Last revised: August 25, 2018
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PROPER 16 (August 21-27) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 21
RCL: 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
RoCa: Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69
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 four 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).
- Proper 15B: transforming the old sacrifice into the new sacrifice, that is, self-sacrifice — beginning to subvert all sacrificial thinking, which is the thinking behind tribalism. This includes atonement theology about the cross which sees it in terms of sacrifice: a wrathful, punishing God who would exact death for all sinners except for Jesus stepping in to take the punishment.
This week we turn to Ephesians 6 to understand how human sacrificial thinking transcends any one person and makes its way into our societies and cultures so that it becomes “the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18
1. The book of Joshua provides a good example of a “text in travail.” Our particular lection does positively put forward the choice of serving the true God in distinction from the other gods. But this choice comes in the context of Holy War. For a more complete Girardian take on the book of Joshua, see ch. 8 of Gil Bailie‘s Violence Unveiled entitled “Crossing the Jordan Opposite Jericho.”
2. Gordan H. Matties does a good job of pressing a Girardian reading of Joshua further with his essay “Can Girard Help Us Read Joshua?”, in Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley, pages 85-102.
1. Understanding the “powers and principalities” is one of the strengths of René Girard‘s anthropology, as he often speaks in terms such as the “victimage mechanism.” Even though he interprets things anthropologically — not otherworldly — he can help make sense of anthropological realities which go beyond flesh and blood, the kinds of things that St. Paul is pointing us to here.
Satan, for example, is a powerful anthropological reality in Girard’s work. The power of Satan is not the power of an individual being but a power rooted in human communal life. I refer you once again to his essay on Satan (excerpt) in The Girard Reader.
In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard lays out his anthropology with the New Testament language of Satan and reaches a point, in chapter eight, where he explicitly discusses the Powers and Principalities (excerpt).
2. Garry Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, has written a new book (Doubleday, 2000) that is basically about how much of the papacy has succumb to the powers, especially “structures of deceit.” He focuses his historical account around Pope Pius IX and the first Vatican Council. But guess what he ends with? Passionate support for the work of René Girard as a key to understanding the work of the powers, especially Satan, the “father of lies.” It is quite an eloquent statement of Girard’s thesis (pp. 303-307).
3. Following Girard, Girardians generally deal substantially with themes relating to “Satan” as the New Testament personification of the anthropological “powers and principalities.” I give you two such treatments: (1) James Alison, from The Joy of Being Wrong, a section entitled “Excursus on the Devil“; and (2) Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, sections both on “The Devil and Satan” and “Scandal.”
4. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers, provides commentary specifically on Eph 6:12, pp. 84-89, as well as on the whole concept of “principalities and powers.” There are also numerous references to this passage in Wink’s Engaging the Powers (check the index, p. 408).
So formidable a phalanx of hostility demands spiritual weaponry, for it is clear that we contend not against human beings as such (“blood and flesh”) but against the legitimations, seats of authority, hierarchical systems, ideological justifications, and punitive sanctions which their human incumbents exercise and which transcend these incumbents in both time and power. It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institutions and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent. For the institution will guarantee the replacement of this person with another virtually the same, who despite personal preferences will replicate decisions made by a whole string of predecessors because that is what the institution requires for its survival. It is this suprahuman quality which accounts for the apparent “heavenly,” bigger than life, quasi-eternal character of the Powers. Naming the Powers, pp. 85-86.
5. 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.
6. 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. N. T. Wright‘s important book on the historical Jesus, Jesus and the Victory of God, sets up a Girardian reading by making the following bold moves: (1) Bypass Bultmann and much of modern scholarship with its suspicion of the evangelists around a notion of mythologizing which misses the anthropological point (see, e.g., Girard’s essay “Are the Gospels Mythical?“). (2) Revive Schweitzer’s categorization of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet but (3) correct his description of what that would have meant in first century Judaism: namely, Jesus was essentially correct as an apocalyptic prophet in his prophecy that the way of armed rebellion would bring an end to the Temple, and thus an end to Judaism as it was practiced and known in first century Palestine. (4) Understand with Jesus that the real enemy is not Rome, the Judean leadership, or any human leaders but the satanic powers behind them. (5) When this is understood, then it is easy to see that the way to peace is not through killing Romans or any human beings, who are but instruments of “the satan” (Wright uses the article to indicate a title akin to “the accuser”). Girard’s anthropology can then fill in the nature of the satanic powers, on which Wright (disappointingly) doesn’t really elaborate much.
