Last revised: September 17, 2022
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FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR C
RCL: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
RoCa: Acts 14:21-27; Revelation 21:1-5; John 13:31-35
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
The story of the cross as the victory of love is really crazy if you think about it. It still goes against everything this world believes about power. To believe that love is a power that can truly vanquish the violent powers of armed nations and their authoritarian leaders appears nuts to the world. Yet this is the story that the cross and resurrection put forward.
In 2022, I continued to preach primarily on the Book of Revelation as the fantastical story of love’s victory over the terrible forces of sin and death in our world. I began with the commandment on love in John and moved to how the call to have faith in this one commandment is the story of the Book of Revelation and its revealing of the New Creation. I close by offering what I believe is the modern-day equivalent to Revelation’s fantastical story of Love’s victory: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga. The resulting sermon is, “The Crazy Story . . . That Love Wins.”
1. James Alison features the Cornelius/Peter story in Raising Abel, pp. 98-109, and then references it, in what are parallel passages, in RA, p. 128, and The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 218. In the Raising Abel citation, crucial passages from Revelation are paired with the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10-11 to illustrate the universality of salvation that God is eschatologically working through Jesus Christ; see the section on universality entitled “God Has Showed Me…” An example of what he says about this story:
What Peter is saying when he affirms that God has revealed to him not to call anyone profane or impure is that the heavenly counter-history, the subversion from within of the story of this world, has an indispensable grammatical rule: that no discrimination against any sort of repugnant person can resist the crucible of learning not to call them profane or impure. The story of heaven is the story of how we learn not to call anyone profane or impure, so that a story is created in which there are, in fact, no impure or profane people, where not even disgusting people consider themselves disgusting, but rather where we have learnt to disbelieve, and to help them to disbelieve, in their own repugnancy. I keep to words like ‘disgusting’ because it seems to me more useful for our understanding: what Peter saw in his vision seemed to him to be disgusting, and it was so unnecessarily. Our question as we receive the eschatological imagination must be: who are, for me, the repugnant beasts, or for whom am I a repugnant beast? In this way we’ll be able to begin to knock down the same wall as Peter. (p. 102)
2. 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,” made these reflections on the text in 2013, “Cleaning Up Our Unclean Acts.”
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 13, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
3. James Alison, quoted on p. 80 of his Raising Abel of which he concludes:
That is to say, the Church is the collective living out of the opening of heaven, as something which is coming down from God, made possible by the risen victim. (p. 81)
Alison references this passage once again at the end of the section featuring the Cornelius/Peter story (p. 107), for which the central conclusion is:
And this is the great secret of catholicity: while every local culture tends to build its frontiers by means of victims, it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim that we can build a culture which has no frontiers, because we no longer have to build any order, security, or identity over against some excluded person, but the excluded one himself gives the identity by allowing us to share in the gratuity of his self-giving. (p. 108)
4. Gil Bailie, taped sermons on Revelation (distributed through the Cornerstone Forum) 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). For more from Rossing’s book (primarily on dispensationalist politics) see Easter 4C.
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.”
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2019, “Water to the Thirsty.”
Reflections and Questions
1. “and the sea was no more.” Without the mythological in mind, it might be easy to pass over the significance of this line. The corollary to a new heaven and new earth is that the sea is no more. Why? To the modern person thinking ecologically, having no oceans or seas would seem a big loss. But, thinking anthropologically, the significance of no sea can be seen under a different light. Mythologically, the sea has always represented chaos and disorder. Often, a great sea monster is connected with it in creation myths.
But one doesn’t have to search far and wide in the myths of other cultures in order to find that significance of the sea as chaos. The Bible makes ample use of it, including the Book of Revelation itself. The Bible’s own creation stories most often make use of the sea as a sign of chaos. Genesis begins with a picture of sea alone. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, all that existed was the chaos of the sea. Into this picture, God’s breath moved over the waters and began to bring order out of the disorder. The earth marked out a safe place from the waters below, and the firmanent held back the waters above. In contrast to the beginning, when there was nothing but the sea, Revelation’s picture of the new heaven and the new earth is one where there is no sea. All the chaos and disorder has given way to God’s loving power of creation.
The sea is even a significant symbol of chaos in the Gospels. When it’s time to show the lack of faith of the disciples, the standard story is that of being on the sea in a storm. Jesus, as God’s Son, is shown to have the same creative power over such chaos in his ability to calmly still the storm, or to even walk upon its waters. Peter almost has enough faith to walk above the chaos, too. But he does sink down, even as he sinks into the chaos later in the story, taken in by the angry mob to the point of denying his faith in Jesus.
