Last revised: December 7, 2018
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FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT — YEAR C
RCL: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
RoCa: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2018, since late July, we have been framing the New Reformation in terms of healing tribalism with Ephesians 2’s proclamation of the Gospel, “creating one new humanity out of two.” It has taken us through new adventures of reading Scripture in fresh ways and reinterpreting crucial elements of theology. Just as important, perhaps more so, but more difficult to cover in preaching is reforming practice.
On this First Sunday in Advent our parish was celebrating a First Communion with one of our children, and the readings feature prayer. So it occasioned the opportunity to speak about practice in light of healing tribalism:
Communion practice is increasingly emphasizing inclusiveness. I grew up in a tradition (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) that practiced exclusion to Communion to those who are not confirmed Lutheran. As that policy moderated in the 1960’s, a tribalistic backlash asserted itself in the early 1970’s. My home congregation could not go backwards in this process and left the LC-MS for the ELCA. In 1997 the ELCA officially adopted a policy that includes infant Communion. In recent years, it has encouraged conversation about communing the unbaptized, as many pastors and congregations already practice it. Welcoming all to the Lord’s table has become a central practice to living into a healing of tribalism.
Contemplative prayer has become a crucial practice for me in undoing the dualistic thinking that undergirds tribalism. It opens oneself to an ever-renewing God of Jesus, living out from the influence of the tribalistic gods who continue to invest our theologies, as Christians continue to come out from under Christendom. Richard Rohr has become the preeminent leader in helping to revive contemplative practices. Mimetic Theory also supports the vital importance of these practices, incorporating them into our meetings and conferences; Brian Robinette has provided crucial leadership in recent years at both the 2014 and 2017 Theology & Peace Conferences (see also his excellent essay in the 2017 issue of Contagion, “Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire”).
Here are my notes for the 2018 sermon.
Reflections and Questions
1. This lection closes with the same declaration as Jeremiah 23:6: “The LORD is our righteousness,” the closing verse for the lection of Proper 11B. There I noted: William L. Holladay, in his Hermeneia series commentary, says that Zedekiah was on the throne at the time of this prophecy. Zedekiah could be translated as “Righteous is Yahweh.” Jeremiah thus closes this prophecy with a play on the king’s name, suggesting that the name of the Messiah will be “Yahweh is our righteousness.” Not only is the order of the two parts of the name reversed, but, perhaps more importantly, the singular becomes a plural. Yahweh is our righteousness.
Does the singular and plural make a difference for the Girardian reading? Human community is based on “unanimity minus one”; it is built on the singularity of the victim. Even if that singularity is represented in the name of a king, that might be appropriate since kingship is descended from the singularity of victimhood in the sacrificial cult. As René Girard says, a king is a designated sacrificial victim with an indefinitely extended sentence (see last week, Christ the King B, for a Girardian perspective on kingship). So if that king cannot keep feeding other victims to the sacrificial cult, he will become the next victim (e.g., Saul, Louis XIV). Perhaps that’s why it was difficult for the Israelite kings (or any conventional king) to rule as good shepherds; the system demanded that they continue feeding sheep to the sacrificial fires in order to avoid becoming one themselves. Yahweh’s Messiah, then, would not only need to be a different sort of person, but he would have to do something to change the system. He would need to base human community on something different. According to John 10, Jesus the Messiah was the Good Shepherd precisely by offering himself as one of the sheep (see my sermon from Good Shepherd Sunday 2000). And the effect of that offering, says St. Paul, is that God’s righteousness becomes our righteousness (cf., Romans 3). The singularity of Christ’s sacrifice graciously became the plurality of a new righteousness for all those who are in Christ Jesus. Jeremiah was correct, “The Lord is our righteousness.”
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
1. Willard M. Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus / Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 218-245. After quoting 1 Thess. 3:6-9, Swartley makes these comments:
Again, as in 1 Thess., the model to be imitated is not Paul alone, but Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, the leadership team. This appears to reflect the assumed pattern of Greek education, paideia, in which learners imitate the model of noble leaders. (1)
Three features of this text are especially noteworthy: first, it begins with a command (parangellomen) that appeals to tradition (paradosis) for its authorization. In the universally recognized Pauline writings (2 Thess. is often considered duetero-Pauline), the appeal to tradition (paradosis) is associated with central tenets of the gospel (notably 1 Cor. 15:3; 11:1; cf. 1 Thess. 4:1-2). Second, this text reflects the Hebraic halakahic concept of the moral life in its use of walk (peripateo in 3:6, which the NRSV translates living). On this basis we might observe that the NT concept of imitation is likely derived in part from the Hebrew tradition in which way (derek)and walk (halak)are foundational to paranesis on the moral life. (2)
Third, of all the NT uses of imitation language, only this one is not linked to the conceptual field of love, forgiveness, servanthood, humility, and suffering. Work as such, avoiding idleness or unruliness, does not necessarily fit the paradigm to which the other imitation texts conform. (pp. 222-223)
For more on Swartley’s essay see next week’s (Advent 2C) resources on the Philippians text.
