Last revised: May 29, 2019
Click reload or refresh for latest version
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR C
RCL: Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
RoCa: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30
A crucial verse for Girardians, that relates to the identity of the white-robed throng in this Sunday’s lection, is 13:8, rendered in the NRSV as, “…and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.” What is crucial is the word order for placing “from the foundation of the world.” Does it modify the “book of life” or “the lamb that was slaughtered”? Most recent translations, such as the NRSV, favor the former. But the King James renders this verse as follows: “And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The King James rendering follows the word order in the original Greek.
In favor of the NRSV is 17:8 where the phrase “everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world” appears without reference to the lamb. Instead, they will be amazed to see the beast for what it is and for what it has been.
Ultimately, one’s decision for translating 13:8 relies on both one’s theology and anthropology. The Girardian anthropology makes sense out of a slaughter that has gone on since the foundation of the world. The earthly kingdoms who carry out the slaughter sponsored by the dragon are represented by beasts (chs. 13 and 17-19), and their names are not written in the book of life (13:8, 17:8); those who are slaughtered wear white robes and are represented by the Lamb (7:9-14), and their names are written in the book of life. These beasts have not been transparently evil, since they are associated with powerful animals such as leopards and lions (13:2). The second beast even “had two horns like a lamb” (13:11). Central to John’s revelation is learning to see these beasts for what they truly are, beginning at 5:5-6, where he expects to see the Lion of the tribe of Judah and instead sees a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. John learns to see that those beasts have their source with the dragon, not with God. The kingdoms of this world have relied on slaughter of innocent victims since the foundation of the world. But since the slaying of the Lamb of God, we can now see this slaughter for what it is and proclaim (in the tune of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”?), “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15). In this context, it is poignant to speak of “the lamb slain since the foundation of the world.”
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. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 6, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
3. 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…”
4. Gil Bailie, taped sermons on Revelation called “The Mystery of History.”
5. 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.”
6. 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).
I was at least marginally aware of Rapture theology and its popularity, but I had little idea of its influence in American politics through the Christian right wing. Rossing’s chapter on “The Rapture Script for the Middle East” was very sobering. Here is a small sampling:
John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, told a BBC interviewer that World War III has already begun. We are seeing in my judgment the birthpangs that will be called in the future the beginning of the end. I believe in my mind that the Third World War has already begun. I believe it began on 9 / 11.
Hagee continues, I believe we are going to see an escalation of the Islamic influence all over the earth, and at that point in time God in his sovereign grace is going to stand up and defend Israel, and the enemies of Israel are going to be decimated.
The interviewer asked Hagee whether he thought some listeners might find his view of global confrontation inflammatory or dangerous. No, Hagee replied, its not dangerous. When you know the future theres no reason to consider it inflammatory. Its going to happen.
Hagee is not the only one to invoke imagery of September 11, or even World War III, in connection with the Bible. A Time / CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the September 11 attack. As reported in Times cover story [July 1, 2002] on The Bible & the Apocalypse, 36 percent of Americans polled who support Israel say they do so because they believe in biblical prophecies that Jews must control Israel before Christ will come again. Although the report does not specify whether Israel includes the West Bank in this poll, the numbers are nonetheless significant. If more than one-third of those polled invoke this definition of biblical prophecy in support of a particular and absolutist Middle East political scenario, this is frightening — especially when that belief translates into unquestioning support for U.S. military and political aid, including expansion of Israels settlements.
For some, it even justifies a form of ethnic cleansing — transferring Palestinians out of their homeland. Such is the view of former U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey, a fundamentalist Christian from Texas. Speaking on MSNBCs program Hardball in May 2002, Armey said he believes that there are many Arab nations that have many hundreds of thousands of acres of land, soil and property and opportunity to create a Palestinian state. That is where Palestinians should go, in Armeys view.
When pressed by the incredulous interviewer Chris Matthews whether he really meant that Palestinians should leave the West Bank, Armey explained that yes, most of the people who now populate Israel were transported from all over the world to that land and they made it their home. The Palestinians can do the same. (pp. 71-72)
This book explains a lot for me about American politics in the past 25 years. Policies concerning the environment also are effected by a theology that hopes for a rapturing away from a doomed earth:
Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U. S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nations forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. (p. 7)
It’s time for mainline Christians to offer another interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Barbara Rossing’s book is a marvelous and up-to-date guide in doing so.
7. 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. I believe the two most crucial verses in the Book of Revelation come in 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.
