Last revised: June 26, 2019
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PENTECOST — YEAR C
RCL: Genesis 11:1-11 or Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17 (or Acts 2); John 14:8-17 (25-27)
RoCa: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23
Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-11
1. James Alison works these two texts together in The Joy of Being Wrong. In the climactic chapter 9, there is a section entitled “Reimagining the Symbol” (pp. 245-253) in which Alison further de-mythologizes the Genesis myths using New Testament texts. He is in keeping with Girard that the Genesis myths already begin the process of de-mythologizing of other mythologies. But he carries the process further by showing how a Christological re-reading of these texts further de-mythologizes the remaining mythological elements in the Genesis texts. Acts 2 performs such a re-reading on Genesis 11. I give you Alison (pp. 251-252):
The final ‘moment’ in the Genesis account of origins to receive a christological re-reading in the apostolic witness is the account of the scattering of humanity at Babel. In the Lucan account of Pentecost we have an account of how the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified and risen Lord began the dynamic of forging a new unity of the whole of humanity from out of every race and tribe and nation and tongue. This, the beginnings of the catholicity of the new people of God, is strictly dependent on the self-giving up to death of Jesus: it is the risen dead-one who makes possible this unity. The story of Babel is the inverse of this: men, who have only one tongue and few words (Gen 11:1), seek to make a secure unity for themselves by building a tower. God, alarmed that if they succeed in building the tower, nothing will be impossible for them, scatters them and confuses their language. We have the same pattern of mimetic desire as in Genesis 3, and a similar reaction from God. Human identity has to be grasped and appropriated so as to make security, God scatters that identity lest humans, having achieved this identity, stop at nothing. This is similar to the way in which, in the earlier story, God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden lest they eat of the tree of life and eternalize their fallen state. Appropriative desire and a rivalistic God are the two similar elements.
Our christological re-reading suggests that what we have originally is groups scattering from each other, and forming separate languages which are in hostility to each other, as their respective sacrificial systems break down time after time, and they fail to keep unity in the wake of successive attempts to grasp onto unity and security by (at least initially, human) sacrifices. All sacrificial systems based on grasping security by victimizing tend to fail to produce unity, and groups forge language from their sacred victimary systems. This is the direct inverse of the self-giving up to death of Christ, who permits the forming of a sociality without any ‘over against’, and in which all the scattered groups are able to find the real center of their language, their representational center. In the christological re-reading, it is man who scatters himself, not God, because of the inherent futility of any building of social order at the expense of the victim. In between the original scattering and the christological gathering we have a Jewish re-reading of the scattering derived from their understanding of being gathered together out of the Babylonian Empire. The ‘confusion’ of tongues (Heb: balal) is an etymological joke at the expense of the arrogance of the imperial Babylonian attempt to dominate the earth, and the unfinished tower is a mocking look at one of the huge Ziqqurats which had the pretension (in Babylonian religion) of uniting heaven and earth. Once again, we have an original tale of cultural scattering, a Jewish re-reading of this, and a Christological re-reading of the Jewish partial demythologization. This Christological re-reading gives us back a plausible account of the theological elements proper to the original scattering seen in the light of the death that made possible the un-scattering.
2. “Gathering” and “scattering” represent a theme highlighted by Gil Bailie throughout his lecture series on “The Gospel of Luke.” Inspired by his work, I preached my 1998 Pentecost sermon on this theme of “Gathering the Scattered Children of God.”
4. 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 Holy Spirit in 2013, “The Holy Spirit’s Fiery Desire.”
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Rob Grayson, a blog in 2014, “Power, but Not as We Know It“; Tom Truby, a sermon in 2016, “The Spirit Tells Us We Are All Children of God“; a sermon in 2019, “That Great and Glorious Day“; John Davies, a sermon in 2016, “On loving, but losing Eurovision, and other Babels of our time.”
6. See last year’s comments on Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost B).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016, I read this pairing of texts in the broad sweep of human evolution, with the Pentecost text as a revelation of what human beings are created to be: namely, a Unity-in-Diversity. The Genesis story shows us our sinful tendency, and actual evolution: Unity-in-Sameness in our human groupings, by language and culture.
2. Link to the 2001 sermon “Spirit-Ministry of the Weakest Link.”
1. Andrew Marr, “Adoption as God’s Children” (no longer online). As a father of two adopted sons from Liberia, Africa (after three birth sons), I very much appreciate these reflections on adoption in a theological context — the following insight, for example:
As the above quotes from scripture indicate [Rom. 8:14-17 and John 1:11-13], however, God is the most prodigal of adoptive parents there is. God doesn’t just adopt a child here and another child there to make up for the inability to have children or just to be charitable to orphaned children from other countries. God adopts everybody. We are, all of us, adopted children of God.