2. René Girard himself closes Violence Renounced with responses to the papers and takes a substantial, positive look at Swartley’s essay on imitation. He takes up the very important theme of Imitatio Christi as positive mimesis. Link here to Girard’s comments on this Swartley paper.
3. Jim Fodor has a second paper on this theme: “Christian Discipleship as Participative Imitation: Theological Reflections on Girardian Themes, Violence Renounced, pp. 246-276.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 3, 2000 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. In studying literature, Girard has ended up focusing more on mimetic rivalry and the negative aspects of mimetic desire. Swartley, in his article, basically says that if the NT is the focus of one’s study, you would find it replete with positive mimesis. He begins with 1 Thessalonians as a prime example; and 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of NT writings. It starts us out with explicit mimesis: “you became imitators (Gr: mimetai) of us and of the Lord” (1:6); “so that you became an example (typon) to all the believers” (1:7).
2. I think that we might begin to read such positive mimesis as the driving force behind much of what St. Paul says. Consider this passage, verse 10: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” Why face to face to restore what’s lacking in faith? Because mimesis relies heavily on physical presence, on being able to watch the other person face to face.
Verse 12: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” This also has a strong flavor of mimesis. Acts of love toward one another multiply and increase the love. Love is the opposite — as the title Eric Gans‘ weekly column, “Chronicles of Love and Resentment,” implies — of what happens when acts of mimetic rivalry abound: resentment increases. Girard has shown with his study of literature how resentment has abounded in our age. A study of St. Paul, as Swartley makes a good case for, is about how love may abound among us.
Link to a sermon on these themes entitled “Abounding in Love.”
2. See comments on a Girardian Perspective on Apocalyptic for Proper 28B (two weeks ago). N. T. Wright is also highlighted the last two weeks in Year B, with his groundbreaking work on Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. I summarize his thesis regarding Jesus in the “My Core Convictions” essay. Luke 21, as a parallel to Mark 13, is a key passage for Wright’s thesis. For almost a century, New Testament scholars have assumed along with Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann that either Jesus or the evangelists or both were wrong about the end times — namely, that they expected them to arrive within a generation. Wright challenges this entire line of thinking, hypothesizing instead that Jesus was predicting the cataclysmic events of the Roman defeat and destruction of Judea, which did happen within that generation.
From a Girardian perspective, Jesus is more generally predicting the failure of militaristic attempts to bring ultimate peace. Within the Jewish context, this was going to be not only incarnated in the tragic Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 C.E., but also previewed as a universal principle in the cross and resurrection. The Cross and Resurrection signal the ultimate defeat of the satanic powers of righteous violence; in the Christ event, the coming of the Son of Man, we see God’s ultimate victory.
4. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 339-367, 510-519. Mark 13 (and its parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21) is a crucial passage for Wright’s entire presentation of the Historical Jesus, since he paints Jesus as a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. But he differs from Schweizer in thinking Jesus expected the “end of the world” or an imminent “Second Coming.” Rather, Jesus correctly prophesied that continued reliance on military rebellion would result in the destruction of the Temple and end of Jewish life as they knew it. Along with the Temple action (the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple, which Wright interprets as a prophecy, not a “cleansing”), Mark 13 and parallels are Exhibit A for his argument.
Yet commentators continue to drum the long-time theme of this portion on Luke 21 as being about the “Second Coming.” Wright carefully reads this passage against many huge chunks of similar prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures to show that this kind of prophetic language was about real-time events of ‘earth shattering’ implications. The ‘Son of Man’ language from Daniel is enthronement language about being vindicated, not some cosmic event of an end-time coming. The Book of Daniel is about Israel’s vindication of the successful Maccabean revolt against Aristarchus Epiphanies IV, told in the language of Israel’s coming vindication against Babylon.
In our passage from Luke 21, what has been interpreted as talking about Jesus’ Second Coming is interpreted by Wright as enthronement imagery because Jesus’ prophecy about Jerusalem, which begins this passage, has been vindicated in 70 AD. The former interpretation as a Second Coming must see it as disconnected from the prophecy with which the passage begins. Wright is able to read this whole section of the Synoptic Gospel under the same theme: Jesus’ replacement of the Temple as the return of God’s presence to be among God’s people. This crucial theme in Jesus’ ministry would not be completed vindicated until about forty years later with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. But then it is not a coincidence that the Synoptic Gospels were finally written in the aftermath of this ‘earth shattering’ event for God’s people, the Jews. And Wright’s prioritizing of this theme makes sense in light of this timing.