From a Girardian standpoint, this is what the mythological representation of chaos with the sea is all about: the increasing chaos and disorder represented by a community descending into the growing sacrificial crisis of mimetic violence. Jesus walks upon the sea earlier in his ministry, but then lets himself be enveloped by it in the Passion. This is virtually the beginning of the new creation, the making possible of a new heaven and a new earth: Jesus descends into the chaos of our sacrificial crisis, fully undergoing its death, but God raises him out of it, the first fruits of new life, the first fruits of a new community, a Holy Communion, which will someday no longer have to descend into the sacrificial chaos and revive itself with a new sacrifice. When we in faith trust God to lift us out of the chaos, as Jesus did, then we will no longer need to revive ourselves through sacrificial means. There will be a new heaven and new earth, and the sea will be no more. The sacrificial crises of mimetic violence will be no more.
Thalassa, “sea,” appears 26 times in the Book of Revelation. Much of the time it is paired with the earth to describe creation, until this last time in 21:1 when its absence helps to mark the new creation. Other times, its imagery is more prominent, such as in 13:1: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.” Or 16:3: “The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.” Or 20:13: “And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done.” Could a Girardian analysis, and its understanding of mythological representation as veiling over real human violence, help to make sense of such pictures?
1. “When he had gone out. . . .” Who? We seem to need to leave Judas out. When these verses are appended to the footwashing in the Maundy Thursday lection, we omit this phrase altogether. For Easter 5C we might want to be sure to read Judas into it, “When [Judas] had gone out.” See the Niedner excerpt below for the importance of including Judas.
2. There are close parallels in the Synoptic Gospel stories of Jesus and the two greatest commandments – Matt 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28 (the intro to the Parable of the Good Samaritan) – but John narrows it to one great commandment.
1. The Johannine Farewell Discourse is a favorite in Girardian literature. The following is a list (not exhaustive) of places where the Discourse is featured: Renè Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 15, “History and the Paraclete”; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 7.D., “The Gospel of John” (p. 204-210); Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio series, tape #10 (link to my notes / transcription of tape #10); James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 3, “The Discovery of Jesus’ Imagination” and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 187-197.
2. Also pertinent to the middle portion of this lesson is James Alison‘s discussion of the Greek for “glory”, doxa. He says that another rendering of doxa is “reputation.” See Raising Abel, “Reputation and Shame,” pp. 180-185.
3. Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, ch. 11, “A Community of Friends (John 13:1-20),” offers a couple of helpful insights. She positions this love commandment on the scale from simple acts of service, like footwashing, to laying down one’s life for friends (John 15:13). In short, it is a scale of love as setting aside one’s own livelihood to work toward the livelihood of others – clearly, the opposite of an authoritarian’s power to force his will and desires on others. Second, she raises the key issue of service tending toward relationships of inequality, but in the Farewell Discourse Jesus tends toward equality by calling together a community of friends. Friendship is the quintessential relationship of equality.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 9, 2004 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from May 6, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto), and sermon from May 2, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. An extraordinary resource on these texts is “Proclaiming a Crucified Eschaton,” by Frederick Niedner (Institute for Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, copyright 1998), pp. 10-14. Niedner focuses on the first phrase of the gospel in light of the new commandment. Here are some excerpts:
This Sunday’s gospel tells of the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” But what is the old commandment? And why do we need the new one now, here at the last supper which foreshadows the banquet we’ll share in the End Time?The answer lies in the first words of this lesson, “When he had gone out…” The antecedent to the pronoun is Judas. Now that Judas has left the table everything is different. […]
Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment about the way the disciples should now love one another, any one of them went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?
We know not how to answer those questions. My guess is no one found him, even if someone tried. To this day it seems that no one has found Judas. He is still out there, it seems, wandering somewhere in the night, forsaken by every generation of disciples since that ancient Thursday, the night of the new commandment. Every time we gather for our sacred meal we commemorate Judas and his unforgivable behavior when we speak of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed,” taking bread. We speak of his sin, but we do not name him. We have not searched for him, and we have not found him. His place at the Lord’s table remains empty. […]
We are no strangers to such brokenness, either, or to its accompanying pain. In our generation we have known the pain of broken churches. We all bear the name of Christ, but there are some with whom we would not eat his meal. We all claim to be the heirs of Abraham, our father in the faith, but some among us cannot abide even the presence of a real, live Jew. Our families, too, know the pain and shame of places at the table where no one sits any more. We ache and we sob over friendships that were put to death with hasty, angry, bitter words. For each of us, at least one Judas wanders about in the night unforgiven. From another perspective, each of us is Judas, slipping about in the shadows, unforgiven, unloved, utterly alone. […]
How then shall we love one another in the family, as the new commandment requires? The very love we need if we’re to love in that new way is given to us as a gift by the one who commands its practice. Our gospel lesson records Jesus’ identification of the moment of Judas’ departure into the night as the moment in which Jesus’ glorification began. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ glorification is the ironic code word for his crucifixion. Jesus will be glorified and his Father will be glorified in him when he loses his life, when he gives it up. Then, and only then, comes the glorification.
