Last revised: September 17, 2022
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THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR C
RCL: Acts 9:1-6 (7-20); Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
RoCa: Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
Since Lent 5C, I’ve continued the theme from Isaiah 43:19 that God is doing a new thing. How do we learn to perceive it? The drama of Revelation 5 portrays the difference of the ‘old thing’ symbolized by the Lion of Judah versus the new thing as epitomized the Lamb slaughtered who is worthy to open the scroll of God’s plan for creation.
In 2022, this will also begin a series of primarily preaching on the Second Reading from the Book of Revelation during the Easter Season. The new thing is ultimately the New Creation, of which we get the most stirring portrait in the final two chapters of Revelation. Revelation 5 recounts the pivot point in the drama that lays the groundwork for the startling distinction drawn throughout the Book between what constitutes true power: the power of force and coercion as symbolized by the Lion of Judah or the power of self-sacrificing love as symbolized by the Lamb Slain. John of Patmos makes clear where his vision brings us regarding these powers: Around the throne of God, all of creation sings a new song to the Lamb Slain. In 2022, I extended the reading to include the drama and not just the song, reading the entire chapter (Rev 5:1-14). The resulting sermon does introduce the drama for the sermons to come in subsequent weeks, while still focusing on the new song — literally, because I spend some time recounting how the songs of Revelation have made their way into our liturgies in recent years as new songs that we sing, too. See the sermon, “Sing a New Song.”
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, especially pp. 66ff.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 25, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
3. René Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 211; I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 190-191. Girard concludes both these books with references to St. Paul’s conversion in the context of elaborating on the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, as the defender of the accused.
For those who might be unfamiliar with Girard’s book The Scapegoat, it begins with a 14th century “text of persecution,” an account by a French poet of the massacre of Jews in France as a scapegoat for the plague of Black Death. Girard uses this text as a model for going back and understanding older mythological texts more clearly as themselves texts of persecution which are less transparent behind their imaginative veiling in stories of the gods. After eight chapters that lay out a “science of myths,” Girard follows with seven chapters that illustrate how the Gospel is a force for demythologization, i.e., how it undoes the perspective of the persecutors by telling the same kind of story of scapegoating persecution from the perspective of the victim. These seven chapters are on the following: the Passion, Caiaphas’ prophecy in John 11, the beheading of John the Baptist, Peter’s Denial, the Demons of Gerasa, Satan divided against himself, and the role of the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused, throughout subsequent history. The book closes with the following paragraphs:
Of all the texts on the Paraclete, this, finally, is the most extraordinary. It appears to be made up of heterogeneous pieces and fragments, as if it were the incoherent fruit of a mystical schizophrenia. Actually, it is our own cultural schizophrenia that makes it appear that way. It cannot be understood so long as we use the principles and methods that inevitably belong to our world and can neither see nor know the Paraclete. John strikes us with so many extraordinary truths at such a pace that we neither can nor want to absorb them. There is a great risk of projecting on him the confusion and violence that are always to some extent present in us. The text may have been affected, in certain details, by the conflicts between the Church and the Synagogue, but its real subject has nothing to do with contemporary debates on the “anti-Semitism of John.”
Anyone who hates me hates my Father.
If I had not performed such works among them
as no one else has ever done, they would be blameless;
but as it is, they have seen all this,
and still they hate both me and my Father.
But all this was only to fulfill the words written in their Law;
They hated me for no reason.
When the Advocate [Paraclete] comes,
whom I shall send to you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father,
he will be my witness [ekeinos martyresei peri emou]
And you too will be witnesses, [kai humeis de martyreite]
because you have been with me from the outset.”I have told you all this
so that your faith may not be shaken.
They will expel you from the synagogues,
and indeed the hour is coming
when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God.
They will do these things
because they have never known either the Father or myself.
