Last revised: May 26, 2022
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7TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR B
RCL: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
RoCa: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 4:11-16; John 17:6-19
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 4, “The Heavens Opened, and the Kingdom out of Joint.” The chapter begins with the image of the heavens opened, for which Revelation and the stoning of Stephen provide the primary textual evidence. The Ascension would be another instance of the heavens opened, and Alison cites this story that comes as postlude to the Ascension and prelude to Pentecost. It is a story of seemingly insignificant import — filling the open seat on the apostolic board, if you will — but then why would Luke have included between two such important stories? Alison cites this story as he begins to talk about Jesus’ basic message of the kingdom of God drawing near, which is often then immediately coupled with the choosing of apostles, witnesses. And the number usually associated with the apostles is twelve, symbolizing a new Israel. The disciples had asked Jesus about the fate of Israel in Acts 1:6. Alison says:
And immediately after the Ascension, and before Pentecost, they choose Matthias to fill the empty place among the twelve which had been left by Judas. Their criterion for choosing was that the one chosen should have accompanied Jesus and the twelve original witnesses during the whole of Jesus’ public ministry up until his Ascension. That is, it was understood that fundamental to what Jesus wanted to do was the bringing about of some sort of new symbolic Israel, and that what makes this possible is the presence of people who had lived through the whole process of the change of mind and of heart produced by the ministry and passion of Jesus and then his presence as risen victim.
Let us be clear, then, that whatever it was that Jesus thought that he was doing, he didn’t want to leave everything in the dark, but he used the language, the expectations, and the symbolism which people already had, to point up the sort of thing that he wanted to bring about. Now, please notice this: he is leaving something like a reader’s guide, some rules of grammar by which to read what he was doing, and these rules of grammar point towards what I have called a ‘subversion from within.’ Jesus was not saying: “The kingdom of heaven is so ineffable and mysterious that there is no language to describe it, so I leave you with a vague movement of search in this life whose sense will only be known in the next.” Neither is he saying: “The kingdom of God is the fulfillment of the Israel which you all know and love, with all its hopes and expectations.” Well, of course you recognize these two tendencies: they are the same ones we saw when we were looking at the principle of analogy in the first chapter, and we will return to them at the end of this one. (p. 82)
The principle of analogy he is referring to involves the relationship between God’s heavenly story and our earthly stories. One tendency is to completely divorce the two, the other is to too easily conflate them. The chapter pivots, then, around a way that Alison outlines for us in which the heavenly gospel story begins to recreate our earthly stories:
This means something rather important: that there is no story at all of our participation in creation, according to the flexible paradigm of the heavenly story, which is not what is usually called a story of conversion. By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me . . . though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories. Someone can give up doing something held a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fibre. That is not a Christian conversion. The authentic convert always writes a story of his or her discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy, and not despite, for others. This rule of grammar we find set out in the parable of the servant who was let off all he owed by the King his creditor, but who didn’t forgive the tiny debt his colleague had with him (Matt. 18:23-34). (p. 92)
He returns to the matter of ecclesiology in parallel to the problem faced by the apostles in being part of a re-founding of Israel. He boldly states, for example, that “In this way I have sought to show how the bringing in of the kingdom and the foundation of the Church are the same thing, and that both are understood starting from the Ascension.” (pp. 94-95) But let’s let Alison finish:
Let us stop a little to get our bearings, since it is quite possible that this way of putting things is so little familiar to you that you are tempted to say to me: “Well, but what has that got to do with our experience of the Church?” Those of you who have studied eschatology, or ecclesiology, before, will have heard the comment, half ironic and half loyal, of Loisy, a nineteenth-century French Catholic: Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and what came was the Church. Well, this little quip goes straight to the heart of a whole series of arguments within the Church and between churches, about the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom, between a conception of the Church as invisible and a conception of the Church as a highly visible institution. I think that this argument about the relationship between the Kingdom and the Church, and hence about the latter’s visibility or otherwise, is exactly the same as the one we have already glimpsed when we looked at what I called the principle of analogy. You may remember that in the first chapter we saw two temptations: either the heavenly story, inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, is totally incommensurable with our violent and death-ridden story, to such an extent that we simply have to suspend the attempt to tell a human story and instead wait patiently for the definitive breaking-in of the divine story; or, on the other hand, the heavenly story is not that different from the human story, and the latter can quite easily be a faithful reflection of the former.
Well, the first temptation obliges us, as a logical consequence of the impossibility of telling a redeemed story, to hold that the Church be purely invisible, as the Reformation has insisted. The second holds out, as a consequence of making it too easy to tell the redeemed human story, too familiar a confidence that the visibility of the Church and its institutions are a faithful reflection of the heavenly story. Please notice that in both cases I talk in terms of “telling stories.” This is really what it is all about: we are the animals which tell stories, and when we speak of “the Church” we are not talking about anything other than the possibility of telling stories.
