Last revised: August 25, 2018
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PROPER 15 (August 14-20) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 20
RCL: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
RoCa: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2018 I began a new Interim Ministry in July and introduced a new element for Reformation each week. Here’s a summary of the first three weeks:
- Proper 11B: salvation as the healing of Tribalism (Ephesians 2).
- Proper 12B: living into Abundance thinking in the face of the dominance of Scarcity thinking (John 6:1-15).
- Proper 13B: salvation as much more than ‘going to heaven when we die’ — retranslating our experience of “eternal life” (John 6:24-35).
This week (after a week off for vacation), the day’s portion of John 6 (vv. 51-58) lends itself to introducing the element of transforming the old sacrifice into the new sacrifice, that is, self-sacrifice. As I outline below under the Gospel Reading, I see Jesus’s use of a more crude word for “eat” — trogein, which I translate as “feed off” — as a cue that he is challenging his listeners on their sacrificial thinking. He means to stir up in them the offensive thoughts of cannibalism because he has come to challenge them to give up all vestiges of sacrifice — most especially, the wrathful, punishing god who demands it. They think themselves above cannibals, but their sacrificial thinking is as deadly as ever. Jesus will eventually let himself be their sacrificial lamb in order to expose the entire business.
Christians need to hear this message just as much as Jesus’ fellow Jews. We have betrayed his rejection of sacrifice by becoming entrenched in a sacrificial reading of the cross, known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). This is the week to challenge it. In the previous weeks of this series on elements of a New Reformation, the challenge is in terms not of portraying previous doctrines as wrong but rather as limited. The Reformation’s emphasis on grace, especially going to heaven when we die, is not wrong; it’s simply an incomplete picture. Here, with PSA we must urgently counsel rejection. It is a betrayal of Jesus’ mission. It puts back in place the sacrificial thinking which Jesus came to subvert into self-sacrificial thinking — living lives of loving service.
PSA restores with a vengeance (pun intended) the wrathful punishing god of sacrifice, the god who continues to demand our wars, mass incarceration, tribalism, economic injustice, etc., just as surely as ancient gods demanded cannibalism.
The resulting sermon in 2018 was extemporized from these Sermon Notes — Proper 15B.
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, concludes his chapter 5 on “Universality and Time” with a quoting of Eph. 5:15-16 on p. 116. The chapter is divided into the two elements in its title, with the second part on “Redeeming the Time” (pp. 109-116). Part of Alison’s claim is that there are two distinct qualities of time which the quote from Eph. 5:15-16 circumscribes: redeemed time and evil time. The latter is characterized by violence, and the former comes into being with the resurrection of Christ as a time without end, i.e., an abundant life of growth that has been pruned of violence and destruction. Here is an especially eloquent summary:
the belief which Jesus inaugurated when he enabled us to live as if death were not, also enables us to live as if there were no end. That is, we can start here to construct something, a life story, which has no end. But this introduces into human history something quite extraordinary: the possibility of a story which is only one of growth, of coming into existence, of development, and which is in no way shaded by its contrary. And this, logically enough, tends to relativize the time which we all know and live normally, the ambiguous time where we grow and decay. It means that two different qualities of time co-exist: the time of that which is coming into existence, which has no end, and time which is subject to human violence, a time by means of which we seek our security, fortifying ourselves, grasping our existence in a struggle against the universal tendency to pass away. What I would like to suggest to you is that the pruning away of violence from the perception of God, the process we have already seen, is exactly at the same time the coming into existence of a quality of time which knows no violence. Time which is a gift for building, and not time which must be grasped for survival. (pp. 110-111)
2. 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.
3. 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.”
1. The NRSV translation of exagorazo as “making the most of” instead of the usual “redeem” might be questioned. There are four occurrences of the verb in the NT; the NRSV translates both instances in Galatians (3:13, 4:5) as “redeem” but then translates the parallel phrases of Eph. 5:16 and Col. 4:5 as “making the most of the time.” The difference for me is that the term “redeem” bears more of a sense of having help from God; I am able to the “redeem the time” because God is redeeming me. “Redeem” implies more to me than “make the most of.”
2. The NRSV translation of asotia (Eph. 5:18, “debauchery”) in 1 Pt 4:4 is “excesses of dissipation.” The adjective asotos is also used of the prodigal son in Luke 15:13 to describe “dissolute” (NRSV), “riotous” (KJV), or “loose” (RSV) living.
