Last revised: May 28, 2021
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TRINITY SUNDAY — YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
RoCa: Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20
Doctrine of the Trinity
1. James Alison. Alison did his dissertation at Oxford on an interpretation of the Trinity using mimetic theory. He has several sections on the Trinity in The Joy of Being Wrong (which greatly inform my reflections below): “Trinity: The Monotheism of the Victim,” pp. 102-110; and chapter 7, “The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin,” pp. 186-210. Here is a crucial paragraph that ties to a key passage for mimetic theory, John 8:39-47:
So here we find set out with very great clarity the countersign to the ecclesial hypostasis which Jesus is bringing into being: the involvement in persecution and victimization by which the world maintains its order is the same as not knowing the Father. That is, it is the inverse of the bringing about of divine paternity in the world. The link between this passage and John 8:39-47 is clear: what is being described is the nature of those who are sons of the Father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning. Jesus is also clear that his bringing into being the ecclesial hypostasis, and therefore the fulfilment of creation, is not merely something which happens in the midst of neutrality. The bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis by Jesus is exactly what identifies sin as sin, and identifying it, provokes resistance and hatred. There are only two possible modes of desire in John: hatred and love. Love, as we have seen, is the pacific imitative self-giving towards death which is creative of life. Hatred is the rivalistic distorted desire which ties a person ever more furiously into persecution, death and murder ‘without cause’. The one is the mode of desire proper to the Father, the other is the mode of desire proper to the world. At John 15:24 Jesus says: “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.” That is to say, Jesus has, by his works, unblocked the way in which creation was locked into being unfinished. (pp. 192-193)
Alison further elaborates these themes in an important essay that does a close reading on John 8: Faith Beyond Resentment; chapter 3, “Jesus’ Fraternal Relocation of God,” pp. 56-85. I draw out similar themes in the beginning of “My Core Convictions (I.2),” pairing Love and Envy instead of Love and Hatred.
2. René Girard, Things Hidden…,” pp. 215-223, regarding the Divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth. These sections move toward a doctrine of the Trinity with an emphasis on Christ’s divinity and incarnation.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, “The Revelation of the Triune God in the Redemptive Event,” pp. 196-217.
4. N. T. Wright, How God Became King; on a day when the Trinitarian creeds can take center stage, it is important to hear a significant problem raised by this foremost New Testament scholar. Overall, Wright’s immensely important book is addressing the problem of how modern Christians have seemed to lose what the Gospels are truly about, namely, the story of how in Jesus Christ God became king of the earth. This problem is exemplified in the opening chapter, titled “The Missing Middle,” through the difference between the great historical creeds of the church and canonical gospels. Wright writes,
My problem with this is that the canonical gospels and the creeds are not in fact presenting the same picture. This, actually, is a question that goes much wider and deeper than we have time to explore in this book, but at the heart of it we could sum up the problem like this. The great creeds, when they refer to Jesus, pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death. The four gospels don’t. Or, to put it the other way around, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to think it’s hugely important that they tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death. In particular, they tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that; but the great creeds don’t. (p. 11)
As a leader of the church, Wright is careful to summarize the historical importance of the creeds in addressing the challenge of heresies. But after quoting the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, he returns to problematic of the creeds:
So much detail, and yet nothing at all about what Jesus did in between being conceived and born, on the one hand, and being crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the other. Why not? If the aim were to summarize the key focal points of Christian faith, did that imply that that faith didn’t really need, shall we say, Matthew 3-26? Would chapters 1-2 (Jesus’s birth) and 27-28 (his death and resurrection) have done just as well? Was Matthew, and were Mark, Luke, and John for that matter, wasting time telling us all that stuff in the middle? Were they just giving us the “backstory” to satisfy any lingering curiosity the church might have about the earlier life of the one Christians now worshipped as Lord?