But I have told you all this,
so that when the time for it comes
you may remember that I told you. (John 15:23-27; 16:1-4)
This text unquestionably evokes the struggles and persecutions at the time of its writing. It cannot directly evoke any others. But indirectly it evokes all the others since it is not dominated by vengeance but rather dominates it. To regard it as purely and simply a prefiguration of contemporary anti-Semitism, under the pretext that it has never been understood, is to give in to scandal, to transform into scandal what we are told has been given to us to protect us from scandal and foresee the misunderstandings caused by the apparent failure of the revelation. Apparently, the revelation is a failure; it ends in persecutions that seem likely to smother it but ultimately bring it to fulfillment. So long as the words of Jesus do not reach us, we have no sin. We remain at the level of the Gerasenes. The representation of persecution retains a certain legitimacy. The sin is the resistance to the revelation. Inevitably, it becomes externalized in the hateful persecution of the one who brings the revelation, in other words God himself, since he is the one who disturbs our more or less comfortable little arrangements with our familiar demons.
The persecutor’s resistance — Paul’s for example, before his conversion — makes the very thing that it tries to hide obvious. As a converted persecutor, Paul is the archetypal Christian:
He fell to the ground and then he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” he asked, and the voice answered, “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me:” (Acts 9:4-6)
I see in this the perfect theoretical recapitulation of the evangelic process that is described in all the texts discussed in the preceding pages. The same process also takes place in history and develops from now on as history; it is known to the whole world, and it is the same as the advent of the Paraclete. When the Paraclete comes, Jesus says, he will bear witness to me, he will reveal the meaning of my innocent death and of every innocent death, from the beginning to the end of the world. Those who come after Christ will therefore bear witness as he did, less by their words or beliefs than by becoming martyrs and dying as Jesus died. Most assuredly, this concerns not only the early Christians persecuted by the Jews or by the Romans but also the Jews who were later persecuted by the Christians and all victims persecuted by executioners. To what does it really bear witness? In my thinking it always relates to the collective persecution that gives birth to religious illusions. It is to this that the following sentence alludes: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Witch-hunters are encompassed by this revelation, as are totalitarian bureaucrats of persecution. In future, all violence will reveal what Christ’s Passion revealed, the foolish genesis of bloodstained idols and the false gods of religion, politics, and ideologies. The murderers remain convinced of the worthiness of their sacrifices. They, too, know not what they do and we must forgive them. The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough. (The Scapegoat, pp. 210-212)
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is one of Girard’s later books. Girard’s work has such vast implications in its anthropological scope that there are many possible points of entry into it. I See Satan tries another different entry point: the Gospel language of scandal and Satan. The middle portion of the book takes yet another entry point: “the Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana,” a 2nd century myth from Ephesus, already aware of the Christian gospel. Girard brilliantly poses this story of stoning against the stoning of the adulterous undone by Jesus in John 8, and he locates this myth as a “missing link” between full-blown myths and “texts of persecution,” the two poles of the spectrum that he laid out in The Scapegoat. Part Three of I See Satan is entitled “The Victory of the Cross,” and takes a careful step-wise argument for the uniqueness of the Bible and the Gospel in playing a role of demythologizing culture into our modern concern for victims, posing it against Nietzsche’s brilliant insight into the clear choice between Christ and Dionysus (of which he unfortunately chose Dionysus and went mad). This book ends, however, in almost the same place as The Scapegoat: with the Paraclete and Paul’s conversion, coupled this time with Peter’s (which is covered in an earlier chapter in The Scapegoat. Here, then, are the closing paragraphs of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning:
What is this power that triumphs over mimetic violence? The Gospels respond that it is the Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit takes charge of everything. It would be false, for example, to say the disciples “regained possession of themselves”: it is the Spirit of God that possesses them and does not let them go.In the Gospel of John the name given to this Spirit admirably describes the power that tears the disciples away from this all-powerful contagion: the Paraclete. I have commented on this term in other essays, but its importance for what I am doing in this book is so great that I must return to it. The principal meaning of parakletos “lawyer for the defense,” “defender of the accused.” In place of looking for periphrases and loopholes to avoid this translation, we should prefer it to all others and marvel at its relevance. We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens the persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: “They don’t know what they are doing.” We should also think of the God whom Job calls “my defender.”
