Substituting the Ascension Day lesson for the First Lesson
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" link to an excerpt of a 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."
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.
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
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. 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.
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 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!
1. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of John" audio series, tape #10; link to my notes / transcription of tape #10.
2. 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).
Reflections and Questions
1. "...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.
2. 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.
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