This problem, as we began to notice in the previous section, resurfaced in twentieth-century scholarship in the form of the question scholars associate with Rudolf Bultmann in particular (though with many antecedents and many followers): Why should the church, worshipping the living Lord, be bothered by the history of what he had done in the past? The answers given by conservative scholarship seem thin and flat. They amount to what we now refer to as arm-waving: they maintain that early converts, eager to worship the risen Lord in the present, wanted to know about the earthly life of this same Jesus. But although that was undoubtedly the case, responding to a request for information doesn’t seem to come anywhere close to describing what the gospels seem to be doing. They do not seem merely to be providing background biographical details. They are not merely “filling in gaps” to help the present faith and life of, their readers. They are telling a story, a story that is almost entirely missing in the great creeds of the early church. (pp. 13-14)
One more distillation from Wright on this matter of crucial importance:
What I see, in other words, is a great gulf opening up between the canon and the creeds. The canonical gospels give us a Jesus whose public career radically mattered as part of his overall accomplishment, which had to do with the kingdom of God. The creeds give us a Jesus whose miraculous birth and saving death, resurrection, and ascension are all we need to know. It is not only in a historical sense that the title “Apostles’ Creed” is a serious misnomer. My experience as a teenager and the one I had in my twenties were indications of something profoundly puzzling in the way we have all read the gospels. We have assumed some kind of creedal framework, and the gospels don’t fit it. Have we, then, all misunderstood the gospels? Is there an emptiness at the heart of the great cloak of the creedal gospel? I fear the answer has to be yes.
Let’s sharpen this up by observing an irony that follows directly from this. To this day, whenever people take it upon themselves to explore the divinity of Jesus, there is at the very least a tendency for the theme of God’s kingdom, coming on earth as in heaven, to be quietly lost from view. It is as though a young man spent all his time proving that he really was his father’s son and left no time or energy for working with his father in the family business — which would, actually, be one of the better ways of demonstrating the family likeness. The gospels don’t make that mistake. It is by his inaugurating of God’s kingdom, in his public career and on the cross, that Jesus reveals the father’s glory. More of that anon. But this is a startling preliminary conclusion. It poses several additional questions for us today: about our discipleship, our preaching, our hermeneutics, and even our praying. The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God. It would be truly remarkable if one great truth of early Christian faith and life were actually to displace another, to displace it indeed so thoroughly that people forgot it even existed. But that’s what I think has happened. (pp. 19-20)
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 45, “The Spirit of Unity and Diversity,” is basically a chapter on the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Trinity shifts our understanding away from God as: violent, static, dualist, hierarchical, and exclusive. He concludes:
Sadly, too often our forbears wielded a warped and jagged understanding of the Trinity as a weapon. In so doing, they reinforced violent, static, dualist, hierarchical, and exclusive understandings of God. But it’s still not too late. If we open our hearts, we can feel the Spirit guiding us now to let the healing teaching of the Trinity continue its joyful revolution. Perhaps we are now ready to bear it . . . and to dare to practice it. Because if God is not violent, static, dualist, hierarchical, or exclusive, neither should we be.
To join the movement of the Spirit is to let our Trinitarian tradition continue to live, learn, and grow. . . so the hostile one-versus-otherness of Earth can become more like the hospitable one-anotherness of heaven. From beginning to end, the Spirit leads us into vibrant diversity and joyful unity in beautiful harmony. (p. 229)
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the Trinity in 2015, “Trinity as Story and Song“; and in 2018, “The Elusive Trinity.”
1. The theme for a sermon might be “The Holy Trinity: The Holy Love Triangle.” I’ve begun with the “children’s sermon”: the puzzle of One God in Three Persons, the triangle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Before Girard, I tried to help make sense out of this puzzle with analogies to things like apples (cut in half to reveal three parts: skin, fruit, core) and water (the three phases of ice, liquid, and steam). We generally struggle to make sense of the Trinity by using such analogous tri-partite objects. But these attempts all fall far short of the Trinity, not just because they provide pale analogies, but because they shift our focus from what the Trinity is all about: God as Love. The bible tells us a love story. But our attempts to understand the Trinity usually present us with some puzzle to comprehend, taking us completely away from the love story. Can we better understand the Trinity in terms of the biblical love story? I think so. (And mimetic theory will help us to relate the ‘characters’ in this story in terms of a triangle, a trinity, if you will.)
First, we need to understand the love story gone awry. With the children, I draw a triangular diagram using my two oldest sons desiring the same toy as an example. An explanation of how we copy each other’s desires follows, and then they’ll probably be able to guess the outcome: a fight. Conflict. In other words, the ‘love triangles’ that we human beings get into, turn bad, and we end up fighting.
