Last revised: August 11, 2023
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SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
RoCa: Acts 1:12-14; 1 Peter 4:13-16; John 17:1-11
Opening Reflections: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2023, I was beginning a new assignment as “Bridge Pastor” at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Racine, WI, which had just completed mission strategizing toward being a more welcoming community. It also happened to be Confirmation Day for a young member. The sermon, titled “Salvation as a Welcoming Human Community,” introduced my passion for revitalizing our basic Gospel message, especially toward being more welcoming to the younger generations. Here is a YouTube video recording of that sermon.
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In 2020 I wrote: The coronavirus pandemic presents humankind with another choice between the God of true Oneness or our cultural gods that preside over Us-vs-Them.
The original Reformation was all about discovering God anew as a God of grace. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Five hundred years of subsequent history has shown those efforts to have largely failed. A God of grace must be a God who is completely nonviolent, and a God who produces true Oneness. As John puts it, “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). The Reformation never came close to achieving this pinnacle of a nonviolent God. Reformation churches soon promulgated wars and various forms of violence, using God to justify it. It produced the same old kind of oneness based on Us-against-Them . . . now formulated as Protestants vs. Catholics.
Theologically, Protestantism landed squarely with the ultimate dualistic god, who instead of “creating one new humanity in place of the two” (the clear results of a gracious God proclaimed in Eph. 2), proclaims a god who eternally divides humanity into two — believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. Instead of seeing in the Crucified God a gracious God who is launching a renewal of creation and healing of humanity, Protestant theology landed with its abhorrent penal substitutionary atonement theory of a wrathful God who sacrifices the Son in order to save a few believing souls for heaven. After a century of World Wars, it’s no wonder that people are fleeing churches in rapidly increasing numbers.
And so a New Reformation requires a first step of atheism. Anthony Bartlett puts it this way in opening his book Seven Stories:
There is a quote attributed to Richard Rohr, and even if he didn’t say it, it is certainly worth repeating. “Many Christians have to go through a time and experience of atheism, because the God we have been taught to believe in does not exist.”
This book is nothing less than a schooling in necessary Christian atheism about a God of violence. But underlying and vitally more important than that, it is the revelation of the God of love who has been there all along, and whose very character of love prods this kind of atheism into being!
In John 17, Jesus prays “that they may be one as we are one.” Do we realize how much the true God, whose Oneness offers gracious healing to all our human divisions, requires atheism toward all our well-entrenched gods of dualism? To me this is the fundamental issue of coming to true “faith” — faithfulness to Jesus’s Father, the nonviolent God of love. It begs for an anthropology that helps us to more full understand how humanity has become entrenched in experiences of dualistic gods.
Mimetic Theory is a thoroughgoing anthropological hypothesis about human beings evolving in violence and so is an ideal partner for ushering theology into more fully experiencing the nonviolent God — the God who, through the Human One Jesus the Messiah, is launching a healing of creation that makes possible a re-evolution of humankind in nonviolence. It’s a long project! And it’s one, because of human freedom, that can possibly fail — a hellish prospect. But the God of Jesus also remains persistent and enduring, a covenant God whose creativity spans billions of years on an evolutionary time-scale.
Before delving more deeply into today’s readings, let’s take a few minutes to look at the big picture of how everything turns on atheism to the gods of violence and subsequent conversion to the nonviolent God — a conversion that may even be “religionless” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was intuiting before his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis.
Scott Cowdell, in his immensely important book René Girard and the Nonviolent God, endorses and extends Raymund Schwager‘s melding of Mimetic Theory with von Balthasar‘s notion of Theo-Drama (see Jesus in the Drama of Salvation). Cowdell expands the timeframe of the drama to consist of: (1) beginning with the Big Bang to the appearance of Homo sapiens, the age of “The Pre-Human Paradise of Savage Innocence”; (2) “Hominization, the Primal Murder, and Providence,” as spanning the evolution of humankind into sacred violence as our means to survive (i.e., our “natural selection”) the threat of mimetic violence; (3) “The Breakthrough” in awareness of the sacrificial mechanism in numerous cultures, culminating in the events of the cross and resurrection of the Messiah, and advent of the Paraclete; (4) the apocalyptic age in which we live, an era of the Gospel undermining the effectiveness of sacred violence while the powers and principalities of sacred violence desperately try to prevail — “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”; and (5) “The Un-theorized Eschaton,” which brings the promised triumph of Jesus the Messiah’s nonviolent God but in ways we have trouble imagining (and Girard himself refrained from theorizing about).