The birth of Christianity is a victory of the Paraclete over his opposite, Satan, whose name originally means “accuser before a tribunal,” that is, the one responsible for proving the guilt of the defendants. That is one of the reasons why the Gospels hold Satan responsible for all mythology. The Passion accounts are attributed to the spiritual power that defends victims unjustly accused. This corresponds marvelously to the human content of the revelation, to the extent that violent contagion permits it to be understood.
The anthropological revelation is not prejudicial to the theological revelation or in competition with it. It is inseparable from it. This union of the two is demanded by the dogma of the Incarnation, the mystery of the double nature of Jesus Christ, divine and human. The “mimetic” reading permits a better realization of this union. The anthropological widening of the Incarnation in no way eclipses theology; it shows its relevance by putting the abstract idea of original sin into more concrete form, as James Alison has powerfully observed. (1)
To highlight the role of the Holy Spirit in the defense of victims, it will be useful, finally, to take a look at the parallelism of two great conversions that occur in conjunction with the Resurrection. The first is Peter’s repentance after his denial, so important that we can view it as a second and more profound conversion. The other is the conversion of Paul, his famous “road to Damascus” experience.
On the surface these two events seem completely different: they don’t occur in the same texts, and one happens at the very beginning, the other at the end of the crucial period of Christianity’s infancy. Their circumstances are very different. The two men are very different. But the profound meaning of the two experiences is nonetheless exactly the same. What the two converts become capable of seeing, thanks to their conversions, is the violent social instinct, the adherence to the will of the crowd, which neither knew possessed him. This is the violent contagion that compels us all to participate in the Crucifixion.
Just after his third denial Peter hears a rooster crow, and he remembers what Jesus predicted. Only then does he discover the crowd phenomenon in which he has participated. He proudly believed he was immunized against all unfaithfulness to Jesus. All through the Gospel accounts Peter is the ignorant instrument of scandals that manipulate him without his knowledge. In speaking to the Jerusalem crowd some days after the Resurrection, he stresses the ignorance of those possessed by violent contagion. He speaks from personal knowledge.
In the Gospel of Luke, just at the crucial moment, Jesus too is in the courtyard, and the two — Jesus and Peter — exchange a look that pierces the disciple’s heart. The question that Peter reads in this look, “Why do you persecute me?” Paul will hear as well from Jesus’ own mouth: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In response to Paul’s question “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus answers, “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Christian conversion is always this question that Christ himself asks. Because of the simple fact that we live in a world whose structure is based on mimetic processes and victim mechanisms, from which we all profit without knowing it, we are all accessories to the Crucifixion, persecutors of Christ.
The Resurrection empowers Peter and Paul, as well as all believers after them, to understand that all imprisonment in sacred violence is violence done to Christ. Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind.
My research is only indirectly theological, moving as it does across the field of a Gospel anthropology unfortunately neglected by theologians. To increase its effectiveness, I have pursued it as long as possible without postulating the reality of the Christian God. No appeal to the supernatural should break the thread of the anthropological analyses.
By offering a natural, rational interpretation of facts formerly perceived as relevant to the supernatural, such as Satan or the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament, the mimetic reading truly enlarges the field of anthropology. But contrary to non-Christian anthropologies it does not minimize the hold evil has on humans and their need for redemption. Certain Christian readers fear that this enlargement encroaches on the legitimate domain of theology. I believe the opposite is true. By desacralizing certain themes, by showing that Satan exists first of all as a figure created by structures of mimetic violence, we think with the Gospels and not against them.
This enlargement of anthropology occurs, we must observe, at the expense of subjects that current theologians, even the most orthodox, have a tendency to neglect, as they can no longer integrate them into their work. They do not want to reproduce, purely and simply, ancient readings that don’t desacralize violence sufficiently. Neither do they want to suppress the basic texts under an imperative of “demythologizing” that is positivist and naive, in the manner of Bultmann. So they remain silent. The mimetic interpretation opens a way out of this impasse.