The solution: God the Father sent Jesus his Son into the world to show us another love triangle, only Jesus never tried to rival his heavenly Father. Instead, he perfectly did God’s will; he perfectly came to love what God loves — namely, the world, us. John 3:16. The end of our love triangles gone bad is death; we are perishing. But the end of Jesus’ love triangle with God the Father is life, eternal life. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings us out of our love triangles gone bad and into God’s love triangle; the Spirit is the power of God’s love to help us love like Jesus did.
With the whole congregation, it’s a matter of repeating the same pattern as with the children but with some different examples. One can use Genesis 3-4 as the basic narrative of love triangles gone awry. The serpent steps into the role of God as the model of desire and contradicts God’s edict regarding the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. Mediated through the desire of the Serpent, the woman comes to see that fruit as desirable. The result is rivalry with God, a love triangle gone awry. When we come to model the desire of the creature instead of the Creator, the result is rivalrous triangles, including with God. We think we can know what God knows. And the results is conflict and death, brother killing brother (Gen. 4). We are caught in the triangles of sin and death.
The greater emphasis in the sermon at large might be on the notion of original sin as being hopelessly caught up in these love triangles gone awry. No matter how hard we try to have them be simply love triangles, they always end up going bad on us. All our relationships go sour, especially since they end in death. That is why the Christian faith came to see the necessity of the doctrines of both original sin and the Trinity. Original sin describes the mess we are in, hopeless for us to get out of on our own. The Trinity describes the shape of God’s salvation: the only hope for us was for the Father to send the Son in order to establish a love triangle that doesn’t go bad. The uniqueness of the Christian faith lies in the necessity of the incarnation. It took God’s love incarnate in a human being to establish this divine love triangle in history; and it takes the Spirit to gather us up into it.
In 2003, Trinity Sunday fell on Father’s Day, and so melded with these themes is the sermon “The True Father’s Day Story.” In 2006, I reworked these themes a bit with an emphasis on the being born from above of John 3 for a sermon entitled “The Holy Trinity: Being Swept Up In God’s Love Story.” The summary statement is: “The Trinity is not a logical puzzle for us to solve. The Trinity is God’s Love Story for us to be swept up in.” (It was also the Sunday that I was preaching to the congregation the week prior to their meeting to call me as pastor.)
2. In 2015, we were addressing the issue of saying the creeds in worship more frequently. I’m generally in favor of saying them less often. One reason is that in a worship seeking to be within an hour timeframe, it is of less importance than most other elements of worship.
Reason Two: is that the creeds carry negative baggage of being connected to persecution carried out by Christians. Many contemporary Christian scholars have come to refer to the roughly sixteen century era often known as “Christendom” as the age of “creedal Christianity.” Harvey Cox, in his book The Future of Faith, maps out roughly three eras of Christianity, in which word groups such as pistis (Greek) and credo (Latin) went through shifts in meaning because of the context. He argues that these word groups originally had the sense in English of “faith” and “trust” as words about relationship in community. He writes:
Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure. It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.” (p. 3)
So he calls the first era of Christianity the “Age of Faith.” The changeover to the second era was not an immediate event. Already in the early generations of the church controversies began to arise over correct ways of understanding and passing on the faith. Creedal fragments arose for teaching the newly baptized. But the best evidence is that they did not yet use creeds in worship as in later times, and the church as a whole was more inclined to live with a diversity of beliefs.
The changeover into the next era, which Cox calls the “Age of Belief,” became final during the first centuries of Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Empires maintain clear boundaries of who’s in and who’s out. Orthodoxy vs. heresy becomes more the Modus operandi than living with a diversity of views in trust of one another. And so the pistis and credo word groups themselves shifted in meaning more toward “belief”:
Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. We often use the term in everyday speech to express a degree of uncertainty. “I don’t really know about that,” we say, “but I believe it may be so.” Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential. We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live. Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two. (Cox, p. 3)
What is that “tectonic shift”? That will lead to Reason Three in a moment, but first to conclude Reason Two: Cox notes that “the year 385 CE marked a particularly grim turning point. A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. . . . He was the first Christian to be executed by his fellow Christians for his religious views. But he was by no means the last. One historian estimates that in the two and a half centuries after Constantine, Christian imperial authorities put twenty-five thousand to death for their lack of creedal correctness.” (pp. 6-7) (Does the Athanasian Creed even have the persecution written into its language of: “Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith; whoever does not guard it whole an inviolable will doubtless perish eternally”?)
