Last revised: September 17, 2022
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SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR C
RCL: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26
RoCa: Acts 7:55-60; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20; John 17:20-26
Substituting the Ascension Day lesson for the First Lesson
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
The end of the Book of Revelation paints a beautiful picture of the New Creation in chapters 21 and 22. Tragically, in the 21st Century we appear much closer to chapters 19-20, in which most of humanity follows the Beast into the lake of fire. How might a greater number of us avoid such consequences and finally get to the part of the healing of the nations?
On the pages of this website, we offer one answer: more of us, with the help of God’s Spirit, must live into the new way of being human pioneered by Jesus the Messiah. In 2022, Brian McLaren‘s stellar new book had just been released, Do I Stay Christian?. In my sermon that week, I introduced the congregation to Brian and his work, and why it’s so important. But then I moved to introducing the new book and what I take as its message. The book is structured into three parts, the first two answering the question ‘Do I stay Christian?’ first ‘no,’ and then ‘yes.’ But in the third part of the book I think he gets to the real question. Humankind is really beyond the question of which religions we practice. Whether we answer no or yes to ‘Do I stay Christian?’, the important question has become, ‘Do we stay human in the same failed way?’ Or do we live into the new way of being human which Jesus of Nazareth pioneered for us? I focus primarily on Chapter 24, “Find the Flow,” in offering the sermon, “A Question of Survival.”
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 81-82. For example:
First he announces the closeness of the kingdom of God and works signs. At the same time he begins to choose people to be his witnesses. And he chooses twelve. This already tells us something about what he thought he was doing: that is, he was symbolically refounding Israel, with its twelve tribes. It’s very important that we notice this, since this number continues to be stressed until Pentecost. The ones who were chosen themselves understood that they had been chosen to bring about a restoration of the kingdom of Israel: that’s why they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if it is now that he will restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). And immediately after the Ascension, and before Pentecost, they choose Matthias to fill the empty place among the twelve which had been left by Judas. Their criterion for choosing was that the one chosen should have accompanied Jesus and the twelve original witnesses during the whole of Jesus’ public ministry up until his Ascension. That is, it was understood that fundamental to what Jesus wanted to do was the bringing about of some sort of new symbolic Israel, and that what makes this possible is the presence of people who had lived through the whole process of the change of mind and of heart produced by the ministry and passion of Jesus and then his presence as risen victim.
For a more complete rendering of Alison’s theme of “Founding a New Israel of God” see the section by that title in The Joy of Being Wrong. And the point of that founding is to establish a universality which has been God’s intentions all along in choosing a people. So the section on the founding of a new Israel is followed by one titled “The Universality of the New Israel.”
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 Ascension in 2013, “Jesus’ Escape to the Kingdom.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In The Joy of Being Wrong, Alison stresses even more the human process of discovery of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (cf., pp. 77ff.). The disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 illustrates the frailty of this human process. They were completely in the dark before the resurrection, and the opening of their eyes after the resurrection is still only gradual. Here they have had the Risen Jesus among them for 40 days, and their question still betrays a misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. Peter will still have an “Aha!” moment with Cornelius several chapters later in Acts 10-11.
I dare say that this process has not only been gradual but it has suffered great setbacks, too. How well do Jesus’ disciples understand what he is about even 2000 years later? Girard’s anthropology has opened my eyes in ways that I never expected. I firmly believe it has the potential to help Jesus’ disciples to make a significant move forward once again.
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage is an exemplary story of scapegoating violence against the apostles that is returned with the grace of forgiveness and love.
2. It is also an example in Acts that supports infant baptism. Anabaptists point to all the adult baptisms in Acts to support so-called “believer’s baptism.” Yet several stories in Acts, this one included, tell us of entire households being baptism — one assumes children included. But to use this disagreement as a justification to persecute Anabaptists, as happened in the past, misses the point of the passage as a whole against scapegoating violence — and also the unity that Christ prays for in today’s Gospel.
3. In 2010 a number of threads came together for a sermon on this text, “Faith in ‘the Stone which the Builders Rejected.'” An article had appeared on the religion page in the local newspaper, criticizing Brian McLaren for rejecting the Christian faith in favor of his own version — and comparing him to Hitler and the Nazis. I used this to bring in Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s Letters and Papers from Prison and the “Confessing Church” movement as a more favorable anticipation of McLaren’s work. The examples of mission faithful to Jesus were this Acts story of Paul and Silas in jail and the nonviolent protest in February 1943 Berlin outside the Gestapo jail on Rose Street (Rosenstrasse). See, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenstrasse_protest
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. For developing the theme of the marriage of the Lamb, see the chapter by that title in James Alison‘s Raising Abel, ch. 9, pp. 179-197, especially pp. 189-191.
