Last revised: September 17, 2021
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PROPER 14 (August 7-13) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 19
RCL: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
RoCa: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of One New Humanity
(Reprise of last week’s comments🙂 Everything begins these days for me with Ephesians 2:14-15: “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself One New Humanity in place of the two. . . .” In 2018 I began a post as Interim Pastor precisely on the Sunday that these verses appear in the lectionary (Proper 11B). It became the occasion for preaching a months-long theme based on this passage. Since then, I’ve come to see it as the most poignant articulation of the Gospel in all of the New Testament. God is creating One New Humanity as the first stage in launching the project of New Creation on the First Easter. The fulfillment of Creation, for which the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is the first fruits, includes a renewal of Homo sapiens to be the stewards of Creation we are made to be. In order for that to happen, Christ must first guide us and empower us to make peace — to tear down the walls of sacred violence that cause us to be divided against ourselves — so that we can work together in caring for one another and for our earth-home.
At the heart of this Gospel, then, is anthropology . . . more so than theology. Jesus was sent in order to show us what it means to be human. And there is no better tool to help us read and interpret Scripture anthropologically than the Mimetic Theory of René Girard, which is a theory of how humanity first evolved by culturally erecting ‘walls of hostility’ that need to be broken down in order for us to become One New Humanity.
In 2021 I was taking on regular supply preaching, at new congregations nearly every week, so it was different circumstances than in 2018 when I was in the same place each week to develop a theme. I viewed my preaching task as one of introducing the theme of a new Gospel each week — explaining how the traditional Lutheran view of the Gospel as “justification by grace through faith” is inadequate to a deeper understanding of the Gospel as God creating One New Humanity. Readers can see this most clearly the keystone sermon, “Preaching the Gospel of One New Humanity,” but subsequent weeks ring out variations on the theme. This week’s sermon, “‘Eternal Life’ for the Here and Now,” proposes that a renewal of the Gospel message needs to move from an over-focus on the afterlife to the Good News that God is working in Jesus the Messiah to renew our humanity in the Here and Now.
1 Kings 19:4-8
2. James Alison, “Theology Amidst the Dust and Stones” (excerpt), ch. 2 in Faith Beyond Resentment. The opening section gives a moving account of Elijah’s ministry coming to grips with sacred violence.
Reflections and Questions
1. “Anti-sacrificial sacrifice” is a form of the famished craving that we have been talking about in connection with John 6 the past two weeks. Elijah, in this text, plunks down under the tree feeling all used up, exhausted from the famished cravings of the sacrificial fires — fires which he himself has just fed with the priests of Ba’al. Is it any wonder that the demand for more fuel has not yet ceased but has turned its ravenous appetite toward him?
Our lection leaves us with the Lord feeding Elijah’s hunger and moving on to a cave at Mt. Horeb, where he responds to God (1 Kings 19:10): “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Isn’t this the famished craving for sacrificial victims in a nutshell? And hasn’t Elijah himself gotten caught up in it?
There, Yahweh gives Elijah his final instructions (1 Kings 19:15-18): “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.'” This is obviously a problematic text, from a Girardian perspective because it seemingly mixes in human violence with divine intentions, when mimetic theory urges us to keep them separate. It is cloaking such violence under a veil of the sacred, in fact, which helps to keep the sacrificial pyres burning. What is instructive about the Hebrew scriptures, however, is that this sacred violence seems to be collapsing, withering away, so that it no longer does what it is supposed to do: halt episodes of endless revenge (i.e., Elisha shall get who Jehu doesn’t, who will get who Hazael doesn’t, who…). These structures of the sacred are collapsing, even though they might still be attributed to the will of God.
1. There is a splendid and thorough treatment of the theme of Imitatio Christi as read out of the New Testament, entitled “Discipleship and the Imitation of Jesus / Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” by Willard M. Swartley, chapter eleven in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, edited by Willard M. Swartley. He begins with the historical observation that Protestantism downplayed imitatio Christi, beginning with Luther’s influence, who felt that it was a side door way of letting works righteousness creep in. Yet Swartley convincingly surveys the biblical record and begins his conclusion with this bold statement:
A mimesis pattern lies at the heart of NT thought. Any theology or ethics of the NT should make this point foundational, but few do.
Ephesians 5:1 is but one example of the theme of imitation.
2. René Girard has a strongly supportive statement of Swartley’s article in his concluding response to the collection of essays that make up Violence Renounced. Girard’s comments on imitatio Christi are excerpted here.