Cox certainly doesn’t want to paint this as a long “Dark Age” for Christianity. Many good things happened. But Christians persecuting other Christians and non-Christians in the name of creedal fidelity was not one of the good things (obviously understating the magnitude of the point). And so as the “Age of Belief” wanes, that history of persecution so often connected to the creeds lends them a negative baggage for those ready to move into a new era — which Cox hopefully suggests the name of the “Age of the Spirit,” an age for which the pistis and credo words groups are shifting back to the sense of faith as trust, as relational. Which brings us to. . . .
Reason Three. The third and most important reason that I prefer less frequent use of the creeds in worship is that the newer generations are shifting back to prioritizing Belonging over Believing, so “seekers” in worship on Sundays can easily be put-off by the emphasis on “believe” in the creeds. They often come with many doubts and questions about beliefs and seek an environment where questions can be raised in a spirit of trust and commitment to community. They prefer living with diversity when it comes to beliefs, so they can readily react to the saying of a creed in worship, “Do I have to believe that to belong here?”
I highly recommend Diana Butler Bass‘s book Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. It builds on Cox’s book by eloquently making the case for re-prioritizing from the Age of Belief’s ordering of three B’s — Believing, Behaving, Belonging — to one that fits our new, changing age better: Belonging, Behaving, Believing. In 2015 my sermon made use of her chapter on “Believing” (ch. 4) and “The Great Reversal” (ch. 7), including her suggestion to simply change in the Apostle’s Creed the word “believe” to “trust,” so as to pray it during worship rather than simply reciting it. I was preaching from PowerPoint slides and notes for a sermon I would title, “I Trust in God the Father Almighty.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 10, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), 6th in a series of eleven sermons on the prophets.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 63. His citing of Isa. 6 kicks off a brilliant section that ponders the use of such an idea in the gospels, such as in Mark 4. It is no surprise, then, that this is one of my favorite sections in this book, and so I share with you these pages on the “Doubling of Sin and Hell.”
3. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, p. 143. Williams has this to say about the call of the prophets, Isaiah in particular:
When we turn to the great prophets whose names are preserved in the books ascribed to them, we find the victimization mechanism overcome as they draw upon its structure and transform it. In his relation to the God of Israel, the prophet who stands out of the community structures of violence does so in order to stand for both the community and its victims. I have already referred to Amos, who was probably the first of these prophets chronologically (c. 750 B.C.E.). He says that “the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:15). In justifying his prophetic calling he uses the analogies of a lion attacking its prey, a bird snared by a trap, and a trumpet of war causing fear in a city. He likewise is “attacked,” “snared,” “afraid.” “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). As one who is singled out, who is a kind of “victim” for the sake of his calling, he announces divine judgment on Israel, on those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6).In Isaiah 6, which is commonly recognized as his call vision, Isaiah is set against his people with a message of destruction. Only a tenth of the people will remain, and even it will be burnt the way a stump is burnt after a great tree is felled. The process of selecting the prophet takes the form of sacrificial initiation and commission by God. The sacrificial initiation involves a burning coal from the altar that is touched to Isaiah’s lips by one of the seraphim that he sees. The seraph says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven” (Isa 6:7, RSV). I commented on “forgive,” Hebrew kipper, in chapter 2. There I concurred with Gese’s conclusion that the verb and its noun, kofer, has to do with the price of exchange, with what is given in exchange for one’s life. In the temple setting of Isaiah’s vision, animal sacrifice is in the background of the sacrificial ransom, but it is relegated to a distant point, for the giving over of the prophet’s life is symbolized in the purifying effect of the burning coal. Then the prophet hears the divine voice speaking in council, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (6:8). Although the total experience is overwhelming, Isaiah, in contrast to Amos, puts himself forth as a volunteer. “Here am I! Send me” (6:8). Depicted here, then, is a group in the heavenly sphere, similar to the assembly of the gods in Enuma Elish; however, in this case the gods or angels are clearly subordinate to YHWH, and it is presumably a smaller group functioning as his advisers. The prophet, in responding positively, is not coerced but willingly gives himself to the task, on which he is sent. “Sending” (Hebrew shalach), simple word though it is, is quite interesting in uncovering the sacrificial mechanism. The intensive verbal stem in Hebrew sometimes means “to expel,” as in the scapegoat sent into the wilderness (Lev 16:10). It is employed likewise of the act of the rapists in judges 19:25: “And as the dawn began to break, they let her go.” That could be translated “then dismissed her” or “they cast her out.” However, the prophet, though he faces the possibility of being “cast out” of his society as a messenger of judgment, is sent from the divine community with a mission to Israel. This mission required that Isaiah proclaim judgment upon oppressors who “turn aside the needy from justice, and . . . rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isa 10:2). (pp. 143-144)
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage seems mostly dramatic fluff to me. The real substance of the passage is what comes after Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me.” What comes next is the message he is to bring:
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Isa. 6:9-10).
