Last revised: June 12, 2015
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2ND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR B
RCL: I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
RoCa: I Samuel 3:3-10, 19; I Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20; John 1:35-42
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
Reflections and Questions
1. The first lesson for this day anticipates two themes from the New Testament lessons. The first involves the transition to a new form of ordering human community. Samuel stands at the transition between the judges and the kings. Signs of a sacrificial crisis abound, most especially the sins within the house of the priesthood itself. Vs. 13-14 outline those sins of Eli’s sons which not even sacrifice can expiate. This anticipates the lesson from 1 Cor. 6, which comes at another time of transition: St. Paul foresees the shortcoming of even societies that become based on law. More below with the second lesson.
So it becomes important to listen at times when God is calling us to something new. This is the second theme raised in the First Lesson. Samuel is a person during this time of transition, or sacrificial crisis, who listens to God’s call. St. Paul was another. The gospel lesson gives us another story of listening to the call. In fact, because of the incarnation, one can do more than listen. One can “Come and see!” We can perhaps finally leave behind the human options for ordering society based on violence and come see God’s option for ordering society based on love. In Christ we virtually see the heavens opened (see Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 4).
2. Presumably, this story is told as the event in which Samuel began to know the Lord and listen to his word. But when he hears the word of the Lord that is a curse upon someone’s house, does he have perfect hearing yet? Does the God we know in Jesus Christ say things like “I am about to punish his house forever”? Or is it only through Jesus Christ that we are finally able to begin hearing and seeing the true God? Are we finally able to see that what happened to Eli’s house was a consequence of their actions and had nothing to do with God’s punishing them?
One might respond to such questions: Yes, but Samuel was a product of his culture. Everyone in his culture saw God as controlling everything, so it was natural for him to see God as having been behind what happened to Eli and his sons. Samuel was still faithful, and he heard God.
My answer is: Yes, but that’s precisely Girard’s insight into human culture. All human culture prevents us from seeing and hearing the true God. It is only when, by the sheer grace of God, Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead to appear to a number of followers that we can begin to come out from under human culture and begin to experience the “kingdom of God,” i.e., God’s culture. Girard’s anthropology, I firmly believe, is a further development of the movement of the Paraclete to sharpen these truths for us, so that we can begin to see clearly the radical differences between God’s culture and all human cultures, which are mired in sin.
Does that seem to make things hopeless for human culture? Not if you believe in the grace of God in Christ Jesus which forgives us our very being having been formed in the sin and death of human culture. God’s forgiveness invites us to begin to live in God’s culture, which, as it transforms and sanctifies each of our Beings, can also begin to transform human culture.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 115-118. Hamerton-Kelly has some fruitful reflections on the nature of the Pauline subject around the key word “body” (Gr: soma) and sexual relations. He begins with the concepts of Bultmann and Heidegger as the essence of soma being in self-relatedness. Thus, “flesh” (Gr: sarx) is an outside power that can usurp control. But St. Paul goes further by assuming a more encompassing relationship, that of creature to Creator. Self-consciousness is always mediated, ultimately by the Creator; the structure of self is thus triangular. The primacy of our relationship to God can best be seen in the light of the metaphor of sexual union, as in 1 Cor. 6. Being one with the Lord and being one with a prostitute are essentially two forms of mimetic desire — good mimesis and bad mimesis, if you will. The former is based on agape and the latter on eros.
2. Ibid., p. 177. Later, Hamerton-Kelly is expounding “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified” and again references this passage.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 19, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. Picking up on point #1 with the first lesson: Absolutely amazing to me is that Paul essentially stands at the beginning of the transition to law-based societies; yet he is incredibly prophetic by proclaiming the deficiencies of the law before it hardly gets started. In the 20th century we are still clinging to law-based societies. We are willing to lay down our lives for the sacrality of the Constitution. Yet, save for living in Christ, perhaps it is good that we still cling to them, for one must be wary of throwing off the law too quickly. Apparently, some of Paul’s antinomian words to his own church came back to haunt him, used as justifications for lax sexual behavior. (Sound familiar?)
