Last revised: May 8, 2015
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RCL: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
RoCa: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31

Acts 4:32-35


1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus of Nazareth. The final section of the book, entitled "Sin in the Community and Transformation of Evil," centers on a Girardian's reading of the Ananias and Sapphira story, on this portion of Acts in which the disciples share everything in common.

Reflections and Questions

1. There has often been a big deal made about this passage as an example of communism in the Bible. Counter-arguments have drawn contrasts between the atheistic forms of the modern political movements and this small, Christ-centered community of believers. Without taking a political stance, Girardians can take a slightly different tact: following Christ means following in the way of nonrivalrous mimetic desire; sharing possessions in common as described here could certainly be a manifestation of such nonrivalrous desire.

But there are suspicious signs of rivalry and violence around this text. The Jewish leaders clearly act in rivalry with the apostles, but do the latter also reciprocate in some ways? I'm not enamored with, and not quite sure what to make of, the prayer which precedes this passage in response to the Jewish leaders (Acts 4:23-31). I would feel better about an emphasis on the Eucharist as having preceded the passage about the practice of common possessions. I think that the sacrament must always be at the heart of our re-socialization based on the servanthood of Christ.

And what follows this passage is also troubling: the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). What is the Girardian take on people who die on cue? Isn't that usually a cover-up for human violence? How did Ananias and Sapphira really die? Any other reactions to the lack of emphasis on the Eucharist? (Contrast this summary of their life with Acts 2:43-47, where breaking bread with gladness is at the center.)

1 John 1:1-2:2


1. James Alison, Raising Abel. Chapter two is alone worth the price of the book. Beginning with the Resurrection -- which is what this season is about! -- Alison shows how the Christ event began to unfold for the apostles a renewed experience of God. First, the resurrection begins to dawn on them that God is totally about life. Death is our thing, something that we are enthralled to. Next, we begin to see that, if God is not about death, then God is not about violence either. Our experience of God is being pruned of the violence. I would like to share with you the next step that Alison lays out for us, since it relies heavily on 1 John:

The Second Step: the Revelation of God as Love

It is not only that the living God is pruned of violence, by an act of negative theology, as it were. There is much more. In John 3:16 we can read a real step forward:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This means that the apostolic meditation about the utterly living God revealed by Jesus and his resurrection had been able to reconsider what had been going on in Jesus' death. If we look at that death in the light of the violent god, we see a blasphemer who is killed so as to satisfy the law of god that whosoever acts thus must die. However, if God raises up this man, then the first step is to recognize that the violence against that man was human and not divine -- the separation of God from violence. The second step is to see that the disposition of that man to allow himself to be killed was not accidental, but a deliberate plan of self-giving to make it possible for us to believe in the utter vivacity of God, and thus to begin to live, ourselves, outside the dominion of death. That is to say, we can see a positive intention of love in the way in which Jesus gave himself up to death; and that positive intention of love is described by saying that God gave his only Son.

Now, this "giving his only Son" is not an idea pulled out of a hat. It is, itself, the demythologization of a story from the Old Testament: the story of Abraham who was prepared to give up his only (legitimate) son to God, by sacrificing him. But look at what has happened meanwhile: in the first story God is a god who demands sacrifices from humans, including the one sacrifice which really mattered, even though, in the story as we have it in Genesis 22, God himself organizes a substitute for the sacrifice. In any case, we still have a capricious deity. What we see in the New Testament, completely in line with the change in the perception of God that I've been setting out, is that it is not humans who offer a sacrifice to God (by, for instance, killing a blasphemous transgressor), but God who offers a sacrifice to humans. The whole self-giving of Jesus becomes possible because Jesus is obedient to God, giving himself in the midst of violent humans who demand blood, so as finally to unmask and annul the system of murderous mendacity which the world is.

Once more, if you think I'm making this up, everything which I have been saying is beautifully and exactly resumed in the first epistle of John. There we see what the message is, the nucleus of the Gospel:

This then is the message which we have heard of him (i.e. Jesus), and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is: what Jesus came to announce was a message about God, and God's being entirely without violence, darkness, duplicity, ambivalence or ambiguity. This message is then unpacked by the author in the following verses, and then he gives us the famous summing up of where this process of the changing perception of God has led to:
...for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)
Here we have the element of the discovery of the absolutely vivacious and effervescent nature of God leading to the realization that behind the death of Jesus there was no violent God, but a loving God who was planning a way to get us out of our violent and sinful life. Not a human sacrifice to God, but God's sacrifice to humans. (Raising Abel, pp. 44-46)
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. In a passage similar to the one just quoted, Alison instead moves his use of 1 John toward the doctrine of the Trinity.
By the time we get to the Johannine writings, and particularly the epistles, the shift out of the Old Testament discourse, and towards the abstract anthroplogical understanding of salvation is further advanced. We get a simple definition presented as being the absolute kernel of the Gospel:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is to say, the Gospel is the revelation of the monotheism that is utterly purified of violence; and then, further on:
...for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8b-10)
Here God is shown as the love that was made manifest through "the intelligence of the victim" [which is Alison's shorthand phrase for the insight that comes from taking the perspective of the victim].