Cowdell then enriches this notion of Theo-Drama with that of “overacceptance,” a concept from improvisational performance art. Artists participate in performances with their individual visions of where the performance is heading. When another actor takes the drama in a certain direction that deviates from the actor’s vision, it generally doesn’t do much good to attempt blocking it. But nor does one simply have to accept that direction. Each actor can “overaccept” by taking that other actor’s move and creatively acting to move the drama toward the envisioned ending. This is what God can be seen to be doing in the Theo-Drama. Human beings in their freedom continue to act in ways that lead to a violent ending, while God continues to act in ways that move the drama back to a nonviolent reconciliation of the whole creation — requiring a “double agency” of God working through human beings in history.
We are now two thousand years hence from “the Breakthrough” and into “the Best of Times, the Worst of Times.” We have contended that the Reformation proclaimed a God of grace but largely failed to fully bring that God to light, itself still mired in imperialistic experiences of god. Are there signs that atheism toward the god of violence is moving us into a New Reformation?
The first major sign that I see is the practice of nonviolent “civil disobedience,” a term coined by Henry David Thoreau at the time of abolitionist movements and protesting the U.S. war against Mexico. It picked up steam again with leaders like Susan B. Anthony and the suffragette movement, and finally crashed onto the world scene, precisely during the crescendo of two World Wars, through a massive movement of nonviolent resistance to empire led by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu follower of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Having travelled to the ‘land of Gandhi’ in early 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Civil Rights Movement with Gandhian practices of nonviolent resistance as a foundation. Since then democratic justice movements, primarily secular and increasingly atheistic, have continued this modern trend of ‘fighting’ nonviolently against the powers and principalities of division. I contend that nonviolent movements against those things which oppressively divide us — racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, militarism, authoritarianism, classist forms of capitalism — are signs of a New Reformation (even if a “religionless” one).
The Church in Europe and North America has most often lagged behind these movements. Is it because it’s largely white male leadership has the most to lose? Liberation theologies, developed outside the circles of white male power, were the earliest to spring up around the nonviolent resistance movements. In more recent years, though, I see it as another sign of a New Reformation that white male leaders of even conservative “mega-churches” have experienced conversions to the nonviolent God and are writing about it. Most helpful to me have been: Brian McLaren (c.f., Part 2 of his book The Great Spiritual Migration, “From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation”), Brian Zahnd (c.f., Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, subverting the infamous Jonathan Edwards sermon), and Gregory Boyd (The Crucifixion of the Warrior God). (In his most recent book The Galápagos Islands, McLaren beautifully tells the story of Darwin’s experience of a God whose evolutionary creativity compelled him to atheism toward the violent god of the churches, while also telling his own story through the borderlands of atheism into conversion to the nonviolent God.) All three of these particular authors have been readers of Girard, and they use or take account of Mimetic Theory to varying degrees.
I count myself fortunate to have stumbled upon Girard’s work in 1992 and thus to have begun the spiritual journey through atheism for the violent gods with whom I grew up and into a gradual conversion to the nonviolent God of Jesus. Girard insists on his role as an anthropologist and not a theologian. But his anthropological readings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures brought him early-on to the very clear theological conclusion: “That is indeed the main lesson to be drawn from this brief analysis [of Gospel passages]. The notion of a divine violence has no place in the inspiration of the Gospels.” (Things Hidden, 189)
So let’s get back to some brief comments on the day’s readings. Mimetic Theory not only postulates a nonviolent God, but it also explains the ‘birth’ of all the violent gods. It hypothesizes how it is that human thinking has an evolutionary formation in dualistic thinking that projects gods who preside over the Us-Them structuring of human culture. Human community is founded in the peace wrought by the scapegoating events, repeated countless times during the long period of hominization. The victim provides the first religious experiences of awe; the victim is intuited as a creature who is somehow superhuman, first sowing community-wide chaos and then ordering the peace. The victims become worshiped as the first gods. And they are the first to capture attention in ways that begin the process of symbolization . . . language.