It is this passage which Jesus zeroes in on for his first sermon in Mark’s Gospel — the explanation of why he speaks in parables (Mark 4:11-12). In Year B of the lectionary, Mark 4 usually comes shortly after Trinity Sunday — though the first part of Mark 4 is mysteriously skipped. (Mary Ann Tolbert wrote an excellent monograph on Mark’s Gospel, Sowing the Gospel, in which she persuasively argues for the Parable of the Sower as the key to understanding Mark’s literary structure.) The lectionary gives us only Mark 4:26-34 (Ordinary Time 11/Proper 6).
In short, I believe that Isaiah 6:9-10 gives us the key to Mark’s dramatic story of Jesus and the resistance he faced. In my favorite commentary on Mark, Ched Myers‘ “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Ch. 5, “Sowing Hope”), he writes of Isaiah 6 and Mark,
This text is about the commissioning of an apostle (“Whom shall I send . . . ?” Isaiah 6:8), not unlike what we have just seen in Mark 3:13ff. Isaiah’s marching orders, cited by Mark (Mark 4:12 = Isaiah 6:9f), are often misunderstood. They do not articulate a theology of divine predestination, but paint a portrait of a people in denial.
The more a prophet speaks the truth about a problem, the less inclined the people will be to accept the diagnosis, because if they did they would have to “turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:10). It is repentance they resist, choosing illusions of innocence instead. (p. 41)
A people in denial. How often does the prophet still encounter this today? How inclined, for example, is a white person with power and privilege able to hear a word about Racism? Or those invested in fossil fuels about global warming? Or believers in capitalism about deep flaws in the theory that institutionalize people abandoned to poverty? Or a nation that worships its military power to hear a word about the next time, coming soon, that our “cities lie waste without inhabitant” (Isa. 6:11)?
2. So the conclusion of Isaiah 6 is also, I believe, a crucial passage of scripture, the heart of “apocalyptic” thinking. A people in denial are likely to endure yet another round of self-inflicted violence:
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump (Isa. 6:11-13).
Myers comments: “Isaiah despairs of this state of affairs: ‘How long, O Lord?’ The answer is grim: until the devastating consequences of denial run their course (6:11f). Yet there is always the ‘remnant’ of hope, called the ‘holy seed’ (6:13). This may be the inspiration for Jesus’ sower parable.” (Ibid., p. 41)
With Mimetic Theory deeply informing my perspective, this sort of apocalyptic warning to a people in denial is at the heart of my passion for ministry. Can God’s people at last repent and help avoid the next round of apocalyptic violence? Two thousand years ago Jesus anticipated that his own people would once again fail — Mark writing his Gospel story on the heels of that disaster, the apocalyptic ending to Jerusalem and its temple. Which will be the generation that finally repents and helps lead us human beings more deeply into God’s Way of healing our violence?
Major authors in Mimetic Theory are more regularly making the asking of such questions central. I cite: Girard‘s own last work, Battling to the End; two recent works by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who refers to himself as an “enlightened doomsayer” in the fashion of the Hebrew prophets, The Mark of the Sacred and Economy and the Future; and the recent collection of essays edited by Pierpaulo Antonello and Paul Gifford, with a Foreword by Rowan Williams, Can We Survive Our Origins? Readings in René Girard’s Theory of Violence and the Sacred.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, especially ch. 6, has excellent discussions on the Pauline language of flesh, love, spirit, etc.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 15, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from June 11, 2006 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto)
Reflections and Questions
1. It seems to me that Paul’s use of the word “flesh” is basically what we have talked about here in terms of love triangles gone awry. We cannot by our own power get out from being trapped in these fleshly triangles. Or, in more standard Girardian terms, “flesh” is simply rivalrous mimetic desire. The Spirit, on the other hand, is the power of Father and Son’s love triangle with the world. Via baptism and the power of the Spirit we are made children of, and are born again into, the divine love triangle, the Trinity.