What we have then is a gradual process of the re-casting of God in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, such that it becomes seen that the previous discourse [i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures], within which Jesus had operated, and within which his victimary self-understanding was forged, was in fact a provisional discourse. In the light of the resurrection it gradually becomes possible to see that it was not that God was previously violent, now blessing, now cursing (see Deut. 32:39), but had now brought all that ambivalence to an end. Rather, it became possible to see that that was all a human violence, with various degrees of projection onto God. God had been from the beginning, always, immutably, love, and that this love was made manifest in sending his Son into the midst of the violent humans, even into the midst of their persecutory projections of God, so that they might treat him as a human victim, and thus reveal the depth of the love of God, who was prepared to be a human victim simultaneously to show the depth of his love for humanity, and to reveal humanity as having been locked into the realm of the Father of lies [John 8:44].

The process we have seen in the Pauline writings and in the Johannine epistles is then the definitive demystification of God and man, such that it becomes possible to look again at the crucifixion and the resurrection and develop a perception of God only as derived from that event. So it becomes possible to see the crucifixion as the meeting point between, on the one hand, a human act of violence, and, on the other hand, the love of the Father, who sends his Son into humanity as an act of love, the Son who gives himself freely to being victimized by human beings as part of his imitative love of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, who is the inner dynamic of the relationship between the two of them. Jesus on the Cross gives up his Spirit to the Father. The Father at the resurrection gives back the Spirit to the Son, and the two of them are then able to give this same Spirit, the Spirit of the crucified-and-risen victim to humans as induction into a new way of being human -- becoming children of God (see John 1:11-12, the chiastic centre of the prologue), quite outside the violence of the "world."

The understanding of God as Trinity then is the understanding that the Cross of Christ, made alive in the resurrection, was in fact a relational reality -- a reality of giving and of self-giving that was saving as revealing, and revealing as saving. The Trinity is revealed as the salvific density of the Cross. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 107-109)

3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 26, "Making It Real." McLaren lists this as a text to go along with an imaginative telling of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus' healing forgiveness.

Reflections and Questions

1. "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all." -- 1 John 1:5. This verse has become somewhat of a signature verse for me. I read it as a summary of the Gospel which represents the pinnacle of insight from an anthropological theology. We come to understand all of our experiences of a darkness in God -- i.e., a divine wrath or violence -- are idolatrous. The Hebrew scriptures set us well on the way to this insight by entertaining the notion of monotheism at all, namely, that there is only one true God. A version of 1 John 1:5 in the Hebrew scriptures is the formula, "YHWH is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" -- found in at least seven passages: Exod. 34:6; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2. The revelation in Jesus the Messiah, then, brings this trajectory of monotheistic insight to its fulfillment, as expressed in a passage such as 1 John 1:5.

2. Hasn't the history of Christian theology, however, represented a back-sliding from the pinnacle of 1 John 1:5? In my own theological tradition of Lutheranism, the story of Luther's conversion is the story of one in which his experience of God through the Medieval church was of an extremely dark God, a God of terrible wrath and threatening violence. Luther's emphasis on the God of light revealed in Jesus Christ represents a step forward once again. But I'm not sure that Luther successfully brings us all the way back: he maintains a hidden side of God in which these darker qualitites may still seem to reside. I believe that Girard's anthropology of the cross can complement Luther's theology of the cross in a way that more clearly returns us to the height of Christian insight in 1 John 1:5. Link to a sermon that elaborates these themes, "Spirit-Ministry of the Weakest Link" (Pentecost 2001; a farewell sermon at my last parish).

3. The "atoning sacrifice for our sins" in 2:2 is also made more clear by mimetic theory -- the Alison piece from Raising Abel above being a good example. When speaking of sacrifice, especially when it comes to Christ, we need to see that we are the ones who demand sacrifices, not God. In Jesus Christ our sacrificial mechanisms are transformed into the way of self-sacrifice.