Far from minimizing Christian transcendence, attributing purely earthly, rational meanings to themes such as Satan or apocalyptic danger renders Paul’s “paradoxes” of the Cross more relevant than ever. I think that through our engagement with some of the most astonishing texts of Paul we have already found enlightenment for the true demythicizing of our world, and we will find enlightenment even more in the future, as Gil Bailie foresees. (2) This enlightenment only come from the Cross.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, for us, it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Where is the sage? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since the world, in the wisdom of God, did not recognize God by means of wisdom, it has pleased God to save those who believe by the folly of preaching. For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but for those who are called, Jews as well as Greeks, it is Christ who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:18-25, emphasis mine)
4. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 137.
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Church, Church, Why Do You Persecute Me?; and in 2016, “We Are ‘People of the Way’.”
6. Beverly Gaventa, From Darkness to Light: Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament. All the New Testament versions of Paul’s conversion are the central focus of this excellent monogram. Acts 9 is the focus on pp. 54-67.
Reflections and Questions
1. Contemporary Protestantism seems to focus the crucial issue for Christian faith in the matter of belief. But Jesus doesn’t knock Paul off his horse asking, “Saul, Saul, why don’t you believe in me?” Rather, it’s “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Once again, the Girardian focus on sacred violence appears to be right on target. The issue that the Christian faith, centered on the cross, puts before humanity is the matter of its righteous violence which has ordered its societies and cultures since the foundation of the world. Saul has been blind to this and is literally made blind until he can begin to see his righteous violence under the Law. Likewise, the blindness of humanity, in general. The conversion of Paul truly is a parable for all of us.
1. I believe that extracting only the last four verses of Revelation 5 is one of the biggest mistakes of the lectionary. The two most crucial verses in the Book of Revelation come shortly before our assigned passage, verses 5:5-6:
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
John the Seer is told to look for that traditional symbol of military might, the Lion of Judah, and instead he sees its opposite, a Lamb standing as it had been slaughtered (the participial verbs being in the perfect tense). These two verses bear the stamp of the Gospel transformation of demythologizing the perspective of the persecutors into that of the victims. Instead of a Lion of Judah to work the same old vengeance that simply turns the tables of persecution, we have something truly new here, the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.
2. Vs 9 gives us the first instance of John the Seer enumerating a universality of peoples in a varied but similar fashion. Here is a list:
- 5:9: saints from every tribe and language and people and nation
- 7:9: a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages
- 11:9: members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations
- 13:7: given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation
- 14:6: to every nation and tribe and language and people
1. I have put together a primary resource on reading the Book of Revelation from the perspective of mimetic theory: “Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation.”
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 99. Such crucial passages from Revelation are paired with the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 to illustrate the universality of salvation that God is eschatologically working through Jesus Christ; see this section on universality entitled “God Has Showed Me…”
3. Gil Bailie, taped sermons on Revelation called “The Mystery of History.”
4. Bredin, Mark. Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation. Bletchley, England: Paternoster, 2003. Bredin cites René Girard as one of his main guides in seeing “Jesus the Nonviolent Teacher and Activist.” In the foreward, Richard Bauckham writes: “[Bredin] brings to his study a Gandhian understanding of nonviolence and a Girardian suspicion of redemptive violence, not as prejudicial but as heuristic approaches by which to highlight what is ideologically remarkable in Revelation’s presentation of Jesus’ victory by non-violent witness…. Revelation’s Jesus appears not as a violent revolutionary, but as a revolutionary against the forces of violence.” On the crucial verses 5:5-6 see pages 185-190.