In all this, what emerges as most fundamental to adoption is intentionality. Adoption doesn’t just happen by following the course of nature; it requires a decision. One chooses to adopt. This goes for humans as much as it does for God. Indeed, one effective way of removing a sense of stigma for adopted children is to call them “chosen children.” I once heard of an adopted child who picked up on that fact by reminding her siblings, who were “natural” children, that their parents had to take them but they chose her. This sort of taunt, of course, underrates the intentionality of the parents to have natural children and, more important, to care for them, but it still makes an important point. We have to make choices of which people to adopt in life….What the image of adoption tells us about God is that God chooses us. God chooses that we should be and then God chooses us to inherit the kingdom prepared for us. God adopts us and makes us heirs of God’s full inheritance. The emphasis, again, is on intentionality. God’s love for us is not some vague instinct that happens automatically the way the human heart beats automatically. Rather, God invites each and every one of us individually to become God’s chosen child.
Reflections and Questions
1. There are many riches in the Andrew Marr‘s essay above. I would expand on two points. At the end of the second quote Marr characterizes the divine adoption as an invitation. I think that’s important precisely because of the intentionality and freedom involved with love. As our Creator God would certainly seem to have the right to simply claim us as children, whether we want that or not. So a crucial aspect of our being adopted children of God is the extra element of freedom that comes with adoption. God chooses each of us as beloved children. Make no mistake about it. But the aspect of adoption seems to also say to each of us that we also have the choice to accept the invitation — or not! A crucial aspect of love is that it does not force itself. So it would seem that God in adopting us, and not simply presuming us as children as the one who gives us life, is not forcing the divine love upon us. We can say no.
And we often do say no. In fact, one might say that, according to mimetic theory, our most ‘natural’ inclination is to say yes to the desires of one another in ways that lead us into having the devil as our ‘father’ by default. Jesus says, “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). In the Trinitarian relations of the Father and Son choosing one another in love, it becomes possible once again to say yes to God’s invitation to us to be adopted children.
2. The corollary of the first quote from Marr’s essay, i.e., that God chooses everybody as adopted children, is that our acceptance of God’s invitation brings us into relationship with all the people of the earth. Saying yes to God as our adopted parent means saying yes to all people as adopted brothers and sisters. Jesus’ being able to lead us into saying yes to God’s grace means that the promise to Abraham and Sarah is finally fulfilled — they have become a blessing to all the families of the earth. We are able to become one human family of God.
This is a crucial reality also pointed to in the Pentecost story. The families of humankind divided at the Tower of Babel begin to come together again in the Holy Spirit set loose by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
1. Repeat of resources in recent weeks on the Johannine Farewell Discourse: 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. This week I highlight James Alison‘s comments on the Johannine Farewell Discourse: from The Joy of Being Wrong, ch. 7, “The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin,” linking to an excerpt of the first section of the latter chapter, “A Johannine Witness.”
3. For a full treatment of the Paraclete, “Advocate,” link to “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 3, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from May 30, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. The passages from John’s Gospel that tie to the theme of being one family of God (see Rom. 8:14-17 above) are one that Andrew Marr uses in his essay (“Adoption as God’s Children”), namely John 1:11-13:
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And John 3:3:
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The latter has become an important passage for me in understanding the core of the Gospel as becoming one family of God in Jesus. I hadn’t previously seen its obvious connection to the Prologue in 1:11-13.
2. The above lessons and theme fits with this Gospel Lesson in numerous ways. (1) We get to know our true Father through Jesus (vv. 8-11). (2) The difference between God’s peace and our peace (v. 27) is that we always leave someone out of God’s family; with our father as the Accuser, we will always be over against someone. (3) But God in Jesus sends us the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused, that we may have our divisions healed and become one family. (4) In order that we may be in the process of becoming one family, Jesus fulfills the law by giving us the only commandment we need to achieve it: love one another as he has loved us. (St. Paul follows Jesus on this in a big way in his letter to the Romans. Our Second Lesson today comes at the end of a section in which Paul has tried to explain why the Torah was not up to the task. Under the power of sin, the Torah became another tool by which we bring the condemnation of others that divide the human family. In Rom. 13:8-10 Paul follows Jesus by interpreting love as the sole goal of the law. Only the law as love is capable of fulfilling the promise to Abraham that we can become the one human family of God.)