Proper 13B

Last revised: August 25, 2018
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PROPER 13 (July 31-Aug. 6) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 18
RCL: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
RoCa: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35

Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation

In 2018 I began a new Interim Ministry the Sunday of Proper 11B on the theme of salvation as the healing of tribalism, based on Ephesians 2: the real-world results of Christ’s saving act on the cross is to launch the creation of one new humanity out of two. It is an ideal beginning point for talk of a New Reformation because it makes clear how the Reformation failed. Instead of getting the church back on track to participate in the healing of tribalism, the Reformation created many new forms of tribalism — Protestant vs. Catholic, Lutheran vs. Anabaptist, etc. All of this was still under the banner of Christendom in which an imperialistic church continued to play the central imperialistic game of defining, violently expanding, and defending borders. This held true in theology, doctrine, and practice, too.

Now that the church is becoming post-Christendom (at varying paces and successes/failures in the still-split church bodies), the opportunity is to participate in the healing of the many tribalisms plaguing our society at-large. But one of the blocks to such a calling is Scarcity thinking — which is the topic of Proper 12B as the lectionary begins a several week foray into John 6, the feeding of a large crowd and the subsequent “Bread of Life” dialogue. Jesus demonstrates Abundance thinking in the face of a crowd trapped in Scarcity thinking.

In this third week of introducing elements of a New Reformation, we address the limited scope of recent teaching on salvation, namely, that salvation is mostly about ‘going to heaven when we die.’ New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has been the most influential teacher on this subject, beginning with his monumental The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003). The shorter work for a more general audience is Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008). But, a prolific writer, Wright has made the expansion of salvation — from ‘going to heaven when we die’ to the New Creation launched on Easter — a central thread in nearly every book he has written since 2003.

Today’s next snippet from John 6 provides an ideal to introduce this element of a New Creation because of the pivotal phrase in the Greek zōēn aiōnion, most often translated as “eternal life.” Wright challenges this translation as being more Greek than Hebrew. We need to remember that Aramaic/Hebrew was Jesus’s first language. Greek was probably a second language for Jesus, since it was the primary language of the First Century Mediterranean culture and so became the language of the New Testament. But Jesus wouldn’t have used the phrase zōēn aiōnion to a Jewish audience, so what Jewish phrase and thought is the Greek trying to translate? My favorite explanation of this issue is from Wright’s How God Became King:

The second expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it. “God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.

But it isn’’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.

If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” (pp. 44-45)

So Wright consistently translates zōēn aiōnion as itself a translation of ha-olam ha-ba, “life in God’s new age,” or “life in God’s coming age.” For much more on this subject, see Lent 4B (on John 3).

When introducing this matter in a sermon, I often try to keep it personal, sharing how this freshly translated idea effects my own experience of facing death and losing loved ones. Most importantly, it is essential to keep it clear that it doesn’t mean the loss of the great comfort of life-after-death. Rather, it various ways it means an expansion of the hope and comfort, especially with a renewed sense of calling for this life. For an example of preaching on this hopeful element, see the sermon on John 17 (Easter 7C Sermon) and John 14:1-14 (Easter 5A Sermon). Here are Notes for the 2108 Sermon (extemporized).


Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15

Resources

1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, ch. 3 on “Moses and the Exodus,” especially the section “Sacrificial Crisis in the Wilderness (excerpt),” pp. 81-84.

2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 141. Alison links the murmuring in the wilderness of a passage like Ex. 16 to John 6 in his explanation of the Girardian explication of skandalon:

What we can see in the light of this is the way Jesus’ teaching and practice leading up to his death had, already, as its object the setting free of his hearers and disciples from their being scandalized by him precisely so that they could become part of the new edifice that was to be founded in his rejection. There is ample evidence that the apostolic witnesses were able to re-read Jesus’ practice with them exactly in terms of his attempting to lead them out of scandal, to prevent them being caused to stumble by him. So, he tells the disciples of John the Baptist, at the end of a list of signs that accredit him as the “one who is to come,” “And blessed is he who is not scandalized at me” (Matt. 11:6; Luke 7:23). Those who are unable to accept his teaching are described as having been scandalized by him (Matt. 13:57;15:12; Mk 6:3). In the parable of the sower some are scandalized by persecution (Mt 13:21; Mk 4:17) and so do not bear fruit. The process of Jesus attempting to lead his hearers beyond scandal is shown in John 6. There Jesus attempts to bring his hearers on from their understanding of his miraculous feeding of the five thousand, an understanding rooted in food and a kingly messiah, towards his own subversion of the Passover and the Manna in the desert as pointing to himself as the authentic bread from heaven. During the discourse, the eager listening of his audience is gradually turned into furious questioning, linked by allusion with the murmuring of Israel against Moses on its way to the Promised Land. Finally even many of his disciples find it hard to take, and Jesus asks them if this scandalizes them (Jn 6:61). The scandal is what prevents people perceiving the unity of Jesus and the Father (v 62), and for John the flesh is precisely the human condition locked in scandal, while the spirit is what leads people beyond scandal into a belief in Jesus as revealing the Father, and the Father as he who sent Jesus into the world (vv 63-65). Many of the disciples are caused to stumble, but Peter and the other eleven stay, having perceived that Jesus has words of eternal life: that is, they have overcome the scandal, at least to some extent. Even so, Jesus knows that one of them is a diabolos who will betray him (v 70). The word diabolos here is quite specifically not used to indicate a metaphysical entity, but a human person locked in scandal.