2. Paul’s typology of First and Second Adam in Romans also might be useful in terms of understanding original sin. The First Adam condemned us to love triangles gone awry, and only the Second Adam can establish God’s love triangle, that we might be born into it.
1. zoen aionion, “life everlasting.” The first two appearances of this phrase in John are in John 3:15-16. It occurs 3 times in Matthew, 2 in Mark, 3 in Luke, 1 in Acts, 3 times in Romans, 1 in Galatians, 2 in 1 John, and 14 in John (with one a piece in 1 Timothy and Jude). Most commentators bring out the immediacy of this phrase for John, namely, that it begins right now for those who believe. It is about a quality of life in this world more than about some other-world to come in the future. In the context of mimetic theory, I have found it meaningful to experience this promise of eternal life as being in deep relationship to the unending source of life itself. We are able to imitate the self-giving life of Jesus Christ with the promise of being connected (as branches to the vine) to the unending source of life. We need not fear death. We need not fear a life of self-giving generosity in the midst of a world of the forceful grasping after life that leads to death. When believing in the Resurrection and the Life, one won’t really die in the sense of not being conquered by the forces of death in this world. Those forces may yet win some battles, but they will not prevail in the end — not when one is connected to the source of life itself.
N. T. Wright in his New Testament translation (The Kingdom New Testament) renders zoen aionion as “the life of God’s new age.” And in his recent book How God Became King, he gives an excellent explanation, not only of the translation, but also what’s at stake:
The second expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it. “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.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” Likewise, John 3:16 ends not with “have everlasting life” (KJV), but “share in the life of God’s new age.”
Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus’s public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to “go to heaven” rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (pp. 44-45)
2. John 3:3: gennethe anothen, “born again,” or “born from above.” This verse is crucial for interpreting the passage as a whole — especially in the contemporary “evangelical” Christian scene of emphasizing being born again. John’s Jesus is using a pun in the Greek around the word anothen, which can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” Modern evangelicals miss the pun, but not as badly as Nicodemus, who takes it literally in terms of asking about getting back into his mother’s womb. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus shows that he is speaking more in the sense of being born “from above” — being born into God’s reign (“reign” having a spatial connotation of being over) through the Holy Spirit.
3. krinō and krisis, “judge” and “judgment.” In verse 17, this word group is translated as “condemn.” But I’m not sure why. “Judge” is a more neutral word. It can be both a positive judgment, like “innocent,” or negative judgement, “guilty.” It doesn’t even have to be a courtroom setting. krinō is as flexible as the English in being generally about making a decision, one way or another. “Condemn” is clearly a judgment of negative connotation. So why assume the negative judgment? Extending our lection a couple verses, here is how verses 17-19 read if you always translate the krisis/krinō word-group as judgment/judge:
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not judged; but those who do not believe are judged already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
In mimetic theory, especially with Raymund Schwager‘s theological exposition of it (see Jesus and the Drama of Salvation), there is a self-judgment that happens because we choose to live by the Satanic judgment of bringing accusation against the Other. Here in John 3 it states that the judgment is a self-judgment of choosing to live in darkness rather than light. Jesus comes to reveal to us the light of a God who doesn’t judge us in the fashion of Satan the Accuser. In fact, in Jesus God sends us the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused. But we don’t seem to want live in that light of grace. We trust the ordering power of Satanic judgment more than the grace of Jesus, and so we continue to choose to live in the darkness of ordering our human community according to the judgments of the Accuser. We bring judgment on ourselves by continuing to live by that judgment.
4. pisteuō is an important verb for John, occurring 98 times — Acts is next highest with 37. pistos as a word group has been, in recent scholarship, shading away from “belief” — and even “faith” to the extent that it denotes more a thinking state than a relationship — and toward “faithfulness” or “trust,” denoting a relationship. What about the verb? Should we translate it as “trust” rather than “believe”? If we took all the suggestions in these exegetical notes verses 15-17 read:
[Jesus said,] “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have the life of God’s new age. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have the life of God’s new age. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Here is Wright’s “Kingdom Translation” of John 3:1-17 with my further modification of krisis, pisteuō, and houtōs (see below).