John 20:19-31


1. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of John" audio tape series, tape #12. Here are some of my notes on this portion (link to the full notes on John 20-21):

There is an emphasis in both this story and the "doubting Thomas" story to follow on Jesus showing them his hands and his side. At the time of this Gospel we know of a drift toward gnosticism, or docetism, the tendency to say that Jesus just seemed to be human. This emphasis on the hands and side is a way of saying that the crucifixion was a real death of a real human being. Jesus wasn't just shadow-playing. The disbelief in the Thomas story is more of a disbelief in the crucifixion than the resurrection, from this standpoint of answering gnosticism. It is the scandal of the crucifixion which makes the resurrection difficult for gnostics to believe.

In these verses, the emphasis is on "Peace be with you. As the Father sends me..." This sums up the resurrection, which is the experience of suddenly being impelled to do what he did. My life is no longer my own. He lives in me. The experience of the resurrection is twofold. First part: The Christic impulse is in me. I feel compelled to do what he did.

The second part: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." The Holy Spirit is synonymous with the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the defender of victims. How do we defend victims? Urban II had a way of defending victims: go and slaughter the victimizers [a reference back to the discussion of the Crusades earlier in this lecture]. We know where that leads. How does the Paraclete defend victims? Forgiveness, even forgiveness of the victimizers. From our sacrificial point of view, we read this as a stern God who says, 'You get to go out there and decide who's going to go to hell and who's not.' Rather, the part about retaining sins is an urging to the disciples to get out there and get busy forgiving people's sins, because if they don't do it, it won't get done. Unless people experience forgiveness from them, they won't be forgiven. If they don't experience forgiveness at the hands of the Jesus' disciples, then they will go on generating the kinds of rituals by which they will feel expiated. It's not some pious thing that says, 'Ah, you're O.K.' It's tremendously dynamic - and hard to pull off. People today will pay hundreds of dollars an hour trying to be forgiven.

Rowen Williams wrote: "There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness." The resurrection was an experience of forgiveness. The disciples had all abandoned Jesus, becoming complicit with his murderers. The fact that the resurrection was happening to them was an experience of forgiveness for them.

Followed by quotes from Schillebeeckx, H.J. Richards, Bonhoeffer, Sullivan, and Johann Baptiste Metz.

3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 27, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).

4. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2012, titled "The Precise Message"; and in 2015, "Do We Have to God to Church?"

Reflections and Questions

1. Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s version of this story in The Book of God lends itself well to a sermon about peace. What kind of peace do we usually think of when we read that Jesus suddenly came into their midst saying, "Peace be with you"? Peace from the inner turmoil of grief and guilt? Wangerin's story sets the stage with Peter and James arguing, ready to come to physical blows, blaming each other. As James is ready to lunge at Peter, Jesus suddenly is between them speaking his word of peace. A much more dramatic version of "peace," don't you think? Link to a sermon using this theme entitled "Called as Peacemakers."

2. An extension of the theme raised in #1 is an emphasis on social peace to counter-balance the modern emphasis on inner peace. The younger generations are increasingly divorcing their religious life from their so-called "spiritual" life in a way that lets loose of the social dimension. The well-worn line is, "One doesn't have to go to church to be spiritual." What is the goal of spirituality, then, an inner peace? Mimetic theory would challenge the fact that anyone could have inner peace without outer, social peace. Our psychologies themselves are inextricably social, depending on other people for our desires. Since the foundation of our human worlds, therefore, religion has been about what can hold us together in relative peace. The Christian Gospel reveals our religious mechanisms for peace as depending on violence against victims, and so the work of the Gospel has been to slowly undermine those age-old religious answers. But the answer can never be an isolated, inner peace. The Church has undoubtably been a colossal failure in providing God's new answer to the social peace we crave. But is there anything better? In Word and Sacrament, Christ still comes to invite us into a Holy Communion. Link to a sermon exploring these themes, entitled "Do We Have to Go to Church?"

3. What is retaining sins about? Is this an ironic portion of the commissioning that Jesus throws in to make clear their mission is to not be as the unforgiving servant was in the parable of Matthew 18? How could they retain the sins of any after experiencing themselves this utterly gracious presence of Jesus among them as forgiveness? Had they done anything to deserve Jesus' forgiving presence with them at that moment? Had Jesus himself shown any hint of retaining their sin?