3. 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. I give you the second half of this excerpt here:
The gentiles, exactly in line with what we might expect, have futile minds and darkened understanding “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (Eph 4:18). Because of this it is not surprising that they are entirely run by the desires of the world and its old nature (4:19-22). However, those who have learnt the things of Christ should be first “renewed in the spirit of your minds” and thus able to “put on the new man, the one created according to [after the likeness of] God in the righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:23-42).The author then goes on to show what this putting on of a new man might mean, and there is nothing escapist about it: the putting on of a new nature is exactly described as the redirection of the mimetically formed old nature. So, instead of speaking falsehood to our neighbor (old man), or indeed not speaking to them at all — an escapism not even contemplated in the text — we must speak the truth to them, for we are members one of another: interdividuality is still the norm in the new nature as in the old. The thief must put the same desire that ran him in appropriation to its inverse, fecund effect: doing honest work with his hands that he may be able to give to those in need. Talk must be for edifying, rather than destroying people, and all the anger and clamor and slander must be turned to forgiveness: a real mode of human presence introducing a different quality of interdividuality. The conclusion to this passage is almost embarrassingly apropos of the analysis that I have been trying to set out: “Therefore be imitators [mimétai] of God as beloved children, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
It is in the light of this that the following instructions about avoiding particular aspects of the world of desire proper to un-reformed selves are to be read. These desires militate against the walking in love in such a way that one can offer oneself up as a sacrifice to God. By walking in the light however, we are not expected simply to shun the darkness, but actively to show it up for what it is: “Take no part in the works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11). There is no escapism here, but an awareness that by living the life of Christ we will show up the works of darkness. It was that living of the light, of course, which was what caused Christ to be turned into a sacrifice in the first place. The author draws from this the observation not that we should flee to some heavenly place, but rather that we should learn to walk carefully. In the light of the foregoing, this can only mean that learning how to live the eschatological imagination and the consequent reformation of the self is a difficult process requiring wisdom, as we come to see by which desires we are being drawn in any given situation: the heavenly mimesis or the worldly. As we learn to walk carefully in this way, so we will be redeeming the time, for the days are evil (Eph. 5:16).
We have then, already within the apostolic witness a clear understanding that Jesus opened up an eschatological imagination, making available a very strong hope, to be received in a childlike manner, and which, rather than encouraging a dissociation from history, encourages rather the construction of a new way of living in time. The centrepiece of this vision is the self-giving victim who himself makes possible the living out of this new quality of history on earth. This new quality of history involves an active construction of light in the midst of the darkness of the lies of this world. That is to say, it is the bringing into being of a counter-history, which, unlike the history of this world, is centered already on its continuation and fulfilment in the heavenly places.
4. 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. There is little I could add to Alison’s fine reflections above, except perhaps to explicitly recognize the highly Girardian language in 5:1-2. The exhortation to be imitators of God as God’s children is classic Girardian, though the reference to sacrifice is more problematic. It might be helpful to remember that Girard himself has wrestled with what to do about sacrificial references in the NT. Early in his career he was tempted to even discount an epistle like Hebrews because of its highly sacrificial language. But he has since reversed himself on this, seeing that the NT takes the sacrificial language and is in process of transforming it. Eph 5:2, for example, emphasizes the fact that Jesus gave up himself as a sacrifice. It does not make reference to a demand from God that he do so.
I have tried in some of my writings (e.g., the piece on John 6 that I shared here two weeks ago) to distinguish between sacrifice and Jesus’ self-sacrifice. I believe that that distinction can be read out of Eph. 5:2. We thus have a positive notion of loving self-sacrifice (as opposed to the human tendency to make sacrificial victims) that is also conveyed in the NT emphasis on servanthood.
2. In 2003 the parish I was serving as an interim was at an important place in its history, meeting after worship to consider the call of their next pastor. This passage seemed timely in its encouragement to speak the truth to one another in love. It is a critical issue for the church at-large, in which we so often seem to center on an understanding of truth too heavily weighted toward what is said, indifferent to how it is said. Hence, my sermon that day, “The What and How of Truthful Conversation.”
3. Enjoyable to me in this sermon was connecting it to one of my favorite movies, a movie which fleshes out mimetic theory quite well, I think: the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. For those familiar with the plot (those who aren’t can check the sermon where I provide a fuller synopsis), Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is the only one who keeps endlessly repeating the Groundhog Day’s celebration in Punxsutawney, Pa., a repetition that is ripe for mimeticism.
Let me repeat some of description in the sermon, but more with an eye to how I think this movie fleshes out mimetic theory in a delightful way. Trapped in this endless repetition becomes hell for Phil as he seems trapped in a view of himself through others that he is self-centered and unlikable. He decides that, to make the best of this bad situation, he can at least use his advantage of being the one most free to change his variable in the interactions to try to win over Andie MacDowell’s character. He can slowly find out exactly what to say to her to have a successful conversation with her. We see repeated conversations between the two of them in which he finds out her likes and dislikes from day to day and puts them to use in the conversation the next repeat of the day. He finds out, for example, that she likes to toast to world peace, so the next time around in that same repeated day he toasts for world peace. He can manipulate the conversation to exactly what he should say in order to win her over. But even at the end of the day when the conversation has gone fabulously, because he’s had so much practice, he’s still the same person to her. She still trusts her previous assessments of who he is (confirmed in the desires of others, of course, such as the lackey, highly mimetic camera man on their TV crew).
