Last revised: May 27, 2018
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6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR B
RCL: Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
RoCa: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 100-105, 128. The two featured passages in Alison’s treatment of universality are this story of Cornelius and Rev. 7. Of the former he says for example:
What Peter is saying when he affirms that God has revealed to him not to call anyone profane or impure is that the heavenly counter-history, the subversion from within of the story of this world, has an indispensable grammatical rule: that no discrimination against any sort of repugnant person can resist the crucible of learning not to call them profane or impure. The story of heaven is the story of how we learn not to call anyone profane or impure, so that a story is created in which there are, in fact, no impure or profane people, where not even disgusting people consider themselves disgusting, but rather where we have learnt to disbelieve, and to help them to disbelieve, in their own repugnancy. (p. 102)
This links to a discussion of the scapegoating mechanism in that our linguistic construction of insiders and outsiders support the making of victims. So, says Alison:
What I wanted to suggest is that Jesus’ resurrection is at the same time the revelation of that lie: the victim is innocent, and is hated without cause. That is to say, the mechanism which founds social order stands exposed, and for this reason it begins to become impossible to believe in the real blameworthiness of the victim. (p. 103)
Alison suggests the possibility of building a new nonviolent sacred order without victims. This is done by beginning with God’s victim, the Lamb of God:
And this is the great secret of catholicity: while every local culture tends to build its frontiers by means of victims, it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim that we can build a culture which has no frontiers, because we no longer have to build any order, security, or identity over against some excluded person, but the excluded one himself gives the identity by allowing us to share in the gratuity of his self-giving. (p. 108)
2. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 7, “Induction into a People,” a whole section on Acts 10, pp. 317-27. Alison nicely summarizes the significance of this passage in one sentence: “There is no over-against in God: therefore being on the inside of the life of God cannot legitimize any form of group identity which includes self-definition over against another” (p. 325). And the verses in our passage preeminently associate baptism with this insight:
Peter magnificently catches up with what’s going on by authorizing the sign to match the reality, and with this the first Gentiles are baptized, insider status ceases to be over and against anything at all, and Judaism goes universal. (p. 327)
Peter catches up. Have we maintained this sign of Judaism gone universal with our Christian practice of baptism throughout the centuries?
3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 43, “Spirit of Love: Loving Neighbor”:
Where the Spirit is moving, love for God always, always, always overflows in love for neighbor. And according to Jesus, our neighbor isn’t just the person who is like us, the person who likes us, or the person we like. Our neighbor is anyone and everyone — like us or different from us, friend or stranger — even enemy. As Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, the Spirit wants to break down walls of prejudice and hostility so that we stop judging us as clean and them as unclean, opening the way for strangers and enemies to become neighbors, friends, family. (p. 250)
And he concludes the chapter with more than 30 passages in the New Testament involving “one-anothering.” The every day practice of loving one another in the Spirit of Christ is healing the human tendency of us vs. them.
Reflections and Questions
1. Cornelius is obviously a Gentile and this story about the first Gentile convert. But is it recognized as often that, as a centurion, he also stood for the reigning sanctioned violence of Rome? What do we make of the first major Gentile conversion being that of one who stood so centrally within the scapegoating structures of his time? Is there a connection with the story that precedes it, the conversion of Saul? Saul is a central figure within the Jewish scapegoating structures; Cornelius within the Roman. They both are dramatically converted. Saul left behind his life of persecuting others. Do we assume the same for Cornelius? Did becoming a Christian mean that he could no longer be a centurion, a soldier?
1 John 5:1-6
1. “For the Spirit is the truth” (5:6) lends itself to some of the Girardian comments on John 14-17 where the Paraclete is also called the “Spirit of Truth” (14:17, 15:26, 16:13). It gives us the opportunity to go back to the reading of the 2nd Sunday of Easter, which contains the only occurrence of “Paraclete” in 1 John (2:1-2):
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
The word “advocate” in the Greek is Paraclete, a word that appears four times in the Gospel of John and only here in the epistle. From this occurrence we can deduce that, for John, Jesus himself is the first and foremost Paraclete. The occurrences of “Paraclete” in the Gospel of John are all spoken by Jesus. The first time, in 14:16, Jesus says he will ask the Father to send “another Advocate.” In the fourth and final occurrence in the Gospel, in 16:7, Jesus says that this other Advocate will not come unless he goes away. (The other two occurrences of Paraclete in John’s gospel are at 14:26 and 15:26.) In these chapters “Paraclete,” “Holy Spirit,” and “Spirit of Truth” are all used interchangeably.