2. How antinomian is St. Paul? In the modern translations, there are several phrases in quotations in this passage, most notably “All things are lawful for me.” Commentators guess that these quotes are somewhat perverted versions of Paul’s own message of freedom under the law coming back to haunt him. Seemingly, he does not so much back down from these positions as qualify them. Yes, we are free under the power of the law, but taking that as a cue that anything goes gets us in trouble. Rather, Paul tries to steer us toward being one with Christ. A Girardian might say he is steering us toward good mimesis. If we are one in spirit with Christ, we are modeling his non-rivalrous, self-giving love. And freed from the sacrificial powers of the temple, our own bodies become temples for the Holy Spirit. This is all very close to Gil Bailie‘s comments on John 1 that we will consider below. If there is no longer a temple institution, then God needs another place to reside; more below.
3. The modern reaction to Paul’s writings on sexuality often portray him as prudish, but is it important for us to get passed that reaction and see that he has something important for us to hear? And I think that mimetic theory can help us sort through some of these thorny issues regarding human sexuality.
My church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has tried several times over the past decade to make a “social statement” on sexuality and has failed. The debates were so intense that the bishops decided not to decide. But one issue has refused to go away: the place of gay and lesbian people in the church. Two practical matters continue to assert themselves: can the church bless monogamous, faithful relationships of its gay and lesbian members? And can gay and lesbian members who openly live in such a blessed relationship be ordained for Word and Sacrament ministry?
Part of the problem, from my perspective, is that many in the church cannot make a separation between wider issues of sexuality in our culture and this very specific issue regarding gay and lesbian people seeking to have a healthy, equal place in the life of the church with their heterosexual brothers and sisters in Christ. We should be concerned with the collapsing boundaries regarding our sexuality, signaling the “sacrificial crisis” in which we currently find ourselves. Gil Bailie sometimes remarks in his lectures that sexuality is like the canary in the mineshaft: it tips us off to the greater problem. When we are having trouble with normal cultural sexual boundaries, it tips us off that we are descending into a wider sacrificial crisis.
Yet mimetic theory also warns us that our age-old way out of mimetic crises are through scapegoating. Are gay and lesbian people prime candidates for being scapegoated in our current crisis? It would be a predictable ploy for us to burden all of our sexual sins onto the backs of such a minority group.
Finally, mimetic theory also helps us to see how even in our normal times — times when the sacrificial machinery is working to contain the rivalries and chaos of fallen mimetic desire — our sense of order still works to scapegoat minority groups. Might we, for example, examine our sense of created order as being exclusively male and female? Can we presume to know the created order, especially in the face of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ who tell us their experience of being created gay? This issue is addressed in my 2003 sermon, “Come and See” (see more below).
John 1:(35-42) 43-51
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #3. (Link to my notes / transcription of this lecture on John 1:19-51, for which the following is a summary.) Bailie reverses the textual order in his comments and reflects on John 2, which has to do with the end of the Temple, before commenting on this latter half of John 1. So he begins:
If the elimination of the temple, the dismantling of humanity’s age old sacrificial system, is a bold and dangerous thing, then the Christian revelation’s alternative to the temple is just as bold and just as dangerous — namely, that access to God is now to be had through a human being.
The dismantling of the temple makes the incarnation inevitable. It also destroys the social distinctions, or renders them less than permanent. With the breakdown of distinctions, forms of the incarnation begin to happen. The question is: what form will they take? There is the gospel form, which is that we have Jesus as the face and voice and emanation of the living God of love. And there’s all the other forms, which is all of us turning each other into gods and goddesses, demons and demi-gods — and going crazy.
Bailie’s development of this theme takes us along many literary paths, beginning with the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, who said, “what I thought of before as God I met today as a person.” In his poetry, “pronouns dissolve”–which is similar to: (1) St. Paul: “Christ lives in me”; and (2) Jesus: “The Father abides in me.” But there is great danger in this dissolving of pronouns, if our ego is not finding its new home in God. The results can be, as some commentators on Rumi put it: “a melting of the confinement of the ego into a larger elastic, cross-pollinating dance of selves.”
From here, Bailie covers literary examples from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Virginia Wolff’s The Waves, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back.” There are a number of good literary examples here that might help to flesh out a sermon.