3. Here in Eph. 5 being filled with wine is contrasted with being filled with the Spirit. It is interesting that in the Pentecost story (Acts 2:15) being filled with the Spirit is mistaken for being filled with wine. But I suppose that one could get mistaken for being drunk here in Ephesians, too, since being filled with the Spirit is manifested “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRS Eph. 5:19-20) Jesus and his disciples were also considered to be party-ers because of the joyful Spirit which the Kingdom of God brings.
1. In v. 52 the Jews “disputed.” The Greek word is machomai, a relatively rare word with only three other occurrences in the NT (Acts 7:26, 2 Tim 2:24, James 4:2). The latter instance is quite interesting for mimetic theory: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes (machomai) and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.” “Dispute” is generally regarded as a rather tame translation; machomai has the connotation of physical fighting.
2. In 6:51-58, two different Greek verbs for “eat” occur a total of 8 times. The more common of the two, phagein, is used 158 times in the NT; it’s used 15 times in John (four times in this passage; vs. 51, 52, 53, 58). The more rare form, trogein, is used only 6 times in the NT, four of the occurrences here in this passage (vs. 54, 56, 57, 58), with the other two having a negative impact: Mt. 24:38, describing the eating of the people before Noah; and John 13:18, a reference to Judas’ eating next to Jesus at the Last Supper. The lexicons make John’s choice of words here even more shocking as they allude to the fact that trogein is generally used of animals gnawing audibly on their food. It would seem to be a choice of words for “eat” to convey a more ‘primitive,’ i.e., less prim and proper, form of eating, the kind that might shock the majority of diners when dining “in good company.” Is it too much to translate it here as “gnaw” of “chew”?
In N.T. Wright‘s Kingdom New Testament, he translates the first instance of trogein (v. 54) as “feasts upon,” and then the subsequent three again as “eat.” Perhaps to capture the flavor of animals eating, an alternate translation could be “feed upon.” Here’s Wright’s translation of v. 54 with the further modification: “Anyone who feeds upon my flesh and drinks my blood has the life of God’s coming age, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
3. According to Raymond Brown [John, The Anchor Bible], the Aramaic phrase (transmitted through Syriac) “eater of flesh” is the title of the devil. This passage is most often taken as a reference to the Eucharist, and it no doubt is, to some extent. But shouldn’t the first reference be to the cross? If “eater of flesh” bears a Satanic reference (and doesn’t the switch to trogein support a Satanic reference?), then should we be first thinking about the Eucharist in this passage? Or should we first think of the cross (e.g., as a self-sacrifice to the Satanic powers), with our understanding of the Eucharist thereby deepened by our understanding of the cross? (I will support the latter choice below).
4. “Truly, truly” in v. 53 is amen, amen; but the “true” food and drink in v. 55 is alethes, John’s standard word for truth (25 occurrences of the noun and 14 for the adj.). aletheia literally means to stop forgetting, a telling term for truth, if our usual human state is living in an amnesiac delusion. (Note: Alison’s section above on “Redeeming the Time” also includes hypnosis as a metaphor for how it is that we live under a sense of time trapped under the powers of violence; hypnosis is a state of controlling what one can remember. Aletheia as truth would thus be a powerful image for coming out of the hypnosis, to stop forgetting.) Key verses include: NRS John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth; NRS John 18:37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What is the truth that Jesus came to testify to? The other most extensive use of “truth” by John comes in ch. 8 where Jesus contrasts his Father with the father of lies: NRS John 8:44 “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” What we need to stop forgetting is that we stand in the lies of being murderers from the beginning. The truth that Jesus is about to testify to before Pilate also relates to the krisis, the judgment: NRS John 12:31 “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Pilate is about to reveal the truth through his judgment of Jesus, because Jesus glory in the lifting up will reveal the lie of his judgment and begin to help us stop forgetting our murderous ways.
5. Sharing N.T. Wright‘s translation of v. 54 above (Exegetical Note #2) confronts us once again with the crucial challenge of translating zōēn aiōnion, “eternal life,” which Wright translates as “life of God’s coming age.” See Lent 4B for the most extensive commentary on this translation — not just the words but translating our entire way of thinking about eschatology, the goal of salvation.