The first ‘language’ is ritual — the intentional repetition of the event which brings peace. Having the whole community come together in killing a victim has worked to bring peace in the past, so it is ‘religiously’ repeated. Ritual human sacrifice is born. And it is the mechanism which saves human community from imploding on its mimetic violence, so it continues to gain in religious importance. It is the one essential thing to maintain the community. (Echoes millennia later during a pandemic: ‘The noble sacrifice of our essential workers will save our way of life.’) Girard writes,
There is no difficulty in explaining why ritual is repeated. Driven by sacred terror and wishing to continue life under the sign of the reconciliatory victim, men attempt to reproduce and represent this sign; this attempt consists first of all in the search for victims who seem capable of bringing about the primordial epiphany, and it is there that we find the first signifying activity that can always be defined, if one insists, in terms of language or writing. The moment arrives when the original victim, rather than being signified by new victims, will be signified by something other than a victim, by a variety of things that continue to signify the victim while at the same time progressively masking, disguising, and failing to recognize it. (Things Hidden, 103)
Over millennia there’s endless substitutions so that animals take on the aura of the sacred, too, and the substitutionary and increasingly elaborate language of ritual grows into language with signs and utterances. Eventually, myths are told to tell the stories of the sacrifices to the gods. And it is all dualistic in structure. In a section on the birth of language in Things Hidden, Girard writes,
Because of the victim, in so far as it seems to emerge from the community and the community seems to emerge from it, for the first time there can be something like an inside and an outside, a before and after, a community and the sacred. We have already noted that the victim appears to be simultaneously good and evil, peaceable and violent, a life that brings death and a death that guarantees life. Every possible significant element seems to have its outline in the sacred and at the same time to be transcended by it. In this sense the victim does seem to constitute a universal signifier. (Things Hidden, 102)
Is it any wonder, then, that after millennia of evolving in dualistic thinking which is religiously formed, it is so difficult for us to think in terms of true Oneness? Ever since our origins as a species our experience has been that the gods have taught us, commanded us, to think dualistically and to so order our communities and cultures. When the Human One comes along and prays, “May they be one as we are one,” it is not necessarily jolting yet. Our gods have always given Us oneness . . . a blessed unity that we maintain against Them. In short, a false dualistic oneness.
But what happens next after Jesus’s prayer makes all the difference in the world. The Human One lets himself be victim to our sacrifice and then is raised with the a message of forgiveness, not vengeance. He lets himself be pushed out as an outsider, one of Them, to begin breaking down the barriers of Us and Them. His Father and the Spirit of Truth represent a Oneness that transcends the dualisms. There is no longer Us and Them. There is only Us. This is a brand new Oneness. A wholly different God. Believing in this God will appear to be atheism.
I have found that dualistic thinking is so entrenched that I will not be able gradually undo it in my heart without new practices. One such practice is contemplative prayer. I studied the mystics and read those who teach their way, like Richard Rohr. I could begin to understand with my head this new Oneness. But it only becomes a matter of the heart, the whole person, as one practices contemplation that seeks to unhook oneself from dualistic thinking, opening the heart to a new oneness. Read folks like Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Martin Laird. Find a Spiritual Director for guidance. This is nothing less than a prayer practice of Oneness that seeks to undo a hundred thousand years of evolution and live into a new way of being human.
Another essential practice is advocacy and care for the most vulnerable. Sacrificial (dualistic) thinking elevates those in the center and sacrifices those on the margins. Caring for the least of Jesus’s family is another practice for breaking through the dualistic, sacrificial thinking. Martin Luther King, Jr. became most dangerous when he opposed the ultimate sacrificial thinking of militarism and launched a Poor People’s Campaign. His mantra succinctly expresses the new logic of Oneness that transcends the old us-against-them oneness: “I’m not free until everyone is free. I don’t have enough until everyone has enough.” Etc. In short, the practice of caring for the least is the surest way to make certain no one is sacrificed. William Barber II (Poor People’s Campaign and the forthcoming We Are Called to Be a Movement) has stepped forward to revive the work of King for our moment in time. . . .
We stand at another crossroads of human history with the challenges and suffering wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Will we respond in fear such that the forces of sacrificial thinking further divides us in deadly ways? Or will we respond in love with a decisive step forward to a new Oneness that heals and transcends the divisions of Us-Them?
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.
2. In The Joy of Being Wrong, James 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.
3. Link to a sermon that Alison’s notion of the power we see in the Ascension as a power that stands up to evil nonviolently. The central illustration is the movie Dead Poet’s Society, with the suggestion that the Church is to be a “Risen Lord’s Society.”
4. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (ch. 7, “Jesus, Heaven, and New Creation,” begins with a section on the Ascension) and Acts for Everyone: Chapters 1-12. Wright has been one of the strong proponents that recent Christianity has had the vector of salvation wrong when it hopes for going up to heaven some day after death. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the opposite, for God’s Kingdom to come down to earth. So why does the Ascension have the vector pointing up? In Surprised by Hope, Wright cites other uses of “up” as metaphorical, such as, “My child moved up to 4th Grade,” or, “I was promoted up to CEO.” His explanation in Acts for Everyone is excellent:
But once we grasp that “heaven and earth” mean what they mean in the Bible, and that “heaven” is not, repeat not, a location within our own cosmos of space, time and matter, situated somewhere up in the sky (“up” from whose point of view? Europe? Brazil? Australia?), then we are ready, or as ready as we are likely to be, to understand the ascension, described here quite simply and briefly by Luke. Neither Luke nor the other early Christians thought Jesus had suddenly become a primitive spaceman, heading off into orbit or beyond, so that if you searched throughout the far reaches of what we call “space” you would eventually find him. They believed that “heaven” and “earth” are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and that the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both and hence in either, anticipating the time when everything will be renewed and joined together. And so, since as T. S. Eliot said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” the new, overwhelming reality of a heaven-and-earth creature will not just yet live in both dimensions together, but will make itself — himself — at home within the “heavenly” dimension for the moment, until the time comes for heaven and earth to be finally renewed and united. At that point, of course, this renewed Jesus himself will be the central figure.
That is the point of the event, and its explanation, as we find them in verses 9-11. Jesus is “lifted up,” indicating to the disciples not that he was heading out somewhere beyond the moon, beyond Mars, or wherever, but that he was going into “God’s space,” God’s dimension. The cloud, as so often in the Bible, is the sign of God’s presence (think of the pillar of cloud and fire as the children of Israel wandered through the desert, or the cloud and smoke that filled the Temple when God became suddenly present in a new way). Jesus has gone into God’s dimension of reality; but he’ll be back on the day when that dimension and our present one are brought together once and for all. That promise hangs in the air over the whole of Christian history from that day to this. That is what we mean by the “second coming.”
There are two other things which are, as we say, “going on” in this passage. Some first-century readers would have picked up one of these, some the other, some perhaps both. First, one of the central Old Testament promises for the early Christians was in Daniel 7, where “one like a son of man” is brought up, on the clouds of heaven, to the “Ancient of Days,” and is presented before him and given kingly power over the nations, and particularly over the “beasts,” the monsters representing the forces of evil and chaos. For someone who had long pondered that passage — and there are plenty of signs that the early Christians did just that — the story of Jesus’ ascension would indicate that Daniel 7 had been fulfilled in a dramatic and unexpected way, with the human figure who had suffered at the hands of the evil powers of the world now being exalted into the very presence of God himself, there to receive kingly power. This fits so well with the previous passage (verses 6-8) that it is hard to suppose that Luke did not intend it.
Second, many of Luke’s readers would know that when a Roman emperor died, it had become customary to declare that someone had seen his soul escaping from his body and going up to heaven. If you go to the top end of the Forum in Rome, stand under the Arch of Titus, and look up, you will see a carving of the soul of Titus, who was emperor in the 80’s of the first century, ascending to heaven. The message of this was clear: the emperor was becoming a god (thus enabling his son and heir to style himself “son of god,” which is a useful title if you want to run the world). The parallel is not so close this time, since Luke is clear that it was not Jesus’ soul that ascended into heaven, leaving his body behind somewhere, but his whole, renewed, bodily, complete self. But there is then a sense that Jesus is upstaging anything the Roman emperors might imagine for themselves. He is the reality, and they are the parody — a theme we will notice more than once as Luke’s story unfolds. And when, at the end of Luke’s book, the good news of Jesus is being preached in Rome itself, openly and unhindered, we have a sense of “Of course! That’s how it had to be.” He is the world’s true and rightful king, sharing the very throne, and somehow even, so it seems, the identity, of the one true God.