My 1995 sermon developed some of these themes, asking the question, “Who Do We Follow, a Lion or a Lamb?” We follow a Lamb who shows us the true power of life for this world. The Lamb is a victim slain but is also the real power behind where the future is taking us. The Lamb is the victim who can empower victims.
2. In 2010 my sermon struck many of these same themes but under the banner of calling for a new Reformation based upon, “True Revelation: Seeing History Via the Slaughtered.”
3. The 2016 sermon, “Answering the Call to Work for Peace,” was to be an updated version of the 2010 sermon. But a billboard on the way to the preaching prompted a wholesale refocusing of that message. It featured a large picture of the Dali Lama with the caption, “He doesn’t just wish for peace, he works for it.” The parish context was an interim ministry in an aging church that still has a “critical mass,” but will close its doors in the coming years if it doesn’t turn the corner on welcoming young people. My proposal is that the latter are attracted to real-world ways of working for peace.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio series, tape #7. Bailie chooses to deal with John 10 in connection with the story of the woman caught in adultery. He gives some background to approaching this text which has completely changed the way I look at it! Let me simply give you my transcribed notes of his lecture on this passage:
Internally, the background within John’s gospel comes from John 5:2, the reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus met the paralytic, whom he cured on the sabbath, at the pool near the Sheep Gate, which is the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led and then held in a holding area on their way to the altar of sacrifice. It was the entry point for the victims of the sacrificial regime.
So how should we understand the mention of sheep in John’s gospel? Often, it is as a reference to some form of bleating conformity. We think, “Oh, they’re all sheep.” No! The most important reference to sheep in the New Testament is sacrificial. Sheep are the sacrificial animals par excellence. (As a matter of fact, sacrifice gave rise to animal husbandry, in the first place. Animals were originally kept for sacrifice. So keeping livestock, in its origins, has never simply been a purely agricultural phenomenon.)
John’s gospel introduces us to Jesus through the words of John the Baptist (John 1:29): “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus begins his discourse: (John 10:1) “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” It is not said, but doesn’t the background imply that shepherd (as opposed to the others who Jesus specifies) enters the sheepgate as one of the sacrificial animals?
Jesus continues: (John 10:2-3) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The shepherd enters into the gate in the same way that the sheep do. The sheep recognize his voice. They recognize the shepherd as one of them.
Who are the thieves and bandits who come in a different way?
If we are correct in suggesting that the ones who come in by the gate are victims, then the thieves and bandits are those who manipulate the system by redirecting its sacrificiality towards more expendable victims.
The word “bandit” has the connotations (in the Greek) of being a revolutionary, or insurrectionist. A revolutionary is one who turns the direction of the sacrificial system. He doesn’t transform it; he simply redirects it. The system revolves, but doesn’t transform.
Jesus also mentions another who comes in, in addition to the thieves and bandits, who is not the shepherd: the hired man. He says, (John 10:12-13) “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” So we might say that the hired hand is some functionary who tries his best to rehabilitate a certain victim, but only at the expense of another victim on whom he redirects the system. He’s just a hired man; he’s not really leading people out.
By contrast, Jesus says, (John 10:14-15) “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” In other words, the difference between the sheep, i.e., the victim, and the shepherd disappear. Here is a shepherd who is himself a victim, and he will lead the sheep out of the sheepfold.
Jesus continues, (John 10:16) “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Unanimously, the exegetes say that this refers to the other Christian communities besides the Johannine community (which recognizes it marginality among the early Christian communities, and that, sooner or later, it will have to come into koinoneia with other mainstream Christian communities). But, at an anthropological level, couldn’t this also be referring to all other religions, including Christianity as a religion? Isn’t this in one piece with John 12:31-32: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”? That the one who takes the victim’s place and is crucified, that the moral force of that revelation, will begin to have effects everywhere, in every culture, in every religious tradition? It lets loose on the world a force that is so profound and irresistible and revolutionary that everyone will be affected. Now, this doesn’t mean that all those who practice Hinduism, for example, will abandon it for Christianity. But it does mean that this revelation will change everything.
Paraphrase of John 10:30-38, Jesus’ interaction with Jewish leaders. Jesus confronts them with three consecutive blasphemies: “I and the Father are one,” I am the Son of God,” and “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Jesus tells them that if they have a hard time with his words, then believe in his works. They pick up stones and try to arrest him but he escapes. This relates somewhat thematically to the question of the sheepgate, which is an instance of the loss of distinction in the figure of Jesus for John’s gospel: we have a Son who is indistinguishable from the Father, a shepherd who is indistinguishable from the sheep, and a Lord who is indistinguishable from a brother [or friend, cf. John 15:13-15].