We have already encountered this phrase in John 6 (see Proper 13B), and it occurs twice more in this passage, vv. 54, 58. The latter comes with a slight twist: the verb zēsei (future tense), “will live,” rather than the noun zōēn, “life.” So instead of the usual translation “will live forever,” we translate “will live into God’s coming age.” Interestingly, the full phrase in the Greek — zēsei eis ton aiōna —includes eis, “into,” which actually fits our translation better than the traditional one. A direct translation of the phrase would simply be “will live into the age.”
6. Another key term comes several verses after our lection, when the disciples echo the sentiments of the waning crowd, “Hey, this is hard stuff!” NRS John 6:61: “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?'” “Offend” is the verb form of skandalon, “stumbling block,” a key Girardian term that represents the model who is both model and rival.
1. S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, pp. 57-60; link to this excerpt that explains Girard’s views on mythology in contrast to Joseph Campbell’s. Heim’s book provides the perfect illustration for this portion of the John 6 text. Heim uses an excerpt from Campbell in which he is explaining the majesty of ‘dying and rising’ myths while sketching a cannibalistic ritual from Papua-New Guinea. Campbell is so caught up in what he sees as the beauty of the myth that he virtually ignores the horror of the cannibalism. This is because Campbell’s view of myth lauds human creativity for devising such narratives, so that he sees the rituals as secondary, poor attempts to enact the action of the myth. He apparently doesn’t notice the inconsistency of admiring human creativity for myth while lamenting the lack of creativity for the rituals. Girard’s view reverses primary and secondary importance: the ritual is primary as a re-enactment of the collective violence behind culture, and the myth is a secondary layer added on to begin covering the violence from view — which continues to work on folks like Campbell whose gaze passes too swiftly over the murder to the myth!
Campbell’s blindness to the horror of collective murder is the sort of thing that I believe our Gospel Lesson addresses. Jesus will not let his listeners ignore the horror of collective violence — the very act of remembrance at the heart of our worship each time we gather for the Eucharist. In the Heim excerpt, Campbell uses the Papua-New Guinea ritual and myth as supposedly shedding light on the Christian Eucharist. But once again he has things backwards. It is the Eucharist that needs to shed light on such acts of sacred ritual; for example, the ‘little couple’ who are killed, roasted, and eaten in the Papua-New Guinea ritual are innocent like Jesus is innocent. They are fodder for the machinery of sacred religion, precisely the machinery that John 6 and the Eucharist are meant to unveil, as they also spiritually (and bloodlessly) feed us for God’s Kingdom of mercy and life. While the language and imagery of cannibalism is used in the Eucharist to unveil the sin of sacred violence, the point is lost, I think, if we aren’t also grateful that it is bread and wine we are eating when many of our ancestors have truly gnawed on human flesh and drank human blood.
2. Gil Bailie, audio tape series on “The Gospel of John“; tape 5 is on John 6.
3. 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. My reading of John 6 is especially focused on this portion of it, in which I read Jesus as purposefully talking the language of cannibalism.
4. 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,” offered in 2018 these reflections on the passage, “Eating Together.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Martin Copenhaver, in his Christian Century reflections on this passage (July 27, 1994, p. 719), begins with the story of a friend disillusioned with the church, who cites as an example an experience he had back in catechism class. Copenhaver writes:
He asked his teacher how the sacrament was any different from the ritual cannibalism practiced in some tribes in which they eat the body of the departed leader in the belief that by doing so they will manifest the leader’s powers. The teacher was obviously agitated by the question and responded, “What a disgusting suggestion! It has nothing to do with cannibalism. We’re talking about a blessed sacrament, not some primitive ritual. It’s completely different.” The teacher refused to continue the discussion.
I would like to propose that the mimetic theory of René Girard finally helps us to understand how that teacher was both right and wrong, i.e., how the sacrament is both similar and different from cannibalism. And how the difference, when paradoxically understood alongside the similarity, can make all the difference in the world to the believer who partakes of the sacrament. And I believe that this passage in John 6 means for us to partake of that paradox, using intentionally cannibalistic language (see the note above on the use of trogein to convey a more ‘primitive’ sense of eating). Jesus means to shock his listeners into hearing how their own more sophisticated sacrificial ways are not, in the end, different than the more ‘primitive’ sacrificial ways of cannibalism. The only alternative to the sacrificial ways of any human society will be to ingest the ways of the one who let himself be consumed by them. Link to a sermon that begins with Copenhaver’s story, entitled “True Bread and Drink” (2003, as well as 1997 and 2000 versions).