Bailie bridges to his comments on John 1 with a reflection on the key teaching of the Markan Jesus: Anyone who wants to save their psyche, will lose it; and anyone who loses their psyche for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. There’s more revelatory power in this one verse than in all the psycho-analytic literature to date. We haven’t even begun to plum the meaning of this verse. But we’d better start, because it is so relevant to the current psychological crisis. Once the temple is superseded, it’s only a matter of time before we turn each other into idols. Moreover, the admonition to love your neighbor as yourself is an admonition against idolatry. Love your neighbor not as an idol, not as a Christ, not as a model. If one’s neighbor begins to play the role in one’s life played by Christ in St. Paul’s life, or played by the Father in Jesus’ life, then the result will eventually be hatred.
Bailie’s comments on John 1 which relate to this theme revolve around the word “abide.” But first a Girardian cannot pass comment on: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (1) “Lamb of God” is a sacrificial reference. We often misread it because we don’t realize who is demanding a sacrifice in the passion story and in this gospel. A sacrificial reading would be: ‘God is in his heaven, and he demands that someone pay the bill. Jesus pays the bill, and the rest of us are off.’ That’s the sacrificial reading, and therefore he’s the “Lamb of God.” The non-sacrificial reading of John’s Gospel: Jesus, the Lamb of God, comes from the Father and returns to the Father; he is the lamb that God is offering to the sacrificial monster. Who is the sacrificial monster? Humanity. It is humanity’s sacrificial predilections that are being exposed and deconstructed in the passion story, so that we can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say God wanted that sacrifice. This is the Lamb of God: not the lamb of the human community given to God, but the Lamb of God given to the sacrificial human community. (2) “takes away the sin of the world.” Gr: hamartia, “sin,” means missing the point, misrecognition. Gr cosmos, “world,” means the human order. What is sin? The misrecognition at the heart of the human order, i.e., the victim. We have all empathy for the victim extinguished under the sacrificial order. The fate of the victim gives the sacrificial order its power. That order depends on our missing the point, on our misrecognizing the victim as victim.
This tape, though, is primarily about the problems we have of making idols of one another, of having no one of staying power in whom to reside. John the Baptist says: I saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven and “abide” in him. “Abide” is a very important word in John. It means being coherent. In this gospel Jesus says, ‘I abide in the Father, and if I were you, I’d abide in me, so that you would come to abide in the Father. Wait ’til we take away the temple, and you’re going to find out how difficult it is to abide!’ Next day, John again points out Jesus and two disciples follow. Jesus says, What do you want?” The disciples respond, “Where do you abide?” That is to say, “What makes you real?” Abiding is so essential. St. Paul says, ‘I live in Christ, and he lives in me.’ The Johannine Jesus says, ‘I abide in the Father and the Father in me.’ But we live in a world that says, ‘I cannot abide.’ That’s our problem.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 4. Alison uses John 1:51 to keynote his reflections on the “heavens opened.”
3. Bill Williams (with Martha Williams), Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple, makes the most out of the figure Nathaniel in this extraordinary book. Williams shares theological reflections on his struggles with the genetic disease Cystic Fibrosis, placing himself into the Gospel stories through this brief encounter with the disciple Nathaniel. One of his central ideas is that of continuing creation. Creation is unfinished and hasnt yet come to perfection, which helps those like him who suffer from chronic genetic disease to come to terms with their createdness.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 I used the proximity of the MLK Holiday to craft a children’s sermon and sermon together about God’s different way of peace. The result is the sermon “Setting Right Our Human Way of Setting Things Right.”
2. In both my 1997 and 2003 sermons I began with several paragraphs edited from a sermon by Thomas G. Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes: Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Cycle B Gospel Texts). Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, 1987, pp. 70-75, which set up a theme of looking and not seeing, listening and not hearing. The 1997 sermon, “Come and See,” moved into one of the few times I actually named Girard in a sermon, as I shared a bit about how Girard’s evangelical anthropology has helped me to “come and see.”
3. The 2003 sermon, also titled “Come and See,” used the theme of eyes unseeing and ears unhearing to get at two issues in our modern experience that are still difficult for us to see and hear and understand: (1) racism, touching on the Martin Luther King, Jr. observance; and (2) the place of gay and lesbian people in our churches, an issue that threatens to tear our church apart.