5. houtōs, “so,” in vs. 16. The English word placement makes “so” sound like an intensifier for “loved.” But the meaning of this word in Greek is more often along the lines of “so” in the sense of “in this way.” James Alison comments:
This translation treats the word not as a way of making the love intense, but of demonstrating what it looks like: “For it was in this way, you see, that God loved the world: that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” (Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 125; see more below)
1. See resources from Lent 4. Most meaningful to me, lately, is seeing how being “born from above” changes our relationship with others. When we see ourselves truly as a child of God, then all others are children with us. Jesus comes as fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. God’s grace in Jesus Christ helps us to be reborn from above as children of God. God sent the Son not to save a few human souls and ditch the rest but to save “the world.”
2. Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes for Trinity B. Stoffregen highlights the theology of grace in John 3, noting three factors: (1) the verbs for birth are all passive; (2) the interpretation of anothen as “from above”; and (3) the imagery of the Spirit as wind, as something beyond our human control. All of this flies in the face of contemporary evangelicalism which emphasizes “born again” as a personal decision for Christ. He says, for example,
Beyond the mysteriousness of the wind/Spirit, could Jesus be implying that Nicodemus, because he is still in the dark — not yet enlightened by Jesus — is unable to comprehend the origins of the wind/spirit or of true believers? Both come from God. I’m afraid that as long as people consider Christianity as something we do — living obedient moral lives, coming to Jesus, making a decision to follow Jesus — they will be in the dark about the true origins of our faith and also our deeds, which are to be done “in God” (3:21). As long as people consider Christianity as something we do, are they not trying to control the Spirit — telling it when and where to blow?
3. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, pp. 125ff. Exegetical note #4 (above) is the launching point for Alison’s essay (Ch. 8), “Strong Protagonism and Weak Presence: The Changes in Tone of the Voice of God” (also available online). Alison writes:
My motive for beginning with a grammatical niggle is that it points towards something more properly theological. If we start with “For God so loved . . . ,” then all our concentration and effort goes into imagining the emotional intensity which lies behind the manifest activity. What is really interesting is not so much what happened, about which we can satisfy ourselves with the briefest of enquiries, describing it in very spare terms. What would really be interesting is the degree in which the act was intended, the push behind it, the emotional force with which the principal agent of this activity carried it out.
If, on the other hand, we begin with “It was in this way that God loved,” then we have no prior access to some supposed interior life of God, modelled on our own. Instead it is that which is visible, that which is manifest in the activity itself, which becomes the lure for our fascination. And it is only in the degree in which we allow ourselves to be pulled inside that activity, and what we can discover starting from it, that we begin to get some notion of God’s love.
To my way of thinking, this second reading is preferable. And I have two motives for thinking like this. The first is having begun to notice the tendency in John’s text for things to be said with such blinding simplicity and obviousness that they pass us by completely, while we look for a more complicated meaning. In John, time and time again, I have the strange sensation that the very simplicity of what he sets out so clearly and straightforwardly overwhelms us because we are convinced that we are dealing with something mysterious. Returning to the simplicity of what is actually said is a work of years.
My second motive is more properly theological. In the first reading we don’t actually learn much about God, other than that God has emotions like ours; and that an example, perhaps an especially outstanding example, of God’s emotive quality would be this act of love. In the second reading, our whole understanding of God, which we have to prune of all our projections concerning God’s emotions or subjectivity, gets to be reconfigured starting only from what God has done. That is to say, it is what has been done which comes to be the criterion for who God is, causing us, bit by bit, completely to revise any other perception we might have of God. It is not a presupposition about God which gets to dictate how we are to understand what has happened. (pp. 126-27)
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 7, 2009 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. The idea of being born again/from above is vital to being brought under a new power. Living as we do under the power of the flesh, the love triangles gone awry, God in Jesus Christ offers us the opportunity to be born again under a new power. This is virtually the chance to start all our relationships over on a new basis, one that comes from above (a good match for the notion of “external mediation” as opposed to “internal mediation”). Rather than relationships built on a rivalrous foundation of over-against, our relationships can be refounded on a giving-over, self-emptying love.
2. John 3:16 provides the summary statement of the Trinity as a narrated love triangle.