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 12, “Stories That Shape Us,” uses this passage as a primary text. McLaren recounts the story of Elijah being taken into heaven by chariot and wonders about a basic reading strategy for the Bible’s stories, one that focuses on the meaning conveyed without getting hung up on literal readings. He writes:
In that light, the Elijah story addresses an urgent question: What happens when a great leader dies? Typically, a blaze of glory surrounds the hero’s departure — symbolized by the fiery chariot and horses in the story. After the leader is gone, the actual life and message of the leader are forgotten, obscured by the blaze of fame and glory. People become fans of the leader’s reputation but not followers of his example. That’s why the old mentor Elijah puts his young apprentice Elisha through many trials and warns him about the spectacle surrounding his departure. The fireworks are not the point, Elijah explains; they’re a distraction, a temptation to be overcome. If the apprentice resists that distraction and remains resolutely focused on the mentor himself, a double portion of the mentor’s spirit will rest on him.
We see something very similar in the story of Jesus’ departure. Will his followers look up at the sky and speculate about their departed leader with their heads in the clouds? Will they be fans instead of followers? Or will they get down to work and stay focused on living and sharing Jesus’ down-to-Earth way of life, empowered with his Spirit? (p. 52)
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011, a number of things had come together. I had attended the 2011 Annual Conference of Theology & Peace (with Brian McLaren as a featured speaker), where I had led the closing Eucharist, using words from Richard Rohr‘s, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Traveling to the conference, I was reading Tony Bartlett‘s Virtually Christian, where “down is the new up” — with Rob Bell‘s Love Wins still fresh, where “here is the new there.” The result was an Ascension oriented sermon on “Getting Our Prepositions Straight.”
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
1. 1 Peter 4:16 (a verse omitted from this lection in the RCL but not the Catholic lectionary) is quoted by James Alison on pages 181-182 of Raising Abel in reflecting on the NT picture of reputation, shame vs. glory, in the context of suffering. See more on this section below under the Gospel Reading. Alison quotes 1 Peter 4:16 as an example of receiving our reputation from God in Christ, after which Alison comments, “That is, the shame suffered as a consequence of building the story of the victim is the way by which we give a just reputation to God” (182).
1. didōmi, “to give,” appears 11 times in these eleven verses.
2. aiōnios zōē, vs. 2-3, “eternal life.” 17:3 is the verse where John’s Jesus himself explains what this phrase means: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.” But the significance of this phrase goes beyond these verses to contemporary New Testament theology.
Crucial to changing interpretations of New Testament theology is get a more accurate translation of zoe aionios. Here, for example, is an insightful commentary by Brian McLaren, in The Secret Message of Jesus:
Interestingly, John almost never uses the term “kingdom of God” (which is at the heart of Jesus’ message for Matthew, Mark, and Luke). There are two exceptions, both of which occur in this unique conversation [with Nicodemus in John 3]. Instead, John normally translates “kingdom of God” into another phrase that is notoriously hard to render in English. Most commonly, John’s translation of Jesus’ original phrase is rendered “eternal life” in English. Unfortunately, the phrase eternal life is often misinterpreted to mean “life in heaven after you die” — as are kingdom of God and its synonym, kingdom of heaven — so I think we need to find a better rendering.
If “eternal life” doesn’t mean “life after death,” what does it mean? Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus reduces the phrase simply to “life,” or “life to the full.” Near the end of John’s account, Jesus makes a particularly fascinating statement in a prayer, and it is as close as we get to a definition: “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [God has] sent” (John 17:3). So here, “eternal life” means knowing, and knowing means an interactive relationship. In other words, “This is eternal life, to have an interactive relationship with the only true God and with Jesus Christ, his messenger.” Interestingly, that’s what a kingdom is too: an interactive relationship one has with a king, the king’s other subjects, and so on.
The Greek phrase John uses for “eternal life” literally means “life of the ages,” as opposed, I think we could say, to “life as people are living it these days.” So John’s related phrases — eternal life, life to the full, and simply life — give us a unique angle on what Jesus meant by “kingdom of God”: a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” (pp. 36-37)
McLaren is following recent New Testament scholarship on this rendering — preeminently N.T. Wright, especially in his books The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope. He offers the translation of “eternal life” in his The Kingdom New Testament, as “the life of the coming age,” or “life in God’s new age.” His best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias is in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels:
“God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
In other words, the key here is imagining the Hebrew/Aramaic phrasing — this present age vs. the age to come — behind the Greek, “life of the ages.” The Greek aiōnios zōē, “life of the ages,” translates the Hebrew ha-olam ha-ba, “age to come.” In his Kingdom New Testament translation, Wright renders Jesus’ prayer to his Father in 17:3 as, “And by ‘the life of God’s coming age’ I mean this: that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah, the one you sent.”