2. Above, I take issue with any interpretation of this passage that moves too easily and too quickly to a eucharistic interpretation. I think that our interpretation of this passage must first be read through the sacrifice of the cross, as a self-sacrifice of Jesus to the sacrificial powers of this world in order to expose them for what they are.
But, having first read this passage through the cross, I think that we are in position to more truly recognize the gift of the Eucharist as true food and drink. To put it succinctly, the gift of the Eucharist is that of Holy Communion in distinction from plain, ol’ communion. Plain, ol’ communion is based on the sacrifice of others, while Holy Communion is based on the self-sacrifice of Christ. In essence, we are talking here about the two fundamentally different alternatives to forming community: one is based on performing an act of collective violence against others; the second is based on being in solidarity with the victims of collective violence.
3. This understanding of the Eucharist provides the basis for my view of the church in continuing need of reformation. I see the crucial lapse for the church with Constantine. Prior to Constantine the identity of the church itself had been one of being the sometimes victim of the Empire’s collective violence. But when Christianity becomes the imperial religion, it now is syncretized with those forces of collective violence. It’s not that the church never engaged in collective violence prior to Constantine; but I still think that an actual merging of the church with the dominant forces of collective violence provided a quantitative difference that became a qualitative difference.
We now find ourselves in a qualitatively different situation, again, for the first time in more than a millennium. A couple hundred years of the American experiment of separation between Church and State has finally brought about that separation throughout most of the “Christian West,” which, because of this change, really isn’t Christian any longer. If I was to choose a new dominant influence in the West, I would call it the Capitalist West. The church now more clearly faces its choice once again of how to be community: as a community akin to other communities around us, in competition (i.e., mimetic rivalry) with them, or as the alternative community, the Holy Communion, that Jesus instituted us to be through the holy sacrament. I believe that the mimetic theory of René Girard provides an invaluable hermeneutic for more clearly understanding that call issued to us through the living Christ, the sacrament, and scripture. And I believe that John 6 is a key passage in which Jesus is desperately trying (using the shocking language of cannibalism!) to help his disciples to see these truths.
4. I would be remiss in neglecting to say at least a little bit more about this time when I feel the Church to have been syncretized with the ways of the Empire. Syncretism is not a good thing in most people’s minds; yet I think that syncretism does at least imply the continued co-existence of two contrasting influences. I would not go so far as to say, therefore, that the Christian truth was completely lost during this time when the imperial half of the equation was too dominant, and that we need to start over. Reformation does not mean a complete tearing down and rebuilding. I am in the reform tradition, which for me means basically trying to more readily distinguish ourselves within this syncretism. Or, perhaps to use James Alison’s tactic, to try to turn the tables within the syncretism by helping the Christian truth to be the ‘forming’ influence — thus, to use his terms, a subversion from within.
There is at least two advantages which I see to this tactic. One is reflected in my use of the term “forming influence.” That would be opposed, for example, to the way of the Empire which is to be a dominating or controlling influence. That would be reflected through the Lord who himself serves, or sacrifices self, rather than the Lord who dominates, or sacrifices others. This goes to the heart of the very nature of power. Within this syncretism of world and church, the power of our Lord Jesus Christ is on the way to be the forming influence, the true power of this world, which will someday make the Kingdom of God the power of life which is all-in-all (1 Cor. 15:28).
The second advantage of a subversion from within tactic would be to avoid the temptation to other-worldliness, which is basically the temptation to deny the Incarnation. Isn’t the Incarnation itself basically a positive form of syncretism, a merging of “flesh” and “Spirit”? A syncretism in which the divine ways are allowed to merge with the human ways? A syncretism in which the divine ways finally redeem the human ways?
I see the last millennium or so of church history to be a syncretism in which the imperial ways were too dominant. The church failed far too often to incarnate the ways of Christ, and instead incarnated the ways of the Empire. But my faith is such that, as a syncretism, the incarnation of Christ has never been wholly lost in the Church. And the most important, enduring symbol of that continued incarnation of Christ is the continued practice of the sacrament. It is Christ’s gift to the church which continues to be “forming influence” for us as we strive to finally be Christ’s incarnation in this world, a subversion of the powers from within, a forming influence of life in community based on serving and self-sacrifice.