What we have seen allows us to take a little distance with relation to what we understand by the Church, not so as to get scandalized by the reality which we perceive, but rather the better to understand what sort of beast we’re talking about, so as better to inscribe ourselves in whatever there is of the divine about it. What I’m suggesting is that we all have to do something of the same work as the apostolic group, that is, learn how to subvert from within the reality in which we live so as to learn how to perceive not that which seems too established on earth, with its bludgeoning discourse, its being so bound in with the story of death, but rather that which is coming down from heaven. That is to say, so that the Church comes to be for us a sign of the kingdom. And this doesn’t depend on other people than ourselves stopping acting in such an idiotic way, since either they won’t stop acting like this, or maybe they aren’t acting so idiotically, but we don’t know how to perceive what they are doing with eyes formed by the eschatological imagination.
It is worth noting that what is called “ecclesiology,” or the discourse about the Church, is a fairly modern discourse, invented in the wake of the Reformation, principally by the Jesuits, and it came into existence in somewhat unfortunate circumstances, for it was born in the midst of a controversy, and on account of this still bears the scars of its defensive and apologetic birth. That is to say it was born so as to defend the truth of the Church against the devastating critique of the Reformation, and for that reason had to have recourse to a series of proofs about Jesus founding the Church in its institutional form, ordaining priests, and so on, matters which no doubt have a nucleus of truth (and there’s no way I want to contradict Trent), but, so as to be maintained were decked out in a whole way of conceiving of the Church which we’re only now learning to get beyond. Before the Reformation period there was not “ecclesiology,” but rather the treatise of the sacraments, that is, of the signs which in fact constitute ecclesial life.
Maybe, and we have not the space to develop this intuition, we can begin to discover a way of re-creating the Church. It seems to me that, in point of fact, the Church is not that headache which one might suppose reading a certain neo-catholic (or over-catholic) press, but an open story, made out of many stories, which flow together around signs of another reality which is coming down out of heaven for us by means of our imaginations being fixed on the things that are above; little stories of the subversion from within of the story of death. This latter story, in our world, as it did in Jesus’ world, gets itself all dressed up in the finery of that which is good, pure, normal, religious, but which leads nowhere, and isn’t a sign of anything at all, least of all the arrival in our midst of our own participation in the new creation. How would it be if our Sunday liturgy furnished us with elements for the re-formation of our imaginations, teaching us to fix our minds on the heavenly victim who is giving himself over for us, and by means of his words offering us the wherewithal to re-build our little tales? (pp. 95-97)
2. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012 on the Ascension Day text (Acts 1:1-11), titled “Between Ascension and Pentecost but Waiting.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Let me continue the discussion of the church raised by James Alison. When preaching on the Acts 4:12 text of a couple weeks ago, for example, I’ve wondered how many modern Christians actually believe it. What has made us shy about it, I think, is our awareness of the real violence that has come about through the church’s attempts to force the particularity of Christ upon others. In other words, it relates to this issue of the real, historical church that we’ve come to know, one with a long history of victimizing others, contrasted with the ideal, invisible church, the one with the risen victim in its midst. (The disciples were faced with a similar issue about Israel. And so are we as the new Israel?) Somehow, our ecclesiology needs to fall somewhere between the two, if “between” is even an adequate term. This has not been easy, for example, in connection with the issue of preaching the particularity of Christ, ala Acts 4:12. Our awareness of the violence done by the visible church leads many to shift to a “cosmic Christ,” who loses the particularity and its scandalous dimensions; and the corollary is perhaps also some form of invisible church that never does violence in Christ’s name. I recommend the last couple pages of Alison’s chapter 4 (quoted above) as providing some direction out of the mess, one that begins with the sacraments. A study of the faithfulness of the church begins with a study of the sacraments?
2. Just a quick question about the process of choosing the twelfth disciple: casting lots? A Girardian is quick to note that casting lots likely originated as a method for choosing the sacrificial victim (cf. Jonah 1:7). Is this a transformation of that practice? A means for exclusion is transformed into a means of inclusion? Or, another way to look at it might be to see it in anticipation of the martyrdom that fell to most of the apostles. Being an apostolic witness (the Greek for “witness” being martyr) means following with the same risk of giving yourself as a sacrificial victim. This was made dramatically clear by the using the same method of choosing one: casting lots. But it is also important to note that there is a different criterion: one who journeyed the entire way with Christ from baptism to cross to resurrection.
