Epiphany 3A

Last revised: January 26, 2020
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RCL: Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 4:12-23
RoCa: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-23

Opening Comments: Elements of a New Discipleship

In Matthew’s Gospel disciples are called, and then immediately follows the quintessential teaching on discipleship: the Sermon on the Mount.

At the Reformation, the Gospels began to take a backseat to Paul’s teaching on faith. This was a disastrous move in numerous respects and on various levels. First and foremost, the word “faith” began to trend increasingly toward beliefs in doctrine that reformers gleaned from a certain reading of Paul that supported their arguments. In the New Reformation, we need to bring Paul and the Gospels back together so that “faith” designates faithfulness to the way of being human pioneered by Jesus the Messiah — bringing the spotlight back to discipleship of Jesus.

I view Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one of the first voices of a New Reformation. He posed faithfulness to Jesus as what disciples needed to stand against evils like the rise of Nazism. And in his most important published work, Discipleship, he shifts the focus back to Gospels, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. In our time renewed focus on the Sermon on the Mount would serve us well in reframing and renewing our discipleship.

Isaiah 9:1-4


1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 137-138. It’s worthwhile, I think, to repeat this reference from Advent 4, only a month ago. It comes within the closing paragraphs of what is probably the key chapter of his entire book, chapter 4. A crucial point he has made here is that only the resurrection can account for the Christian view of original sin. If Jesus the Innocent Victim does not come back to us as forgiveness and life, then we cannot begin to admit our enslavement to the powers of sin and death. Here are those closing paragraphs:

***** Excerpt from Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 137-138 *****

Some of the prophetic critique goes further, in understanding that the presence of fratricidal violence, the reign of death, is an universal phenomenon, which is a veil of blindness that is over all peoples (Isa. 25:7-8). When therefore Isaiah talks of the darkness (Isa. 9:2; 42:16; 59:9; 60:2; etc) out of which God will lead his people, it is a particular form of darkness to which he is referring — a darkness related to the reign of death — to the boot of the tramping warrior and the garment rolled in blood (Isa. 9:5). This theme is not greatly developed, but there is enough of it present to suggest that prophetic insight went as far as to see sin as related to the reign of death precisely in the measure in which God is increasingly perceived as entirely foreign to death.

None of this is to suggest that there is a theology of Original Sin in the Old Testament. There is in fact no unitary understanding of sin in the Old Testament, nor a unified hermeneutic key by which to interpret the many different understandings of sin which are to be found. It is to suggest, however, that the Law and the Covenant played a role in Israel’s self-understanding such that real conquests were made in the subversion of myth, and thus real insight gained simultaneously into the understanding of God and an ever less mythical anthropology. This permitted an ever greater separation of divine and human violence, an ever sharpening view of the latter, and an ever less easy admission of the former. A perception was able to be developed of the human heart as involved in violence, and needing to be trained away from that. There are hints of an etiology of sin in the Genesis account (though the Adam story scarcely reappears at all in the rest of the Old Testament; [B. Pottier has indicated that contemporary exegesis has found allusions to the story of the fall in Ex. 28:11-19; Isa. 7:14-16; Wis. 2:23-4; 10:1-2; cf Le péché originel selon Hegel p 159]) and a reference to Eve’s sin in Sirach 25:24. G. von Rad has even suggested that Sirach 24 can be considered a development of an understanding of an original sin of man consisting in a non-reception of the wisdom that was coming down from heaven [Note: G. von Rad Théologie de l’Ancien Testament 2: Théologie des traditions prophétiques d’Israel Geneva: Labor et Fides 1967 p 311 Indicated by Pottier loc. cit.]. This is clearly quite different from the Genesis 3 version, and fits in very well with the Johannine allusions to Jesus as rejected wisdom. However, on reading Sirach 24 it is very difficult to see that there is any real emphasis on sin at all – of the first man it is merely said that he did not know wisdom perfectly (v 28), and there is no positive reference to any rejection of wisdom in this chapter (It must further be pointed out that the Jewish tradition in any case considers Sirach apocryphal, and not to be part of their canon of scripture).

The subversive process of the discovery of sin, which is the same as the discovery of freedom, reached a certain point in the Jewish tradition: moral life involves the struggle between an evil impulse (yetzer ha-ra) and a good impulse (yetzer ha-tob). The former is active from birth, the latter comes with the age of discretion and can control the former if the person feeds himself on the Law [cf R. Hamerton-Kelly Sacred Violence p 89]. Once again, it is the positive framework of knowledge, the Law, which permits it to be understood in what sin consists. The understanding of sin as original required a further sharpening of perspective, which was also simultaneously a further deepening of the drasticity of the human condition and a heightened awareness of God. We are back to the double insight into God’s deathlessness and man’s deathfulness provided by Jesus resurrection. It is now clear not only that man must struggle against evil so as to avoid death, but a step further has been reached. The resurrection reveals that man is already shot through with death in a way that no amount of struggle can avoid. It is not that we are sick, but that we are dead. Life is not something fought for, but something given. There is no real freedom that does not pass through a recognition of complicity in death. (pp. 137-138)

***** End of Alison Excerpt *****

Reflections and Questions

1. The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light. Frustrating is when those who sit in darkness aren’t even aware that it’s dark. Seeing the light must come before awareness of the dark. James Alison’s subtitle to The Joy of Being Wrong, Original Sin through Easter Eyes, suggests that one cannot even see original sin except through Easter eyes. Without the forgiveness of the Risen Jesus coming back to those who forsook him to the cross, the apostles would not have been able to admit to the depth of our sinfulness. We are not capable of knowing how dark our situation is without first knowing that we are forgiven for it.