5. In 2004 I began a sermon series on the Book of Revelation, after hearing a lecture by Lutheran New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing, based on her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, which I highly recommend. It exposes the Rapture theology behind the Left Behind series which have been wildly popular in America. She lays out the Rapture theology as based on the “dispensationalism” of John Nelson Darby, a nineteenth century preacher, whose interpretation of Scripture has become foundational among many “evangelical” Christians in America — made even more popular by the Left Behind series (which has sold around 50 million copies). For more from Rossing’s book (primarily on dispensationalist politics) see Easter 4C.
6. For more on the violence of the Left Behind series and Rossing‘s assessment, see the page “Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2010 my sermon used this celebration of the Lamb slaughtered for the theme, “Wounded Victors.” It also references the stories of wounded victors in the other two readings — Saul the Persecutor and Peter the Betrayer — and ties it all together with stories from NPR’s Garrison Keillor about his Uncle Jack, of whom he concludes, “If you ever find yourself loving someone who is a sinner, then it opens up a window in your heart, and you are changed forever.” I revisited this theme in 2016 with a sermon of the same name.
2. The image of the saints in constant worship is also a preachable theme. That seems like a waste of time to the average modern person. Link to a sermon on developing this theme entitled “Redeeming the Time,” which begins with a great quote from Gulliver’s Travels in which the Lilliputians are baffled by Gulliver’s watch.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #12. Here are my notes on this portion of the lecture:
The disciples are fishing on the Sea of Tiberius at night, and they catch nothing. It’s dark, they are without Jesus, and their work is fruitless. Verse 4: “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” Same story. Jesus is unrecognizable. Read vs. 5-11, then verse 12: “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.” If they knew quite well that it was the Lord, then why is “Who are you?” on the tips of their tongues? How well did they know it was the Lord? This is quite a revealing sentence about the meaning of the resurrection. We’ve said [about John 20:19-31] that the resurrection is about having the experience of Jesus living in us, of feeling compelled to do what he did. What did he do? Forgive. The next part of the resurrection experience is to see Christ in the Other — not just good folks, but all others — perhaps even more so in the least expected person. Here, the disciples know it’s the Lord, but it’s still a reach for them to see him in the Crucified One.
The only thing left is the rehearsal of forgiveness — which is the next part of the story. After breakfast there is this exchange between Jesus and Peter: “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.'” Repeated twice. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Jesus allows this to be undone. Peter is forgiven.
The forgiveness is even deeper when we see the Greek behind the text. The first two times Jesus asks if Peter loves him using agape, and Peter answers using philio. Peter will finally get it right the third time, right? Instead, Jesus changes to Peter’s word! expresses it in Peter’s terms of philio. Unbelievable! Forgiveness is also accepting the person where he or she is at. Jesus awakens his love at the level he is ready for.
A reference to Peter’s death. Verse 18: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” It’s also a story about Christian conversion: you discover that Christ is living in you and in others, and that your life is really not your own, and it becomes an exciting life.
Summary comments. In John’s Gospel there’s two charcoal fires: one at the high priest’s house around which the servants and Peter to ward off the cold of night; and the one on the beach with Jesus cooking breakfast and extending to his disciples the generosity of a meal, the experience of forgiveness, and an invitation to discover that one’s life does not belong to oneself alone. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) T.S. Eliot in “Little Giddings” said that we will be consumed by either fire or fire. The two charcoals fires in John show us the two fires: the sacrificial fires, or the fire of the Spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, which is the Spirit of the resurrection. One is the fire of the Apocalypse, and the other is the fire of the Kingdom coming.
The aim of Gil’s work is to highlight the anthropological singularity of the Gospel, in order to awaken anew to its sweeping historical and cultural significance.
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 93, an elaboration of Bailie’s theme above of how this scene unchains Peter from his threefold denial; and in The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 74, within his crucial sections centered on the resurrection, the second and third sections of chapter three, entitled “The Resurrection” and “The Intelligence of the Victim” (for more on the Intelligence of the Victim see these excerpts from Knowing Jesus).
Notes from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning excerpt.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong (New York: Crossroad, 1998).
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled (New York: Crossroad, 1995).