1 John 5:9-13
Reflections and Questions
1. Is there enough to preach on this text as it is, taken out of context? One could ask this about most lectionary texts, which is probably the wisdom behind doing serial readings in lectionary fashion. If one chooses to preach this text, the preacher does have the readings from 1 John that have preceded it. The verses we have before us this week make a passionate plea that we follow our calling to give testimony to that which we have received from God through Jesus Christ. What has gone before us in this letter has provided us with the shape of that testimony. We began in very succinct fashion in 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” The Johannine writer develops this with all the marvelous language about God as Love. And in the verses immediately preceding this week’s text, we have the insistence on the inclusion of blood as part of the message. The latter aspect might especially be preachable given the scandalous nature of blood in our modern culture. We are fascinated by it (e.g., the popularity of vampire movies), but also embarrassed and troubled by it, with our sensitivity to all the blood that is senselessly spilled in our times. The modern churchgoer might squirm at the insistence on blood, but the testimony we received from God through Jesus Christ does not back away from it. There is a good sermon entitled “Written in Red” that takes this tact in the preaching resource Homiletics, by Leonard Sweet.
1. Many of the same resources cited in recent weeks give an overall hermeneutic of this Johannine passage, which otherwise strikes me as a difficult piling up of Johannine terms and themes. One theme that is relatively new is that of being sanctified. What does being sanctified mean in this Johannine context? Does it have to do with having our stories transformed in the manner that Alison is describing?
2. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, p. 269. Hardin sums up the significance of the Easter texts from John: how it is that the incarnation of the Word in Jesus becomes the incarnation in us.
In his prayer in the garden (John 17) Jesus anticipates that his disciples will share in the divine life. “That they may be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you, Father.” This subjectivity is the appropriation of the life we know from the Gospel tradition, now enfleshed in our very own existence. If in the Gospels we may speak of the objective Life of Jesus (the “so-called” historical Jesus), so also by the gift of the Spirit we may also speak of the subjective life of Jesus in us (the Present Christ or the Christus Praesens). The life we now live is lived in Jesus. He is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:1-9). Where the vine ends and the branches begin is not possible to tell. So it is with us. This is the secret of Christian existence. We are not merged with Jesus so that we may confuse our identity with him, anymore than he is merged with the Father and so loses his identity. To suggest such is to end in a metaphysical miasma and psychological grandiosity. Rather, inasmuch as we imitate Jesus by living in love, as he imitated his Abba and lived in love, we become like him.
3. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, p. 113. In commenting on the passage of Jesus before Pilate in John 18, McLaren brings out the fact that Jesus had used similar language with his prayer in John 17:
Yes, Jesus is a king. But his kingdom is “not of this world.” What does this mean? Does it mean Jesus is promoting a “spiritual” kingdom, something people feel warming their hearts, or something they will experience after they die? Hardly. Jesus has just used a similar “not of the world” construction in the previous chapter, as part of a rich and lengthy prayer. There Jesus makes it clear that he doesn’t want his disciples to be removed “out of the world.” Instead, he sends them “into the world,” but as they are “in” the world, they are not to be “of” the world, just as he is not “of” the world (John 17:13-19).
“My kingdom is not of this world,” then, means the very opposite of “My kingdom is not in this world.” Instead, it means my kingdom is very much in this world, but it doesn’t work the way earthly kingdoms or empires do. The word this becomes especially significant in relation to Pilate’s location in the Roman chain of command: this world of Pilate, of Roman swords and spears and threats of crucifixion, of imperial domination and hierarchy and violence — this world is not the origin or character of Jesus’ kingdom.
4. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 45, “Spirit of Unity and Diversity.” This passage is listed as a text for an essay on the doctrine of the Trinity as a teaching that heals our false experiences of god and one another — five teachings altogether. Here are two that relate more directly to John 17:
Third, through the Trinity we transcend us-them, in-out thinking. Imprisoned in our old familiar dualistic thinking, we were always dividing the world into mine and yours, one and other, same and different, better and worse. In the Trinity, we move beyond that dualism so that mine and yours are reconciled into ours. One and other are transformed into one another. Same and different are harmonized without being homogenized or colonized. Us and them are united without loss of identity and without dividing walls of hostility. To put it in philosophical terms, dualism doesn’t regress to monism. It is transcended.