***** End of Notes on Gil Bailie’s “The Gospel of John,” tape 7 *****
2. James Alison on John 10, the Good Shepherd passage. The Joy of Being Wrong: John 10:18 is cited on p. 82; the whole passage on p. 146 & 199; for example:
In chapter 10 we have the same understanding at work: because of Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father, he is able to make present on earth as a real human practice the way in which the Father is the shepherd of Israel. He does this precisely by the creative going to his death which brings about one flock and one shepherd. What he is doing is bringing about the Father’s shepherdliness by inaugurating a real human practice of shepherding a real human gathering into one. This is possible because there is no rivalry between him and the Father: they are an entirely interpenetrating reality. So, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) is identical in content with “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38).
And in Raising Abel, Alison says the following on pp. 115-116:
Let us notice how this works: it is the forgiving victim who enables our memories to be healed. That is, the forgiveness of sins and the healing of memories is the same thing: what unbinds our past is what opens up our future.
Please excuse the difficulty of all this, but it is of great importance if we are to understand the birth of the possibility of ‘eternal life’ or life without end. The revelation of God which Jesus brought about, the God who is known from the risen victim, made it possible that, instead of the constitution of a person whose memory is bound up in expulsive grasping of being because of the violent ‘other’ which surrounds him and gives him birth, the ‘Other’ which brings us to existence might be perfectly without violence, without rivalry. This revelation makes it possible for our memory, and through it, our life-story and our person, to be called into existence in such a way that the memory and the past do not form a threatening present, but rather a present which is in a process of constant enrichment by what is being given it, and where the future is precisely the continuation of an ever greater and ever richer reception of life. I think that when, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), it is the same thing as when he refers to ‘eternal’ life, life without end.
Finally, Alison wrote a paper titled “The Good Shepherd” as the second part of an address in San Francisco in the fall of 1999. It is as yet unpublished but can be accessed here.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 2, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
5. 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 these reflections in 2019, “The Lamb of God Is Our Shepherd.”
6. N.T. Wright, various places on the translation of the Greek phrase zoe aionias, most often translated “eternal life” (vs. 28 in this passage), as instead translated as “life in the coming age”; the most clear explanation is in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels:
God so loved the world, reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isnt. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Pauls letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two aions (we sometimes use the word eon in that sense): the Present age, ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come, many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring Gods justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the present age. You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come. But there is no sense that this age to come is eternal in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, Gods great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
1. A key insight for me into the Good Shepherd passage, in preaching it in 2000, is that it flows directly out of John 9. Here is the ending of chapter 9 with the beginning of chapter 10:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit….” (John 9:40-10:1)
Notice that there is no break in the narrative to set a new scene. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who have challenged the man born blind and Jesus’ healing of him, and he goes right on talking to them in launching into the Good Shepherd monologue. Thus, in my sermon “Love in Truth and Action,” I read John 10 in light of James Alison‘s brilliant work on John 9. (See The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 119-125 (link); he also has an essay on this passage that appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of Contagion (pp. 26-46), which has also appeared as chapter 1, “The Man Born Blind and the Creator’s Subversion of Sin,” in Faith Beyond Resentment.)
2. For the Year C pericope, however, there is finally a more definitive break in the narrative to set the scene: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter…” (John 10:22) Way back in John 7:1 we had learned that it was near the time of the Festival of Booths, and John 7 takes us through that festival, noting its last day in 7:37.
The near stoning of the adulterous woman seems to take place on the next morning (8:2), beginning this way: “Early in the morning he came again to the temple.” But it might be a false assumption. The following speech, 8:12, begins: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world…'” Is it still the day after the Festival of Booths? The theme of light seems to go better with the following story about sight and blindness. And both of these seem to go better with the Festival of Dedication, a winter festival around the themes of light and darkness.