3. For developing the theme of “redeeming the time” (i.e., on God the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end), see Alison’s sections by that title in both Raising Abel, pp. 109-116, and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 229-232.
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.”
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. For more from Rossing’s book (primarily on dispensationalist politics) see Easter 4C.
The final sermon in the series, “Waking Up to the Lamb’s Power of Love and Life,” proceeds from one of Rossing’s key insights: that Hebrew prophecy is not about predicting the future as much as it is about giving the opportunity to repent in the present. Her main illustration is one that I use all the time — Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol — and use to start this sermon.
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 2007 I used the last sentence of the Bible — “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” — to preach a sermon on renewing our church life around the theme of grace, “Renewed Evangelism: Getting the Story of Grace Straight.”
2. In 1995 I preached a sermon titled “It’s About Time!” After reflecting on the ironies of the human experience of time I finished as follows:
When the time seems unredeemed, filled with the pain of sickness or grief, can there really be a good news to redeem the time? St. John proclaims one who is the Morning Star, the approaching dawn to our times of darkness. He proclaims one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last, the beginning and end. In other words, he proclaims faith in a God who spans all time, who lovingly embraces all time. This faith in God has been the foundation of his message to people of God who are suffering. They wonder why God has allowed the time to be invested with pain and suffering. John’s answer to them is to show them the one who sits on the throne of heaven, the one who is the beginning and end of all things, and so is the one who can promise us an ending to the pain, a time when God will stoop down to wipe away our tears and all suffering will come to an end. John proclaims to us a God who stands outside of time and lovingly gives it a hug. God embraces all time with divine love.But St. John also shows us something else about this God, something which ends up being even more mysterious to us, really. As if the eternal nature of God isn’t hard enough to understand, this God is one who also enters time. As eternal, God is outside of time, yes, but through Christ Jesus steps into time to redeem it…and us. How so? This is what can be difficult for us to understand. For, if we were making the decisions, we would redeem the world by ridding it of evil, by simply wiping out all those people and all those things who give us pain, who give us a hard time. Wouldn’t we? But God doesn’t choose to do that. I’m not sure if it’s because God is perfect love and we aren’t, but God chooses differently. God chooses instead to suffer with those who suffer in time, with a promise that some day, some time, it will be different.
St. John dares to walk the fine line of this difference in choices. He chooses a medium that generally expresses our human choice, that of apocalypse. Apocalypse dreams of a time when all our enemies will be wiped out, destroyed, and we who suffer will be vindicated. Who will God send to bring this about? Someone like a lion, to devour all our enemies, those who give us a hard time. That’s our preference, isn’t it?
But the challenge of the Christian faith is to realize that God has already sent someone into time to redeem it, and he wasn’t like a lion. No, several weeks ago we focused on Revelation chapter five, where John first introduces the Lamb. John dramatically looks up expecting to see the lion who will devour our enemies and instead beholds the Lamb, standing as one who is slaughtered. John will refer to Christ 27 more times as the lamb. For John we must first come to realize that God has sent us one who is like the lamb which is slain. God shows us the truth of our human way of doing things, that we just keep producing more lambs to the slaughter. And God will not add to it by coming with a divine version of slaughter. No, God through Jesus Christ steps into time clearly on the side of those who are slaughtered and, armed only with the sword of this truth, promises that someday things will be different. They will be different because there are those like us who will come to believe in this lamb and to follow in his footsteps. We, too, will begin to live the truth of siding with the lambs of this world, rather than the lions. We will redeem the time of those who suffer by coming to be with them, to spend time with them, and to pray with them for the time when there will be no more suffering and no more pain. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!
2. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, p. 269. Hardin sums up the significance of the Easter texts from John: how it is that the incarnation of the Word in Jesus becomes the incarnation in us.