When Phil finally gives up this route, and relaxes into a sort of forgiving acceptance of himself as not measuring up to her kindness, he unwittingly begins to imitate the kind and considerate person that he sees her as. After many repeated days spent in self-growth and in truly reaching out to many folks in town, he finally comes to the end of his repeated Groundhog’s Day at the town celebration, where many of the townsfolk laud him as a wonderful, caring person. Rita is now more open to trusting who Phil has become through the eyes of all these others. She is open to revising her previous assessments on the basis of so many others. Phil and Rita now come together at the end of the day, no longer in a mimetic entanglement of Phil’s attempted manipulations and controls, but, through his more genuine, positive imitation of Rita, as nonrivalrous equals. It no longer matters as much what is said as how they are saying it in their new relationship. They fall asleep together just talking, and Phil finally wakes up with Rita the next morning at long last on February 3. Is this the sort of opportunity we have as baptized children of God? To awake each morning with an ever new chance of transforming relationships, as we grow in loving service and partnership with one another?
John 6:35, 41-51
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. Michael Hardin & Jeff Krantz, “Preaching Peace,” IX Pentecost. In the “Anthropological Reading” section, the focus is on Jesus’ quote of Isaiah 54:13 that “They will all be taught by God.” I found the following helpful, tying it into the sermon above on Ephesians 4:25-5:2:
It is imitation that is being discussed here, for to be taught by God, is to learn the way we learn anything, by imitation. But what exactly does the Creator teach? The creator teaches that in the end one can look at a human being and in the end confirm that which is experienced in the spirit. It means that a new form of imitation is here, a real imitation of the Creator. Jesus is the prime human example of God’s interactivity with humans but we all acknowledge the Creator when we acknowledge God.
The “So What” section is also helpful. Jeff Krantz writes with a deeply personal flavor about his experience at the eucharistic table, one that takes seriously the literal language of John 6, language of cannibalistic murder: “The mystery no longer centered on the magical transformation of the bread and wine into Body and Blood, but is now focused on God’s miraculous transformation of me from killer to beloved child.” He concludes:
We find this image of ourselves as killers no less repugnant than the literal imagery of consuming Body and Blood. We prefer to see ourselves as basically good folks who just mess up from time to time. We (in the West, at least) continually overlook the human costs of our consumption and economic oppression of the rest of the world, the death that we wreak daily for the sake of lower gas or clothing prices. Jesus, as he offers us Himself in all His corporeality, asks us to embrace our murderous natures fully so as to be delivered from them.
(I hope readers of this website regularly pay a visit to “Preaching Peace,” as I do. It is another site dedicated to mimetic theory and the lectionary in a helpful style of original essays and commentary.)
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 13, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
Reflections and Questions
1. Jesus is the bread of life. Is there a bread of death? (Is it the bread that Satan offers Jesus, for example, in the Q temptation story?) Is it what we have been talking about with reference to a “famished craving”? We have a famished craving because we partake of a bread of death that only makes us hungrier and hungrier until we are exhausted (like Elijah collapsing under a broom tree). This is a bread of death most dramatically with the craving to feed the sacrificial pyres. But isn’t there also a mimetic craving underlying it all, that the sacrificial pyres are meant to feed but no longer do with satisfaction? In our age this craving is signaled best, perhaps, by the kind of out-of-control consumerism (a very telling word when talking about famished cravings) we know in our culture. Many have begun to call ours an “addictive” culture, and it seems to me that addiction characterizes the famished craving to a tee. We keep imbibing more and more but cannot seem to get enough until it kills us. A bread of death. Jesus offers us a bread of life. Link to a sermon entitled “Bread of Death, Bread of Life.”
2. Another important word in this lection is “draw” (vs. 44): “No one can come to me unless “drawn” by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. The Greek word elkuo appears in four other places in John: Peter drawing his sword (18:10); twice in the post-Resurrection story of the disciples drawing in their nets full of fish on the sea of Galilee (21:6, 11); and the most important one for Girardians (12:32): “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The notion of drawing has a similar feel to it as an attraction, as a craving. It is important to note, I think, that Jesus doesn’t take away our need for bread; he offers us a bread of life, rather than a bread of death. And Jesus doesn’t take away the craving to be drawn together in community; he gives us another basis for doing so. All the peoples of the earth will be drawn together in true community when Jesus is lifted up, when Jesus comes into his glory (from the Johannine way of speaking) by suffering the apparent victimization of the cross. From the perspective of our sacrificial institutions, he is the victim, the lamb of God, the bread offered for our sacrificial consumption. But from Christ’s perspective, the cross will manifest the Father’s glory that has the power to draw all peoples together. Finally, perhaps we could sum this all up by saying that: sacrament replaces sacrifice as the true means for Holy Communion.