Jesus loved truly by giving himself away, by losing himself. Genuine love always means losing oneself — in another’s arms, in another’s laughter, in another’s tears. But more, to love is to lose oneself and thereby to find oneself, to find one’s true humanity. Such was and is the love of Jesus. He lost himself when he gave himself up for us. And now, risen, he lives. He lives in us who are his body, the baptized who are animated by his Spirit. In us he has found his place for loving. The love that he commands he also gives. It lives — he lives! — restlessly within us, looking for Judas, searching for all the traitors out there in the night. We who are baptized and have lost ourselves in that Lord of ours now search out whomever it is that has become Judas for us that we might lose ourselves in the pain that he or she has inflicted upon us, or we have inflicted upon him or her. And in that losing ourselves, the Risen Christ promises us, we shall find ourselves. We shall live, and we shall find our real selves, loved, forgiven, and seated again as friend at the table with one who has betrayed me, or whom I have betrayed, one with whom I had lost the capacity to share humanity.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have loved one another,” Jesus said. Jesus gifts the world with his love by losing himself in this community which still has its agents out looking for Judas, a community restless forever with the love of the one who gave the new commandment the moment Judas left the room on a mission from which he still has not returned. If you would find God in this lonely world, then look for the community that has its messengers out searching the ditches and hedgerows for you, and for me. There you will find the love of God. There you will find God. There you will find yourself.
Will we ever find Judas? Will he ever sit again at his place? Only God knows. But we have reason to hope. Despite what all the other passages in the New Testament say, we can hope if for no other reason because of the promise in today’s second lesson in Revelation 21. Some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will end all mourning — no more tears, no more pain.
Will Judas be present? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own treachery beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.
The banquet is set before us. We remember once more that night of the new commandment, but also we look ahead to the day of its fulfillment. Let us celebrate the joy we have in sitting together as family, reconciled to each other, having lost ourselves but having also found ourselves in each other, and living in hope while waiting for the day when every place at our table will be filled. And let the people say, Amen.
************End of Niedner excerpts************
Link to a sermon making use of Niedner’s work entitled “Searching for Judas.”
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Glorified!.”
7. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, ch. 7, “Mimesis, Scapegoating, and the Crucified.” In 2013 I was reading Robinette’s book and was inspired to preach on the “new commandment” as decidedly new in its reorienting love to how God loves us — with the sermon “A Dangerous but Victorious Love“; and a 2016 version of a sermon by the same name, “A Dangerous but Victorious Love.”
8. 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,” made these reflections on the text in 2016, “Jesus’ New Commandment.” Commenting on the elusiveness of simplicity for this commandment, here is an eloquent statement of the heart of the matter:
The key out of this impasse is the rider Jesus adds to the new commandment: “Just as I have love you, you also should love one another.” (Jn. 31: 34) We are very prone to loving as we love one another. A big part of the way we love one another is to intensify our love by hating our enemies, especially those who have betrayed us. By abiding in our love for others, we hate those who are outside our group. If we abide in Christ’s love, then our love for others expands even to our betrayers because it is no longer our love, but Christ’s that moves in and through us. After all, Jesus had presumably washed the feet of Judas before Judas left. Might Jesus still want Judas to come back to the table? Would we welcome Judas if he should return?
Reflections and Questions
1. Niedner’s connection of Judas to the Love Commandment recalls the episode two Sundays ago of Jesus and Peter around the charcoal fire (John 21). Jesus has a love for Peter that forgives his denial by giving him the opportunity to confirm his love three times in place of his previous threefold denial. Yet there is also the aspect of agape vs. philia love. Jesus urges Peter the first two times to love with agape love, to which Peter is seemingly only ready to respond with philia love. Jesus also forgives Peter by meeting him where he is at with philia love on the third time around.
The John 21 story also opens by indirectly noting Judas’ absence: “Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.” Niedner’s linking of Judas with the Love Commandment is an invitation to such an agape love that will not rest until every place at the table, or around the charcoal fire, is filled. (The First Lesson also is a story of how Peter began to realize agape love. In John 21 he still resists agape love for philia love, but in Acts 10-11 he is beginning to get a clearer picture of how far agape love means to take us.)