Reflections and Questions

1. This passage not only fits the gospel’s theme of a miraculous giving of bread, but also of the “famished craving” (see below). The Lord gives and they still aren’t satisfied. The repetitious back and forth between complaint and answer emphasizes the futility of trying to satisfy a famished craving. Moses seems to sense that he is in a bad position, being the focus for the people’s famished craving, and keeps trying to shift the complaining to the Lord.


Ephesians 4:1-16

Resources

1. James Alison has a section on Ephesians called “Redeeming the Time” in The Joy of Being Wrong, pages 229-232. It is most helpful to read the whole of chapter 8 to get the full context, but this exposition of Ephesians can also stand alone and provide some help to the interpreter.

2. Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation I, ch. 4, “…And Abolished Emnity: Jesus’ Cross and the Peacemaking Vocation of the Church (Ephesians),” pages 82-118. The chapter begins:

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, erected the same year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, poignantly symbolizes the social architecture of division that defines our world. . . .The border wall reminds us that there have always been two Americas: one of inclusion and one of exclusion. The former has found expression in the ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” and has been realized whenever Indian treaties were honored, civil rights embraced, “huddled masses yearning to be free” welcomed, or child labor laws passed. The latter was articulated in a Constitution that originally enfranchised only white landed males, and has been consolidated through land grabs, Jim Crow segregation, Guilded Age economic stratification, restrictive housing covenants, and laws precluding gay marriage. These two visions of America continually compete for our hearts and minds, not least in our churches. The America of inclusion is the only hope for democracy; the America of exclusion, as. Lincoln’’s ultimatum about a “house divided” warned 150 years ago, is unsustainable.

Section E is on Ephesians 4-6: “‘Put on the Whole Armor of God’: A Call to Nonviolence as a Way of Life.”

Reflections and Questions

1. Is all the language about ascending and descending akin to Phil. 2, in which Jesus, though he was equal to God, lowered himself to the form of a servant, even to death on the cross; at which point God exalted him. Here, the one who empties himself for us showers all manners of gifts upon us in the process. The one who ascends in such a matter overturns the usual power schemes and makes captivity a captive. And the greatest gift that he gives is a new manner of oneness that is no longer at the expense of the scapegoat. Notice, too, that freedom and oneness are given together. Freedom is not the freedom to be a solitary individual; it is the freedom to be joined to the life-giving body of Christ.


John 6:24-35

Resources

1. Gil Bailie, audio tape series on “The Gospel of John“; tape 5 is on John 6.

2. Paul Nuechterlein, article entitled “Holy Communion,” a section “Sacrifice, the table sacrament, and John 6” and “Conclusion,” pages 216-220, the Spring 1996 issue of Contagion.

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, “Bread That Is Enough.”

4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Recruiters Follow Jesus to Capernaum“; a sermon in 2018, “Recruiters Follow Jesus to Capernaum, 2nd Edition.”

Reflections and Questions

1. The title alone for Gil Bailie‘s audio tape series, “The Famished Craving: The Attention of Others, the Fascination for the Famous, and the Need for Faith” (the main title from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Gerontion”), might be very fitting for this portion of John 6. The crowd persistently seeks out Jesus and asks him in 6:30, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” 6:2 tells us that this crowd “kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Then, they witness one of Jesus’ greatest signs, his feeding of the five thousand, which they recognized as a sign (6:14). But now they still come looking for a sign. Talk about a famished craving! One of the ironies of this chapter seems to be this contrast between the crowd’s famished craving and Jesus’ ability to give bread that satisfies.

The famished craving that Bailie focuses on in the tape series is our craving for the famous, our focus on those who fascinate us, which stems from the fascination of the god/victim. The Eliot passage goes like this:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving….

John 6 seems to be a good study of that process, as the crowd wavers between being impressed and being bored, craving a new sign. It mentioned in last week’s lection that they desired to make him king, which epitomizes the figure who fascinates. In Girard’s reading, the king is the sacrificial victim with a suspended sentence, the one who fascinates us for a time, until our famished craving devours him. By the end of the chapter, the crowd has dispersed; by the end of the gospel it has reassembled to devour him.

But their devouring of him will be different. As the revelation of this famished craving, he will offer the possibility of finally being satisfied, of being a bread from heaven just as he is the lamb from heaven, the Lamb of God.

(Link to the full text of Eliot’s “Gerontian”.)

2. I have found the contemporary term “Affluenza” to provide a meaningful way to talk about the modern experience of a famished craving. “Affluenza” was coined from a public TV show, which still has a very informative website at:

http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/

For example, it is now quite common to have garages of 1000 sq/ft (in order to hold all of one’s toys!), which was the average size of the starter home built in the 1950’s. Yet polls guaging how happy people say they are peaked at the end of the 1950’s. Our wealth continues to accumulate while the happiness factor goes down.

Link to a sermon developing these themes entitled “Bread that Satisfies.”

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