The passage has been read the other way for so long that there will remain resistance to Wright’s position. But his backing it up with many significant, substantial passages from the Hebrew prophets (the section on Mark 13 and its parallels is 28 pages long because of all the long quotes from the OT) makes it a reading with which to contend. I find it compelling — especially since the alternative has been to say that, since this passage proclaims these things will happen ‘before this generation passes away,’ either Jesus or the early church or both are flat-out wrong. Jesus did not return within a generation; two thousand years later we are still waiting for Christ’s “Second Coming.” But, if Wright’s reading is correct, the destruction of the Temple did come before that generation passed away, and so Jesus’ prophetic words were vindicated. Wright’s position on this represents quite a significant turn-about in Gospel scholarship.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 3, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Standing with Peace on Our Hands“; in 2015, “In Advent We Await Full Humanity“; and updated in 2018, “In Advent We Await Full Humanity.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Verse 28b: “your redemption is drawing near.” Brian Stoffregen, in his weekly reflections for this gospel, has these helpful comments:
“Redemption” — this word (apolytrosis) occurs only here in all of the gospels. Although it occurs 7 times in Paul’s letters and twice in Hebrews. A form of this word (lytroomai) occurs in Luke 24:21a: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Another related word (lytrosis) is found occurs twice in Luke: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (1:68). “At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
This word group carries the idea of releasing or freeing someone by the payment of a fee or ransom. This raises a number of questions. To what or whom are we in bondage? What is the payment that will be made that frees us? I think that in the context of this apocalyptic discourse, the coming of the Son of Man will free us from the terrible distress that has come upon the world.
I might add that this word group is related to the word lytron, “ransom,” which only appears at Mark 10:45 (and its Matthean parallel, 20:28). For more on the questions raised by Stoffregen and the notion of ransom, see the notes on Mark 10:35-45 at Proper 24B.
2. Verse 32: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” “Generation” is a loaded term for Girardians, and it may well be for Jesus, too. Girard’s anthropology is “generative” — that is, it actually suggests how human culture is generated, namely, by the victimage mechanism. The phrase this generation appears nine times in Luke, all within the speeches of Jesus himself, at Lk. 7:31; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17:25; 20:32. These occurrences are focused in chapter eleven in the “woes to the Pharisees,” climaxing with a key passage for Girardians,
Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. (Luke 11:49-51)
Could this generation have a double meaning here? Abel and Zechariah the priest (the last person killed in the OT era, 2 Ch 24:20-21) are not usually considered as prophets. Jesus seems to be redefining prophet on the basis of the victimage mechanism which has existed since the foundation of the world — in other words, since the time in which human culture was first generated. Now, all of this will finally be revealed by this generation, which can be taken in the conventional sense of those currently living. But is Jesus using the term to also point to his death as the attempt to generate human culture which will finally reveal the true nature of the generation of culture itself?
3. Repeating from two weeks ago on Mark 13: N. T. Wright sometimes uses the helpful contemporary phrase “earth shattering” to ‘translate’ the apocalyptic language that sounds like the “end of the world.” The stars falling to earth sort of imagery was also used by the great prophets to prophecy about “earth shattering” events that would befall the people of Israel is they didn’t repent — real, historical events like the sacking of Jerusalem and the taking into exile by the Babylonians. Luke 21 prophesies precisely one of these “earth shattering” events if God’s people did not repent of their reliance on military rebellion as the way to freedom from enemies. The destruction of the Temple was an event that turned the Jewish world upside-down.
Parishioners can relate to such “earth shattering” events in their own lives around sudden, unexpected loss. The death of a child in an accident, for example, can change one’s world forever. It can seem at first as if the sun has fallen from the sky and no longer shines. Nothing is quite the same.
4. Eugene Petersen‘s The Message renders verse 34 as follows: “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise….” Can you think of any contrast more sharp than this verse when it comes to how Advent is observed in our culture? “Parties and drinking and shopping” are a rather precise description of the activities hailed as most essential. Jesus warns against such things as activities that dull our anticipation of the times when we most need God’s inbreaking of a different way to be in this world, the inbreaking of God’s very different culture (“kingdom”).
Notes from Swartley
2. See, e.g., James Muilenberg, The Way of Israel: Biblical Faith and Ethics (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961) and Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville: Westminster /John Knox, 1994). Janzen’s use of the word paradigm is similar to the concept of a model that one follows.