Does this mean that anthropology can only be true if it is evangelical? I believe so. We cannot admit how dire our human condition is unless the Gospel helps us to see it. All other anthropologies are still darkened by some form of mythology that seeks to conceal, that seeks to keep us in the dark.

2. Link to a sermon based primarily on this text, about God’s patience in abiding by us fractured peoples who continue to sit in darkness, entitled “Grace to See the Darkness.”

1 Corinthians 1:10-17


1. 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,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2017, “On Following the God of All Victims.”

Reflections and Questions

1. At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this passage is at least a small concession that Christian disunity has been going on for a long time. Imitation and alliance with varying church leaders turns into an occasion for rivalry and conflict. Paul rightly points them to their one leader, Christ, the one who gave up his body and poured out his blood for the sake of their becoming one body (as he later reminds them in 1 Cor. 10-11). Each of them was baptized in Christ’s name, a dying and rising with him so that they could put on the new anthropos of doing God’s will without falling into rivalry.

Matthew 4:12-23


1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 159-160. This passage about calling disciples comes immediately after Jesus scuffles with the devil in the wilderness. This paragraph out of Alison’s “Excursus on the Devil” may seem out of place for these particular verses in Matthew 4, but notice its concluding sentence:

The devil is not only ‘on his way out,’ an obstacle, and one understood within the framework of the mimetic anthropology shown to be vital for understanding Original Sin. He is also a foundational principle. This we have seen in the way in which he has as his gift all the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:9; Luke 4:6-7), in which he is the prince of the world, founded in murder (John 8:44). However, it is seen most spectacularly in the synoptic account of the exchange in which Jesus asks whether Satan can cast out Satan (Matt. 12:22-39; Mark 3:22-7; Luke 11:14-22). Girard has dedicated one of his most difficult, and profound, essays to these passages [“Satan divided against himself” ch 14 of The Scapegoat, pp 184-197]. He shows that Jesus is enunciating the foundational principle of all human communities (kingdoms, cities, houses) by indicating that all are based on violent expulsion: Satan expelling himself. And that for this reason, the whole of human culture is ultimately self-destructive, since its foundations depend on its being divided against itself. It is in these circumstances that Jesus comes casting out demons by the Spirit (or finger) of God, and announcing that the kingdom of God has come upon his interlocutors. That is to say that the whole self-giving life and death of Jesus, already present in his teaching and miracles, rather than being part of the world of mutual expulsions founded on being divided against itself (at the base of which Girard detects the hidden scapegoat mechanism), is founding and bringing about a form of human community which is based on the self-giving victim, and not by the driving out of victims. His ‘casting out’ is not so much a casting out as a making redundant, by exposing it, the old lie, and making an alternative form of community available [see more on this phrase below].

2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 27, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).

3. 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,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “Blueprint of the Kingdom.”

4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2017, “How to Fish for People“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2017, “Jesus, the Light Shining in the Darkness.”

5. A contemporary hymn that fits well with this passage is John Bell‘s (Iona Community) “The Summons,” or “Will You Come and Follow Me.” Here is the first verse (from Evangelical Lutheran Worship #798):

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

6. In our Teaching Nonviolent Atonement Live Chat on January 23, 2014 (no longer available online), Richard Beck‘s blog, “Experimental Theology,” came into the conversation. He had been doing a series on William Stringfellow‘s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, and came to the third chapter on “The Moral Reality Named Death.” Similar to Heidegger‘s Being-unto-Death or Ernest Becker‘s Denial of Death, Stringfellow names the darkness in which we sit as our fascination with and orientation towards death. Here is an amazing passage quoted by Beck in his blog:

[H]istory discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality — for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity — that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is — apart from God — the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers — the idol of all idols — is death.

Repentance, then, is the reorientation of one’s entire life towards life, enabled by the Resurrection and empowered by life in the Spirit.

Reflections and Questions

1. “. . . making an alternative form of community available.” Jesus goes from doing battle with the devil to initiate his “making an alternative form of community available.” Is that how Matthew sees it in putting these stories back-to-back?

2. Anthropology is essentially about community. Human beings simply are not made to live in isolation from one another. Human babies cannot survive on their own for at least several years. Yet the fallen way of human desire threatens to tear community apart. Anthropology is about how human beings manage to survive in community despite the diabolic powers of temptation to mimetic rivalry. An anthropology of the cross comes to understand that culture holds human beings in community on the basis of the satanic powers of accusation that builds culture on the foundation of sacrificial victims.

Thus, if Jesus comes to save us, he doesn’t just save us as individuals. He must save us by also founding a new community based on something else. He founds us based on a life of fighting the temptations to mimetic rivalry, a life of doing God’s will, God’s desire, without rivalry. In other words, the life of the Trinity, the Godhead which is itself a community. He also saves us by founding community on the basis of the Risen Victim who is recognized as innocent. It is community founded around the rehabilitation of victims instead of the making of them.

3. In 2014 the sermon wove together repentance, intentional Christian community, and John Bell’s hymn (above), borrowing the hymn for the sermon title, “Will You Come and Follow Me . . . and Never Be the Same.”

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