I made ample use of this John 20 passage in my Epiphany 5C sermon (entitled "A Bad Hire?") on the first calling of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. The theme I tried to bring out was that Jesus needed to call his disciples a second time. The first call didn't stick. They all abandoned him at his time of need. So I used these verses from John 20 as an example of calling the disciples a second time. And I made a big deal out of the fact of Jesus calling them again after they had utterly failed. Why would he do that? Is this the case of a bad hire? Or is their failure, along with Jesus' forgiveness of it, precisely their main qualification for being hired as apostles? Here's the last several paragraphs of that sermon:

Here's that second calling of the disciples, and it's absolutely amazing! His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling "guilty as sin," and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them -- 'You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I'm risen I'm going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.' That's what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it's incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! And, some time later, when Jesus goes out to hire the person he wants to take this message of forgiveness to the ends of the earth, he hires Saul, one who is guilty of killing some of Jesus' first messengers. Is Jesus crazy?

No, of course not. He's the Son of God, and so he definitely does things differently from what we would do. To spread a message of forgiveness, he hires not those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He hires those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.

You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are [Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong], with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognizing our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven.

Our Risen Lord comes to us today once again in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. He comes to say to us, "Peace be with you." Not only that, he comes to call us. He comes to hire us to help spread the news. He comes to ask us to extend this word of healing, life-giving forgiveness to others: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them." Oh, yes, there's also this second part about, "if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But after you yourself have had your sins forgiven, could you really retain the sins of another? You see? Jesus has hired the right people, after all. Amen

4. Another twist on the releasing and binding of sins in John 20:23 is to look at it through the Akedah, which means "binding," the story of Genesis 22 in which Abraham binds Isaac for sacrifice and then is released from such a horrific command. Jesus continues the Good News of a God who releases us from the sin of such idolatrous sacrifice -- a sin to which we might nevertheless continue to bind ourselves if we resist the Good News. See my reflections on John 20:23 in light of the Akedah at Proper 8A.

5. A comment from Britt Johnston in 1998:

A friend of mine who is a member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty was demonstrating against an execution in Alabama last year. He was holding a sign that said, 'Jesus was executed.' But a church-goer who was demonstrating in favor of the execution took issue with him, saying that Jesus' death wasn't really an execution because it was the will of God fore-ordained from before creation for our salvation, etc. This is the equivalent of Thomas' words, "unless I touch....and...see, I will not believe." This is what Paul meant by the cross being a scandal. Once again, we want to cover over the murder with a comfortable myth.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the content of our believing as Christians. What are we supposed to believe in? That Jesus was God's Son? That he rose from the dead? Is that what Thomas is having a hard time believing? Is it hard to believe that someone can be raised from the dead? In John's story, the raising of Lazarus was still fresh for Thomas. Can he not believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead? I'm not so sure that's what Thomas' problem was. Perhaps it wasn't simply that God could raise Jesus from the dead. Perhaps he had trouble believing that God would raise a crucified Jesus from the dead. Why would God raise someone executed in utter shame? How could someone so shamed be the Messiah worthy of resurrection?

The above comment by the church-goer favoring capital punishment puts these questions in perspective, I think. What are we supposed to believe? To me, this church-goer is off the mark. We are invited to believe precisely that God raised this one whom we executed. The execution brings us face to face with the heart of the matter: that our cure for violence is sacred violence, and that God's cure for violence is completely different. God submits to our sacred violence in the cross and reveals it as meaningless and powerless compared to God's power of life. The only way to ultimately stop violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness.

Isn't this what is truly difficult for us to believe? Consider our response to the horrific terrorism of September 11. Can we conceive of any other response than our own form of sanctioned violence? That God might be calling us in Jesus Christ to another way to respond -- isn't that the toughest thing for us to believe in? Was Thomas having trouble believing that God's Messiah would be crucified? Doesn't that confront him, and us, with a completely unheard-of plan of salvation from our constant violence? Doesn't he insist on seeing the nail prints and the mark of the spear because he is having trouble believing in a crucified one? How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence actually be the one who is saving us from it? If we want to truly be challenged by something in which to believe, try believing that there is ultimately a nonviolent way to stop violence. Can we believe there's another kind of response to September 11 than to wield our full military might at terrorism? And that Jesus came to call us to that other way? Don't more folks have greater difficulty believing in the latter than in Jesus being raised from the dead?

6. My 2002 sermon, "Dreaming of Peace," is very much related to these reflections (especially #4) but was spurred on from a most unexpected source: I had a dream, on the Saturday night before preaching, of experiencing an execution. I awoke still shuddering from the revulsiveness of it and immediately began to connect it to Thomas' doubt in this Gospel Lesson. I have never before had an experience of feeling like a dream was given to me by God, and it resulted in an unusually powerful preaching experience for me.

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