This week’s passage in 1 John 5 sheds further light on the interconnection of the Paraclete, or spirit of truth, and Jesus through the notion of “testimony.” Verse 6 is the end of this week’s lection, but it really belongs as the beginning of next week’s lection, for 1 John 5:6-13 revolves around the theme of testimony. The verb form, martyreo, occurs four times in these verses, and the noun form, martyria, six times. Read these verses, then, in light of the Girardian interpretation of Satan and the Paraclete: Satan is the accuser, the prosecuting attorney who elicits testimony to establish the guilt the victim; the Paraclete is the advocate, the defender of the accused who elicits testimony to establish the innocence of the victim.
The Girardian references to the meaning of Satan and the Paraclete abound. I can refer the reader to the excerpts I put together from his essay on Satan. I have also put together a page on “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.” But let me give you a glimpse of the basics here.
The place where Girard himself first wrote about Satan vs. the Paraclete is in his book The Scapegoat, the final chapter entitled “History and the Paraclete.” I highly recommend reading this chapter for insight into preaching on John 14-17. Here is an excerpt that presents Girard’s explanation of the Paraclete:
Satan only reigns by virtue of the representations of persecution that held sway prior to the Gospels. Satan therefore is essentially the accuser, the one who deceives men by making them believe that innocent victims are guilty. But, who is the Paraclete? Parakleitos, in Greek, is the exact equivalent of advocate or the Latin ad-vocatus. The Paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, the chief defender of all innocent victims, the destroyer of every representation of persecution. He is truly the spirit of truth that dissipates the fog of mythology.
We must ask why Jerome, that formidable translator who was rarely lacking in boldness, hesitated before the translation of the very ordinary, common name of parakleitos. He was literally taken by surprise. He did not see the term’s relevance and opted for a pure and simple transliteration, Paracletus. His example is followed religiously in most modern languages. This mysterious word has continued to put in concrete form not the unintelligibility of a text that is actually perfectly intelligible, but the unintelligence of its interpreters, that of Jesus’ accusation of his disciples, a lack of intelligence that history is slowly changing to comprehension.
There are, of course, innumerable studies on the Paraclete, but none provides a satisfactory solution, since they all define the problem in narrowly theological terms. The prodigious historical and cultural significance of the term remains inaccessible, and the general conclusion is that, if he is truly someone’s advocate, the Paraclete must become the disciples’ advocate with the Father. This solution invokes a passage in the first Epistle of John: “but if any one should sin, we have our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is just” (2:1) . . .
In John’s text Jesus makes himself a Paraclete. In the Gospel by the same author, Jesus effectively is shown as the first Paraclete sent to men:
I shall ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate
to be with you forever,
that Spirit of truth
whom the world can never receive
since it neither sees nor knows him; (John 14:16-17)
Christ is the Paraclete, par excellence, in the struggle against the representation of persecution. Every defense and rehabilitation of victims is based on the Passion’s power of revelation. When Christ has gone, the Spirit of Truth, the second Paraclete, will make the light that is already in the world shine for all men, though man will do everything in his power not to see it. The disciples certainly had no need of a second advocate with the Father, as long as they had Jesus himself. The other Paraclete is sent among men and into history; there is no need to get rid of him by sending him piously into the transcendental. The immanent nature of his action is confirmed by a text from the synoptic Gospels: “And when they lead you forth to deliver you, do not be preoccupied with what you will say, but say what is given to you at the moment for it is not you who will speak but the Holy Spirit.” (The Scapegoat, pp. 207-209)
2. Here is a quick snippet on the Greek word for truth from Gil Bailie‘s Violence Unveiled:
Aletheia comes from the root, letho, which is the verb “to forget.” The prefix a is the negative. The literal meaning, then, of the Greek word for truth, aletheia, is “to stop forgetting.” It is etymologically the opposite of myth. The gospels tell of a perfectly typical story of victimization with astonishing insight into the role religious zeal and mob psychology played in it. Most importantly, and contrary to all myth, the story is told from the point of view of the victim and not that of the righteous community of persecutors. Thus the passion story breaks decisively with the silence and circumspection of the mythological thought. The Gospel truth gradually makes it impossible for us to keep forgetting what myth exists to help us forget. It thereby sets up a struggle between the impulse to sacralize, justify, or romanticize the violence that generates and regenerates conventional culture and the impulse to reveal that violence and strip away its mythic justifications. Fundamentally, human history is a struggle between myth and Gospel. (pp. 33-34)
Reflections and Questions
1. This is a rich passage for preaching on baptism. And it gives an interpretation of baptism that centers around testimony. The baptized are those called to be witnesses. The images of being born of God and of parentage link with the Johannine notion of paternity: are you of the father of lies (John 8) or of Jesus’ father who sends the Spirit of Truth? The Spirit of Truth, in turn, links to the Paraclete of John 14-17. Does this all mean that our primary identity as the baptized is that we are to turn around and be advocates for those who continue to sacrificial victims in this world? Is that what it means to witness for Jesus Christ, the one who came to advocate for us?