In his prayer in the garden (John 17) Jesus anticipates that his disciples will share in the divine life. “That they may be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you, Father.” This subjectivity is the appropriation of the life we know from the Gospel tradition, now enfleshed in our very own existence. If in the Gospels we may speak of the objective Life of Jesus (the “so-called” historical Jesus), so also by the gift of the Spirit we may also speak of the subjective life of Jesus in us (the Present Christ or the Christus Praesens). The life we now live is lived in Jesus. He is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:1-9). Where the vine ends and the branches begin is not possible to tell. So it is with us. This is the secret of Christian existence. We are not merged with Jesus so that we may confuse our identity with him, anymore than he is merged with the Father and so loses his identity. To suggest such is to end in a metaphysical miasma and psychological grandiosity. Rather, inasmuch as we imitate Jesus by living in love, as he imitated his Abba and lived in love, we become like him.
3. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, p. 113. In commenting on the passage of Jesus before Pilate in John 18, McLaren brings out the fact that Jesus had used similar language with his prayer in John 17:
Yes, Jesus is a king. But his kingdom is “not of this world.” What does this mean? Does it mean Jesus is promoting a “spiritual” kingdom, something people feel warming their hearts, or something they will experience after they die? Hardly. Jesus has just used a similar “not of the world” construction in the previous chapter, as part of a rich and lengthy prayer. There Jesus makes it clear that he doesn’t want his disciples to be removed “out of the world.” Instead, he sends them “into the world,” but as they are “in” the world, they are not to be “of” the world, just as he is not “of” the world (John 17:13-19).
“My kingdom is not of this world,” then, means the very opposite of “My kingdom is not in this world.” Instead, it means my kingdom is very much in this world, but it doesn’t work the way earthly kingdoms or empires do. The word this becomes especially significant in relation to Pilate’s location in the Roman chain of command: this world of Pilate, of Roman swords and spears and threats of crucifixion, of imperial domination and hierarchy and violence — this world is not the origin or character of Jesus’ kingdom.
4. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 45, “Spirit of Unity and Diversity.” This passage is listed as a text for an essay on the doctrine of the Trinity as a teaching that heals our false experiences of god and one another — five teachings altogether. Here are two that relate more directly to John 17:
Third, through the Trinity we transcend us-them, in-out thinking. Imprisoned in our old familiar dualistic thinking, we were always dividing the world into mine and yours, one and other, same and different, better and worse. In the Trinity, we move beyond that dualism so that mine and yours are reconciled into ours. One and other are transformed into one another. Same and different are harmonized without being homogenized or colonized. Us and them are united without loss of identity and without dividing walls of hostility. To put it in philosophical terms, dualism doesn’t regress to monism. It is transcended.
The healing teaching of Trinity also helps us transcend top-down or hierarchical understandings of God. If God’s Father-ness elevates and includes Son-ness in full equality, do you see what that means? If God’s Son-ness doesn’t grasp at equality, but rather mirrors the Father’s self-giving and self-emptying love, do you see what that means? If the Spirit is not subordinated as an inferior but is honored and welcomed as equal, do you see what that means? God is characterized by equality, empathy, and generosity rather than subordination, patriarchy, and hierarchy. (pp. 228-29)
5. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 6, “Undergoing Atonement: The Reverse Flow Sacrifice.” In a very different use of this passage, Alison links it to imagining the rite of atonement in the First Temple:
[T]here is the High Priest, in the Holy Place, with us outside, and he is being ministered to by Angels, he is communing with the Angels who were with YHWH at the beginning of creation. He is spending time in prayer, for it is during this period that he will expect to become interpenetrated by YHWH whom he is going to incarnate for the rest of the rite. So he will pray to become one with God, and that God will become one with him, so that he can perform the sacrifice and glorify God by making God’s people one. This is what At-onement is all about. Experts in these matters have long known that in John 17, where Jesus engages in a long prayer concerning the Father being in him, and he in the Father, and him praying that his disciples may be made one, we have the essence of the High Priestly prayer in the Atonement rite. So we can imagine the ancient High Priest praying in these terms, and becoming interpenetrated by YHWH. (pp. 247-48)
6. Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, pp. 7, 49, 165; Immortal Diamond, p. 69; Just This, p. 89. Rohr has been one of my most valued teachers in experiencing God in terms of Oneness that has the power to unify us, healing our dualisms. I’d be remiss to not offer a couple snippets from him. First, unity is at the heart of writing The Universal Christ:
Jesus did not come to earth so theologians alone could understand and make their good distinctions, but so that “they all may be one” (John 17:21). He came to unite and “to reconcile all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth” (Colossians 1:19). Every woman or man on the street — or riding a train — should be able to see and enjoy this! (7)
Anticipating resistance to this theme, he writes,
No doubt you’re aware that many traditional Christians today consider the concept of universal anything — including salvation — heresy. Many do not even like the United Nations. And many Catholics and Orthodox Christians use the lines of ethnicity to determine who’s in and who’s out. I find these convictions quite strange for a religion that believes that “one God created all things.” Surely God is at least as big and mysterious as what we now know the shape of the universe to be — a universe that is expanding at ever faster speeds, just like the evolution of consciousness that has been proceeding for centuries. How can anyone read the whole or even a small part of John 17 and think either Christ or Jesus is about anything other than unity and union? “Father, may they all be one. . . .” (49)
In a chapter arguing against today’s individualism for a more corporate reading of the Christian message, Rohr cites John 17 and concludes:
Unless we find the communal meaning and significance of the suffering of all life and ecosystems on our planet, we will continue to retreat into our individual, small worlds in our quest for personal safety and sanity. Privatized salvation never accumulates into corporate change because it attracts and legitimates individualists to begin with. Think about that. (166)
See my 2014 sermon on “Contemplation and Oneness.”