The healing teaching of Trinity also helps us transcend top-down or hierarchical understandings of God. If God’s Father-ness elevates and includes Son-ness in full equality, do you see what that means? If God’s Son-ness doesn’t grasp at equality, but rather mirrors the Father’s self-giving and self-emptying love, do you see what that means? If the Spirit is not subordinated as an inferior but is honored and welcomed as equal, do you see what that means? God is characterized by equality, empathy, and generosity rather than subordination, patriarchy, and hierarchy. (pp. 228-29)
5. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 6, “Undergoing Atonement: The Reverse Flow Sacrifice.” In a very different use of this passage, Alison links it to imagining the rite of atonement in the First Temple:
[T]here is the High Priest, in the Holy Place, with us outside, and he is being ministered to by Angels, he is communing with the Angels who were with YHWH at the beginning of creation. He is spending time in prayer, for it is during this period that he will expect to become interpenetrated by YHWH whom he is going to incarnate for the rest of the rite. So he will pray to become one with God, and that God will become one with him, so that he can perform the sacrifice and glorify God by making God’s people one. This is what At-onement is all about. Experts in these matters have long known that in John 17, where Jesus engages in a long prayer concerning the Father being in him, and he in the Father, and him praying that his disciples may be made one, we have the essence of the High Priestly prayer in the Atonement rite. So we can imagine the ancient High Priest praying in these terms, and becoming interpenetrated by YHWH. (pp. 247-48)
6. Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, pp. 7, 49, 165; Immortal Diamond, p. 69; Just This, p. 89. Rohr has been one of my most valued teachers in experiencing God in terms of Oneness that has the power to unify us, healing our dualisms. I’d be remiss to not offer a couple snippets from him. First, unity is at the heart of writing The Universal Christ:
Jesus did not come to earth so theologians alone could understand and make their good distinctions, but so that “they all may be one” (John 17:21). He came to unite and “to reconcile all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth” (Colossians 1:19). Every woman or man on the street — or riding a train — should be able to see and enjoy this! (7)
Anticipating resistance to this theme, he writes,
No doubt you’re aware that many traditional Christians today consider the concept of universal anything — including salvation — heresy. Many do not even like the United Nations. And many Catholics and Orthodox Christians use the lines of ethnicity to determine who’s in and who’s out. I find these convictions quite strange for a religion that believes that “one God created all things.” Surely God is at least as big and mysterious as what we now know the shape of the universe to be — a universe that is expanding at ever faster speeds, just like the evolution of consciousness that has been proceeding for centuries. How can anyone read the whole or even a small part of John 17 and think either Christ or Jesus is about anything other than unity and union? “Father, may they all be one. . . .” (49)
In a chapter arguing against today’s individualism for a more corporate reading of the Christian message, Rohr cites John 17 and concludes:
Unless we find the communal meaning and significance of the suffering of all life and ecosystems on our planet, we will continue to retreat into our individual, small worlds in our quest for personal safety and sanity. Privatized salvation never accumulates into corporate change because it attracts and legitimates individualists to begin with. Think about that. (166)
See my 2014 sermon on “Contemplation and Oneness.”
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 1, 2003 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from May 28, 2006 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2012 we used the Ascension Day text from Acts 1 with this Gospel (extending it two verses so that it ends with “that they may all be one”). It was the day we recognized and celebrated our graduates. An important recent book for me was Diana Butler Bass‘s Christianity After Religion. And our pastoral team was beginning to explore an exciting para-church organization called 3D Ministry, which coaches congregations into ministries founded on principles of (1) making disciples as the core of Christian ministry, and (2) imitation as the primary basis of making disciples (quite congruent with Mimetic Theory on this score). Floating in the background for me was also N. T. Wright‘s excellent work on the Ascension as Jesus’s enthronement, his taking charge in this world on the basis of defeating death (see, for example, Simply Jesus, 195-98). All of these elements came together for an important sermon: “That We May All Be One.”
2. This passage does bring perhaps the climactic moment to John’s use of “world” (Gr: cosmos). I count 13 occurrences in these 14 verses. I’ve mentioned previously Walter Wink‘s interpretation of “world” as “domination system” (Engaging the Powers). For Girardians, “culture” would be a suitable substitute? Contemporary folks, in this age of “multi-culturalism” and “post-modern culture,” speak an awful lot about culture. But mimetic theory, sometimes offered as simply a theorization of what the Gospel has already given us, is the only thing offering us an idea of what generates culture, in the first place. Jesus came as one — the first and only one — not of this culture or “world,” offering us the divine alternative, that we might be grafted (like a vine into the branch) into the source for eternal life. When we are plugged into the source of life in Jesus Christ, we can cease having our being generated along with the cultures rooted in death. We are still in these cultures but are no longer generated by (“of”) them. In the ecclesial terms Alison raises for us above, our stories begin to be shaped by God’s heavenly story so that we begin to be signs in this world of that other culture-transforming story.
3. This prayer essentially replaces the more familiar prayer tradition of the Synoptic gospels in the Garden of Gethsemane. Immediately following this prayer we read:
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place…. (John 18:1-2)
John moves us directly to the arrest in an altogether different garden (in the Kidron valley instead of the Mount of Olives). What a completely different prayer than the one in Gethsemane! My 2003 sermon, “The Word of Truth,” highlights this difference but then brings out a commonality: the way in which what comes after it, the cross, reveals our complicity in death. Even if the prayer in John 17 is less anguished than the Synoptic prayer of Gethsemane, John’s Gospel as a whole is no less forthright about, how for us, death is always intertwined with sin. We don’t just die. We also kill. Three passages from John are combined with the one about murder from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22). There is also a 2009 version of this sermon, also titled “The Word of Truth.”