3. kosmos, “world.” Walter Wink has an important discussion of John’s use of kosmos in Engaging the Powers, pp. 50-59. He suggests we hear it as “Domination System,” or simply “the System.” A Girardian might instead think in similar terms using language from Mimetic Theory — something like Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s phrase “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism” (GMSM), which he uses in The Gospel and the Sacred.
In keeping with Wright‘s thesis about “eternal life” (above) — that it renders the Hebrew phrase ha-olam ha-ba, “age to come” — we might also render kosmos as the Hebrew twin of “age to come”: ha-olam hazeh, “present age” — Paul’s “present evil age” in Gal. 1:4.
4. An alternate translation of John 17:1-11. It begins with N. T. Wright‘s Kingdom New Testament translation, including his rendering of “eternal life” as “the life of God’s coming age.” So I translate kosmos as the contrasting “this present age.” Finally, I translate doxazō as “exalt” instead of “glorify” — in the sense of being ‘lifted up,’ Jesus’ favorite way of talking about the cross in John — and doxa as “splendor” instead of “glory.” It’s not a big change, but “glory” is a loaded term in contemporary English, and I wanted to try something perhaps less loaded. The resulting translation is as follows:
“Father,” he said, “the moment has come. Exalt your son, so that your son may exalt you. 2Do this in the same way as you did when you gave him authority over all flesh, so that he could give the life of God’s coming age to everyone you gave him. 3And by ‘the life of God’s coming age’ I mean this: that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah, the one you sent.
4“I exalted you on earth, by completing the work you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, exalt me, alongside yourself, with the splendor which I had with you before this present age existed.
6“I revealed your name to the people you gave me out of this present age. They belonged to you; you gave them to me; and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything which you gave me comes from you. 8I have given them the words you gave me, and they have received them. They have come to know, in truth, that I came from you. They have believed that you sent me.
9“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for this present age, but for the people you’ve given me. They belong to you. 10All mine are yours; all yours are mine; and I’m exalted in them.
11“I’m not in this present age any longer, but they’re still in this present age; I’m coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, the name you’ve given to me, so that they may be one, just as we are one.
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 95. Alison cites John 17:5 as one of the NT texts which posits creation through a pre-existent Christ. His argument is amazing in showing how creation in Christ developed from the experience of the Resurrection as the forgiveness of sin; link to an excerpt of “Creation in Christ.”
3. James Alison, Knowing Jesus, p. 109:
The point of these remarks is that Jesus’ real concern is that people should know the Father, not him. At the same time he is aware that he is revealing the Father, and that it is only through him that a real knowledge of the Father is made available. That is: it is only in seeing the pattern of Jesus’ life, lived with the intelligence of the victim, that it becomes possible to know the Father, who is revealed only in the casting out. Let me try to make that clearer. The whole process of Jesus’ life, leading up to and including his death, is what defines who the Father is. This is because the life is lived in obedient response to the Father’s love, and is an exact imitation of the Father’s love lived out in the conditions of the human race. The imitation reveals the one imitated. It was Jesus’ life and death that made possible the human discovery of who the Father really is.
So, Jesus makes himself known, not as an end in himself, but strictly as the means of revealing the Father. His famous response to Philip in John 14 says exactly this: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” What Jesus is, he is as revealing the Father. Later on, this is made clearer still when Jesus says, “and this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” (John 17.3).
4. James Alison, a video homily for Easter 7A; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. This homily wonderfully explains the intimacy of “glory” as given to us by the one crucified, a different kind of reputation to us in the mimetic love between Jesus and his Father rather than the mimetic envy typical of our human relations.
5. James Alison, Raising Abel, a section titled “Reputation and Shame,” pp. 180-85, explains John’s use of doxa, “glory,” as about reputation. He writes, for example,
Jesus takes it for granted that we, as human beings, depend absolutely on someone other to give us our sense of worth. That is, at root we all have a profound need that someone should recognize us, and how we act is deeply motivated by our need to obtain such recognition. We all need that someone should take note of us and tell us “I have noticed you, and I like what you are doing.” The problem which Jesus raises with his listeners is the same question as we have seen in other circumstances: on which “other” do I depend to be noticed and told “I like you”?