2. Doesn’t this also make sense of the unique call of Jesus to love our enemies — and the theology of Paul which emphasizes a God who has loved us even while we were still enemies? Jesus can call on us to love even Romans because they aren’t the real enemy anyways. Satan is. God can still love us as sinners because the real enemy is Satan anyway. We can kill the Romans and Satan will simply find another instrument for his brand of righteous violence. (Currently, George W. Bush?) God can kill us but Satan will only find others. (Is this the logic behind the flood story? Or the parable of the Wheat and Weeds?)
3. In 2003 it was my last Sunday as an interim in the congregation I was serving. It also fell on the Lesser Festival of St. Bartholomew, Apostle (August 24). We used the First Lesson and Gospel Lesson for St. Bart, but I kept this passage as second lesson to preach on, a sermon entitled “The Victory of God: The Nonviolent Christ against the Satanic Powers of Violence.”
4. From whence are these dark powers, up against which we constantly run? In 2000 I came across what I think is a Lutheran statement of these powers in the second verse of “A Mighty Fortress”:
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing.
Could it be that behind these dark powers are our own “strivings”? “Strivings” might even be a better word for what Girard means by “desire.” We usually think of desire as some feeling internal to us. But Girard suggests that desire is our activity of desiring that we model to one another — in another word, “strivings.” And he provides a whole anthropological analysis, “mimetic theory,” which helps us to understand how it is that, in our fallenness, our strivings turn to losing. Link to a sermon on “Our Striving Would Be Losing.”
5. Where does the Church fit into Wink’s analysis of the institutions and the Powers? My own view has been that much of church history became infected with these powers, which we were called to battle against, after Constantine. I think that Wink’s analysis can shed light on this when he says that the human agents leading institutions “replicate decisions made by a whole string of predecessors because that is what the institution requires for its survival.” If we take Jesus as the original predecessor to follow and “replicate” in the church, then we have an institution that has the chance to be something quite different. But when the church took on an imperial model for its structuring, there were qualitatively different models to replicate; and I think that the church has been quite different ever since. No doubt there were leaders in the church prior to Constantine who tried to be their own little emperors within the church, but I think there has been a qualitative difference after Constantine. Garry Wills book, cited above, recounts how much of the papacy has succumb to “structures of deceit.” There is still the need to do spiritual battle with the Powers within the church itself, even as the Church is itself called to do spiritual battle with the Powers of this cosmos. I think that Jesus knew this would be the case when he instituted the blessed sacrament to be at the heart of the church’s life. It is in the sacrament that we can ingest (“replicate”) the life of the one who came to serve, as opposed to the ones who lord it over us (cf., Luke 22:14-27).
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. David McCracken‘s The Scandal of the Gospels is a marvelous resource on a Girardian reading of the notion of skandalon through the gospels. Jesus makes reference to the skandalon in John 6:61 (“Does this offend you?”), and McCracken discusses John’s gospel in general in ch. 9 of his book, and this passage in particular on pp. 159-164.
4. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 141. Alison links the murmuring in the wilderness of a passage like Ex. 16 (of three weeks ago) 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.
5. See the webpage Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 27, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
Reflections and Questions
1. The puzzling part of this passage are Jesus’ words, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” This follows a passage in which Jesus has insisted that we must gnaw on his flesh in order to receive life. McCracken takes his cue for reading this passage from his other mentor besides Girard: Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard spoke of the sheer scandal of God coming into the flesh. I think that Girard helps us to understand that the scandal is more than the simple fact of the incarnation, but that God’s coming into the flesh was for the purpose of revealing to us the way in which our institutions depend on devouring human flesh. We need the gift of the Spirit of truth, the Paraclete, in order to see this truth. To think of our institutions as cannibalism is indeed a scandal to us, one that will cause many a disciple to walk away and never come back, leaving even those disciples who stay scratching their heads and wondering who can listen to it. The other option to being scandalized by it is to proclaim with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (This is the choice that McCracken says the Gospel places before us: being scandalized or responding in faith — much more on this in upcoming weeks with McCracken’s insightful reading of Mark 7.)