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 12, the concluding essay, “Neighbors and Insiders: What’s It Like to Dwell in a Non-moralistic Commandment?” It begins with a close reading of the Good Samaritan parable and transitions to “John’s Testimony,” pp. 551-555. It is worth a longer excerpt; after quoting 15:12-14:
I hope you can see that there would be a glitch in this passage if we were to assume the moralistic “authority gives instruction” mode of teaching. Because in that mode, Jesus has friends, and lays down his life for them, and then commands them, who are already his friends, to do the same to others. However, that’s not what the passage says! The passage presupposes that those for whom he gives his life are not yet his friends. On the contrary, he is opening up the possibility for them to become his friends by his doing something for them, on the inside of which they will then be able to find themselves as multipliers of exactly what he has done, which is how they will become his equals, his friends. They will become people who are going to be empowered to give themselves away, freely acting out of being insiders in something that has been opened up for them by someone who loved them.
In other words, the gift of creating this possibility for his friends, and the commandment to create it are the same thing. There is no moralism here! There would be moralism if something were done, and as a result of it something were then commanded. That could indeed be a sort of emotional blackmail: “Look at me, I’ve done something for you, gone to so much trouble and suffering for you — now at least show that I have purchase on your heartstrings: do what I say.” Instead of that, what we have is a personal invitation, so that each one of the disciples, which is each one of us, finds him- or herself being taken out of the realm of blind commandments into that sharing in equality of spirit which is friendship: [quote of 15:15-17].
Servants are told to do something, and if they don’t understand why they should do it, they’re told “You don’t need to understand why, just do it, you’re a servant. I, the Master, know why I want it done, and your ways are not my ways.” Morals are often taught in this way! Friends, however, are chosen freely, and become trusted insiders on a level of equality with each other. They are not given compartmentalized tasks, but are entrusted with being imaginative, creative sharers in the whole project. As they share in a project, discovering for themselves the open-ended parameters which have been made available by the One who gave himself, so they will find that they are not only friends of the one who inaugurated the project, but brothers, heirs, the ultimate insiders, fully adopted into the life of the Son. Jesus makes it possible for us to share his desire at the level of equality, which is that of friendship. So we are enabled to desire as Jesus desires, according to the Father. Given that, it makes perfect sense to ask the Father for whatever we want, as if we were the Son, because we will in fact be becoming the Son, the ultimate insider in the life of God. (pp. 553-55)
2. The Girardian material on John 14-16 is abundant; I mentioned two chapters on Johannine theology two weeks ago with regards to 1 John 3 (Girard, Things Hidden, Book II, Ch. 4; Bailie, Violence Unveiled, ch. 13), and John 14-16 are always featured in those discussions, too. Another important chapter is James Alison‘s ch. 3 in Raising Abel, which suggests consulting John 14-16 while reading his chapter. This particular passage in John (15:9-17) is not widely cited, however, in the numerous Girardian commentaries on John 14-17.
3. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” tape series, tape #10. Link to my notes / transcription of this lecture on John 14-17. The following comment ties together many of the themes already touched on here:
The reason the accusatory system lives on is because we always forget the truth. We carry around a myth, which the Spirit will no longer let us do. The world has to exclude the Paraclete in order to carry on in its ordinary way. Conventional culture exists by periodically re-convening its social consensus at the expense of its victim. And that world can only exist if it can misrecognize the arbitrariness of its selection of victims, and all the rest of it. So when the Paraclete comes and makes that misrecognition increasingly difficult, the world begins to deconstruct. The cultural structures begin to come apart.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 25, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “It’s All Carrot and No Stick”; and in 2015 “Could It Be the Holy Spirit Working“; and in 2018, “He Made Us His Friends.”
Reflections and Questions
1. There are numerous themes that link up with wider Johannine themes: “abiding” in God’s love, the commandment of love, laying down one’s life for friends. Somewhat new and unique to this passage is the emphasis on joy, on servants becoming friends, and on Jesus choosing them rather than them choosing Jesus. Considering the (sacrificial) games of winners and losers that we usually play, it seems that God enters into our games as the loser, as one of those whom we sacrifice. Link to a sermon on the theme of “Choosing the Losers.”