I think that there are two possibilities: I can depend entirely on my peers, in which case my goodness, my striving to do well, and the sort of life I lead will be a reflection of them, and I’ll have to do everything to keep myself well-considered by them, receiving those whom they receive and excluding those whom they exclude, so as not to run the risk of finding myself the excluded one.
The other possibility is that I receive my “I” from God, and here’s the rub: God has an awful reputation. Which is nothing other than saying that God’s reputation and the reputation of the victim are the same thing. That is what Jesus was suggesting: in order to receive your reputation, your being noticed and recognized, by God, you have to be prepared to lose the reputation which comes from the mutually reinforcing opinion and high regard of those who are bulwarks of public morality and goodness, and find it among those who are held as nothing, of no worth. (Raising Abel, 180-81)
When one receives the glory of Jesus and his Father, you take the place of shame by standing with the least.
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)
7. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, ch. 19, “How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?” McLaren offers a close reading of John 13-17 in this chapter, especially 14:1-6. In a footnote to his explanation of 14:6, he writes:
This reading takes seriously the play on the word “know.” Thomas is saying, “How can we have intellectual clarity on where you’re going or the route or technique to get there?” Jesus replies, “You don’t need intellectual clarity; you need personal knowledge. It’s not a matter of “knowing about,” but rather “knowing.” Similarly, when Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus replies, “Philip, don’t you know me?” Remember, this theme of personal knowing as interactive relationship (closely related to friendship) is strong through all of John’s gospel. Just three chapters later Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). “I am the life” in John 14:6, then, has a powerful resonance with John 17:3, in effect saying, “Eternal life is to know God and to know Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.”
(See, also, a slide presentation on Girard, in the context of A New Kind of Christianity, that Brian McLaren made to Theology & Peace on June 1, 2011. McLaren shared that his next book at that time — which was Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? — would make substantial use of Girard’s work.)
8. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 45, “Spirit of Unity and Diversity,” uses this passage as a primary text. It fits even better for Trinity Sunday in two weeks. McLaren outlines five shifts in understanding God according to the Trinity. The third one is most relevant to this passage:
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. (pp. 228-29)
9. N. T. Wright, John for Everyone: Chapters 11-21. Wright has been one of the consistent champions against ‘going to heaven’ as the goal of Christian eschatology. So it is no surprise that he would write of “eternal life” in this passage:
This “eternal life,” this life of the coming age, is not just something which people can have after their death. It isn’t simply that in some future state the world will go on for ever and ever and we shall be part of it. The point is, rather, that this new sort of life has come to birth in the world in and through Jesus. Once he has completed the final victory over death itself, all his followers, all who trust him and believe that he has truly come from the father, and has truly unveiled the father’s character and purpose — all of them can and will possess “eternal life” right here and now. That, too, has been one of the great themes of this gospel (e.g. 3.16; 5.24).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2008, the TV show ER was winding down. I recalled Dr. Mark Green’s “Farewell Address” to his daughter, as he lay dying, leaving her with the words, “Be generous.” Keying on the use of “to give” eleven times in this passage, I preached a sermon on Jesus’ Farewell Address as climaxing in the message “Be Generous!”
2. In 2014, a book I was reading was making a big impression on me — from an unexpected source — titled 10% Happier, by ABC news anchor Dan Harris. It’s basically his personal account of being ushered into the benefits of meditation pretty much kicking and screaming. I had been dabbling in Contemplative Spirituality for several years, primarily influenced by Richard Rohr and Sr. Nancy Brousseau, the Director of our synod’s center for continuing education. Harris’ book was leading me to rededicate myself to regular, consistent practice (which soon received a ‘shot in the arm’ from Brian Robinette‘s presentation at the 2014 Annual Conference of Theology & Peace). For several weeks I had been building to a point of elaborating further on meditation as an opening to the experience of God abiding in us — “abiding” being a main theme in John, including the previous two weeks. With the prayer for Oneness in John 17, this was the ideal time to focus on contemplative prayer. The sermon “Contemplation and Oneness” has raised a lot of interest in our parish that will likely lead to developing growth in the ancient practices of silent prayer.