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 27, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from May 20, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto), and sermon from May 16, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
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,” offered these reflections in 2019, “Jesus’ Last Prayer.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2013 Easter 7 fell on Mother’s Day, and the Farewell Discourse of John inspired some very personal reflections on my mother (who died in August 2010), and on my Mother’s Day, with the sermon “A Strangely ‘Better’ Mother’s Day.” I refitted this sermon in 2016, “Mother’s Day and the Advocate.”
2. “…that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Has there been any bigger scandal to the world than the splintering of the church? How can the world believe in Jesus as the agent of God’s peace when his disciples are as fractured and broken as the world?
Among the most recent in my experience to passionately raise such questions was Prof. Walter Bouman (Trinity Seminary, Columbus, OH) at the Valparaiso Institute for Liturgical Studies (April 21-23, 1998). He posed as one of the gravest mistakes of the Reformation the cementing of the idea of a true, invisible church (during 17th century Protestant orthodoxy). Somehow the true church is supposedly invisible. He finds this preposterous and to be the main reason behind the endless splitting that has happened ever since. There has been a lack of concern over the reality of separate church bodies (which flies in the face of this prayer of Jesus in John 17!) because of this idea that true church is somehow invisible anyway.
What have been the terrible consequences in history? They are too numerous to name. But a more recent example cited by Bouman was the state of the Protestant churches in South Africa. The Anglican church held to its unity and never split over racial lines; all the other Protestant church bodies did split along racial lines and so simply mirrored the fractured political reality around it. The Anglican Church was able to witness to a unity that was counter-cultural. Isn’t that what Jesus is praying for in this prayer? He came to give us a new means of unity that is no longer over against victims, and he prayed that we, his disciples, would manifest it as a witness to the world. We have failed.
Where might be the center of a renewed unity today? Where it should be in every age: Bouman proposes the Eucharist. The church is visible when it is gathered for the Eucharist. Counter to Protestant Orthodoxy, the church is invisible when those who participate in the Eucharist once again scatter to their everyday lives. The true church once again becomes visible, then, when its members re-assemble for the Eucharist. The whole point of 1 Corinthians 11 is that we are to examine ourselves in the Eucharist as to whether we can discern the one body of Christ. If we are instead manifesting division, then don’t bother. Eat at home. Don’t eat and drink judgment on ourselves by eating and drinking in a manner which manifests division.
Bottom line: If we are to once again manifest the unity that Jesus is praying for, then I think we must find a way to first come together at the Eucharist.
3. The failure of a splintered church is the failure of being the Holy Communion that we are fundamentally called to be. Mimetic theory helps us to understand the nature of our unholy communions that are based on the victimage mechanism. It helps us to understand the truth of Jesus’ parable of Satan casting out Satan (Mark 3:23-26) — namely, that Satan casting out Satan is precisely the principal by which human community founds itself and so it will always be divided against itself. Christian community, the church, is founded on the One cast out and called to be a Holy Communion. For more on Holy Communion and the parable of Satan casting out Satan, see “My Core Convictions,” Parts I.4-I.5.