, of being lost and found in the face of the other, or in Jesus, the very breath of the Other (John 20:22). If that is the core meaning of eternal life, then why wouldn’t we practice it now, enjoy it now, choose it now? Once more let me say it: How you get there is where you will arrive.
You don’t have to figure it all out or get it all right ahead of time. You just have to stay on the journey. All you can do is stay connected. We don’t know how to be perfect, but we can stay in union. “If you remain in me and I remain you,” says Jesus, “you can ask for whatever you want and you’re going to get it” (see John 15:7). When you’re connected, there are no coincidences anymore.
Synchronicities, coincidences, accidents and “providences” just keep happening. Union realigns you with everything, and things just start happening. I cannot explain the “chemistry” of it all. Some people call it “the secret.” All I know is that “the branch cut off from the vine is useless” (John 15:5), yet on the vine it bears much fruit (15:5, 7). The True Self is endlessly generative, in touch with its Source; the false self is fragile, needy and insecure. (214-15)
In The Naked Now, references to this passage conclude a pivotal chapter on, “Opening the Door: Great Love and Great Suffering.” Love and suffering are the great teachers that can help us out of the dualistic thinking (centered in the dualism of Us-Them). He ends the chapter (including a summary which ends each chapter in the book):
You cannot sincerely love another or forgive another’s offenses inside of dualistic consciousness. Try it, and you’ll see it can’t be done. We have done the people of God a great disservice by preaching the Gospel to them but not giving them the tools whereby they can obey that Gospel. As Jesus put it, “Cut off from the vine, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The “vine and the branches” are one of the greatest Christian mystical images of the nonduality between God and the soul. In and with God, I can love everything and everyone — even my enemies. Alone and by myself, will power and intellect will seldom be able to love in difficult situations over time. Many sophisticated folks try to love by themselves. They try to obey the second commandment without the first. It usually does not work long-term, and there is no one more cynical than a disillusioned idealist. (This was my own youthful generation of the 1960s.)
Finally, of course, there is a straight line between love and suffering. If you love greatly, it is fairly certain you will soon suffer, because you have somehow given up control to another. Undoubtedly, this is why we are told to be faithful in our loves, because such long-term loyalty will always lead us to the necessary pruning (John 15:2) of the narcissistic self.
Until we love and until we suffer, we all try to figure out life and death with our minds, but afterward a Larger Source opens up within us and we “think” and feel quite differently: “Until knowing the Love, which is beyond all knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). Thus Jesus would naturally say something like, “This is my commandment, you must love one another!” (John 13:34). Love, I believe, is the only way to initially and safely open the door of awareness and aliveness, and then suffering for that love keeps that door open and available for ever greater growth. They are the two great doors, and we dare not leave them closed. (127-28)
6. Brian Zahnd, Radical Forgiveness, pp. 168ff. Zahnd brings together the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) and John 15 for a section titled “Producing the Fruit of Love” in Chapter 8, “The Golden Rule and the Narrow Gate.” Zahnd once again is a gifted articulator of the need for a New Reformation:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is showing us what a true son of Abraham looks like. Jesus is showing us what Moses was trying to build all along. Jesus is showing us how Isaiah’s dreams can come true. Jesus is showing us how a true follower of Messiah is to live. But Jesus doesn’t merely teach us or even just set an example — though he does both of these things. Jesus invites us to believe in him, and in so doing to connect our lives to him so that his life enables us to fulfill the vision set forth in the Law and the Prophets. When this happens, this is what Jesus calls fruit. In John chapter 15 Jesus speaks of himself as the vine and his disciples who believe in him as the branches. As these believing branches draw their life from Messiah, they produce the fruit intended by the Law and the Prophets — the fruit of love for God and neighbor.
Somewhere along the way in our post-Reformation paranoia of anything that references works — a paranoia not endorsed by the New Testament — we have distorted salvation. The salvation of Messiah that fulfills the Law and the Prophets becomes salvation from fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. And the results have been disastrous. To put it more bluntly — we have invented a Christianity where the Golden Rule and the narrow gate are utterly disassociated ideas. But once we pry apart the Golden Rule and the narrow gate, we have concocted a distorted Christianity that is self-centered, that is afterlife oriented, and that abolishes the Law and the Prophets — the very thing Jesus said he did not come to do!
So immediately after introducing the Golden Rule as the narrow gate, Jesus talks about how a tree is judged by its fruit (Matt. 7:15-20). Then Jesus exposes the danger of prioritizing miracles over works of mercy and justice (Matt. 7:21-23). Finally Jesus concludes his great sermon with the parable of two houses — one built upon the rock and one built upon the sand (Matt. 7:24-27). Jesus is saying that those who hear the Sermon on the Mount and its call to radical forgiveness, and choose to live according to Messiah’s mandate, are building upon a foundation that will endure the coming storms. Likewise, those who hear the Sermon on the Mount but choose to live according to the old way of non-forgiveness and violent resistance are doomed to destruction. (168-69)
7. See my webpage on “abide” in John. meno, “abide,” is one of John’s most important words, signaling a theology of mutual indwelling with God through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus — akin to Paul’s theme of living in Christ. The well-loved funeral passage of John 14:1-6 is not about Jesus preparing places for us in heaven; it is about preparing places in us for God’s mutual indwelling. We are the places Jesus goes to prepare by being lifted up on the cross.
8. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 18, 2003 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from May 14, 2006 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
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.