John 9:1 begins the next story: “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” The break here is similar to the one at 8:2. It seems in close proximity to the story before it, but the references are too vague to know for sure. The point of all this is that we don’t get a more specific reference point to measure it by until the first verse of this day’s lection. From the specific reference in 7:37 to the last day of the Festival of Booths to 10:22 and its reference to the Festival of Dedication, we have a large portion of narrative flow that lacks points of reference. I would assume that 9:1 does mark some passage of time. There is also the possibility that there is some passage of time within the telling of the controversy over the healing of the man born blind. But then we have, as I noted, the last remarks of Jesus to the Pharisees over his healing of the blind man move seamlessly into his Good Shepherd speech. My assumption, then, is that the end of the healing of the blind man story must be in close proximity with the Festival of Dedication. And the brief controversy among Jesus’ listeners in 10:19-21 would seem to support that assumption, once again tying in the healing of blindness after the Good Shepherd speech. Those who supported Jesus against the charge of being aligned with demons respond, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10:21)
3. More importantly, then, the setting of the scene in 10:22 does mark a shift in imagery. All the way back to the follow-up to the near stoning of the adulterous (8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”), the stories and dialogues have to do with light and darkness, truth and lies, sight and blindness. The Good Shepherd speech does seem to shift that imagery, even though it follows immediately on Jesus’ remarks to the Pharisees who were persecuting the blind man, and then is followed with the remark by Jesus’ supporters that demons can’t heal blindness (10:21). I think that 10:22 marks a conclusion to this set of stories which underscores an imagery in the same family as those images having to do with sight. It underscores the sensory images within the Good Shepherd speech though this time it revolves around hearing instead of seeing: ‘My sheep hear my voice.’ There has been a barrage of imagery in the Good Shepherd speech: shepherds and sheep; gated pens and pastures; hired hands, thieves, and wolves; life and death. But there has also been the theme of belonging on the part of those who listen to the voice: 10:3, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd], and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out”; 10:8, the sheep do not listen to the voice of the thieves and bandits; 10:16, Jesus’ other sheep who do not belong to his fold will listen to his voice. The effect of the pause to set the scene in 10:22 seems to be to isolate out the imagery of hearing and belonging from among the multi-faceted imagery of the Good Shepherd speech.
4. The effect, then, of this entire section of John’s gospel (8:12-10:30) would seem to be to emphasize the blindness and deafness of those who don’t find themselves in Jesus Christ. Isn’t this a similar structuring as Mark’s Gospel, who uses the quote from Isaiah 6 (‘having eyes unseeing and ears unhearing’) as the structuring for his Gospel stories? There is something that blocks us from seeing and hearing what we need to see and hear. In Mark, his structuring around Isaiah 6 with parables comes shortly after the first parable he relates — not the sower parable, but that crucial Girardian passage: “And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?'” (Mark 3:23) What we fail to see and hear is precisely this — that Satan does in fact cast out Satan. If we can learn to see this, then we can obviously see that Satan’s kingdom is divided against itself and cannot ultimately stand. As the prince of all the kingdoms of this world, this is the reason that none of our human kingdoms will ever be able to ultimately stand. We are always divided against one another by the Satanic principal of pointing the finger of blame over onto that ‘Satan’ over there. We are forever coming together on the basis of being over-against someone else, i.e., those devilish persons whom we Satanically blame. Satan has been casting out Satan since the beginning of the world. (For more on a Girardian reading of “Satan casting out Satan” see Paragraph §5 in Part I of “My Core Convictions.”)
In John’s Gospel, we see a striking parallel to the occasion of the Mark 3 passage. There, Jesus’ parabolic response regarding Satan casting out Satan is made in response to charges of his being on the side of Beelzebul. The verses skipped over during the three year cycle of Good Shepherd Sunday carry this same charge:
Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:19-21)
This is a remarkable parallel, considering the significant differences between Mark and John. John’s version of the work of Satan, then, comes earlier in this passage before us, 8:12-10:30. Again, it is a crucial Girardian passage: “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.” (John 8:44) Mark and John are consistent in their teeling the story of Jesus in terms of an opposition to Satan, for which others try to play the Satanic game of putting him on the same side of Satan. But it is precisely this game that Jesus came to reveal, in the face of our deafness and blindness to it under Satan’s influence. What we need to see is the work of Satan which has us in bondage to the mechanism of Satan casting out Satan.
What is it we need to hear? For the Girardian, it is quintessentially the voice of the victim. The Satanic way is to caste out and murder those whom we label as Satanic, as the cause of our troubles. It is the voice of those whom we caste out or kill that we need to hear. Until Jesus we have not really been able to hear that voice. Until the resurrection, those voices have generally been silenced. But with Jesus, we finally have a Shepherd who is also one of those Lambs slain since the foundation of the world. “My sheep hear my voice.” When we begin to hear his voice and come into his fold, everything changes. We can begin to see that Satan has been casting out Satan since the foundation of our human worlds. These are kingdoms divided against themselves and will not stand. We can begin to see that, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).