Last revised: September 17, 2022
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SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR C
RCL: Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29
RoCa: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
Last week’s contrast in power is mirrored in this week’s readings with a contrast in ways to peace. The peace which Jesus gives is not the way of peace which the world gives. Behind this difference is the difference in powers, force vs. love. And the way of peace articulated and lived out by Jesus is what we see in the vision of the Book of Revelation. In my 2022 sermon the throughline from Jesus in John’s Gospel to the way of the Lamb Slain in Revelation is followed through to the present day in the way of nonviolent resistance to empire exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The 2022 sermon, “Strength to Love: The Power of Love as the Way to Peace,” ends with a quote from one of King’s sermons in his book Strength to Love.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
1. The “nations” (ethnos; 23 times in Rev.) and “kings” (basileus; 21 times in Rev.) have a very mixed role in Revelation. The lectionary skips over all the passages in which they have been party to the satanic powers. In Rev. 21:24-26, however, they enter into the holy city with their glory. Is the function of the satanic figures (primarily the dragon) to represent powers and principalities more powerful than nations and kings, so that their defeat would mean redemption for the nations and kings?
In the middle section of the book, here is some of what is said about the nations and kings. It begins with John being told that he “must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” (10:11) The first thing that happens is the sending of two witnesses who prophesy for a period of time (11:3) and then are killed by the beast from the bottomless pit (11:7). What follows is almost a match for the Girardian originary scene: All the nations gather around their dead bodies gloating over them for three and a half days (11:8-10); at which time they are divinized, raised to life, preparing the way for the seventh angel trumpeter and Handel’s text for the “Hallelujah Chorus”: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:11-15)
But this is not yet the end of the powers and principalities. The dragon comes next, who we are told “is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9), followed by the beasts (animal beasts like a lion and a leopard), who seem to represent the powerful, conquering nations (cf., 13:7-8). Singled out from the beasts are its victims, the Lamb and the 144,000 (14:1-5). The Second Beast is the most interesting of all (13:11-18). It looks like a lamb and speaks like a dragon; it deceives the inhabitants of the earth by nurturing sympathy for the victim — but the victim is the wounded first beast! And buying and selling commences in its name. Representative of all these nations is Babylon, who has “made all the nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (14:8; 18:3a) The same thing is said of the kings: “and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her” (18:3b); and added to the list is: “the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.” (18:3c) (John might have been thinking of Rome, but I confess to thinking of the United States. What other nation has so universally succeeded in making all the other nations drink of its wine?)
So in the middle section, all the nations and kings have fallen prey to the deception of the dragon and beasts and finally Babylon. Yet at the end the nations and kings are part of the procession into the holy city. The Tree of Life is there for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).
1. I have put together a primary resource on reading the Book of Revelation from the perspective of mimetic theory: “Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation.”
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 80-81. For example:
That is to say, the risen Jesus is the mediator of God’s light, the one by means of whom heaven is open. However we are not dealing with an individual vision to console someone on the point of martyrdom, but it is a whole city that is coming down from heaven. That is to say, the Church is the collective living out of the opening of heaven, as something which is coming down from God, made possible by the risen victim….finally we understand that the whole project which Jesus initiated is the coming down of a new, collective, story, woven out of the many stories of those who have allowed themselves to be illuminated by the God who gives himself to be mediated by the slaughtered lamb. That is, the stories of those who, in the superlative language of the seer, have washed white their garments in the blood of the lamb.
3. Repeated from last week: see James Alison‘s discussion of the Greek for “glory”, doxa. He says that another rendering of doxa is “reputation.” See Raising Abel, “Reputation and Shame,” pp. 180-185.
4. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Ch. 8, “Powers and Principalities,” is a good resource to check on the matters involving the “nations” and “kings” mentioned above.
In chapter 4 of the Acts of the Apostles Peter applies a line from the second psalm to the Passion of Christ:
The kings of the earth took their stand
and the rulers were gathered together
against the Lord and against his anointed.
We don’t have to conclude from this quotation that Peter takes literally the participation of all “the kings of the earth” in the Crucifixion. He knows perfectly well that the Passion of Jesus didn’t attract the attention of the entire world. He does not exaggerate the strictly historical importance of this event. What the quotation means is that beyond an incident certainly minor from Rome’s standpoint, Peter finds a special connection between the Cross and the powers in general because the powers are rooted in collective murders similar to what befell Jesus.Though not identical with Satan, the powers are all his tributaries because they are all servants of the false gods that are the offspring of Satan, that is, the offspring of the founding murder. So here it is not a matter of religion for the individual or belief in a purely individual sense, as modern people tend to hold. What we are talking about here are rather the social phenomena that the founding murder created.
The system of powers Satan has engendered is a concrete phenomenon, material and simultaneously spiritual, religious in a very special sense, efficacious and illusory at the same time. It is religion as illusion, which protects humans from violence and chaos by means of sacrificial rituals. Although this system is grounded in an illusion, its action in the world is real to the extent that idolatry, or false transcendence, commands obedience.
It is striking how many names the New Testament writers invent to designate these ambiguous entities. They may be called powers “of this world,” then on the other hand “celestial powers,” as well as “sovereignties,” “thrones,” “dominions,” “princes of the kingdom of the air,” “elements of the world,” “archons,” “kings,” “princes of this world,” etc. Why such a vast vocabulary, made up apparently of such dissimilar elements? When we examine these titles, we quickly confirm that they divide into two groups. Expressions like “powers of this world,” “kings of the earth,” “principalities,” etc. assert the earthly character of the powers, their concrete reality here below in our world. On the other hand, expressions like “princes of the kingdom of the air,” celestial powers,” etc. emphasize the extraterrestrial, “spiritual” nature of these entities.
We are talking about the same entities in both instances. The powers called “celestial” are not different at all from powers “of this world.” But then why are there two groups of names? Is it because the New Testament writers don’t know exactly what they mean? No, to the contrary, they are well aware, I think, that they oscillate between the two sets of terms.
The New Testament authors have an acute awareness of the twofold, ambiguous nature of these powers. What they seek to clarify is the combination of material power and spiritual power that is the sovereign reality stemming from collective, founding murders. The New Testament writers would like to name this complex reality as economically as possible, and the reason why they multiply the formulas is, I think, because the results they obtain do not satisfy them.
On the one hand, to say of the powers that they are worldly would be to dwell on their concrete reality in this world, which is an essential dimension but to the detriment of the other dimension, the religious one. Although the latter is illusory, it has effects too real to be conjured away. On the other hand, to say of the powers that they are “celestial” is to insist on their religious dimension, namely, on the prestige that thrones and sovereigns enjoy among humankind and that is always perceived as a little supernatural. We see this even now in the toadyism that bows and scurries at the feet of our governments, no matter how unimpressive the latter are. This second set of terms inevitably cancels out everything the first set brings out, and vice versa.
How can one define in one word the paradox of organizations or institutions that are very real but rooted in a transcendence that is unreal and yet effective? If the powers have many names, it is because of this paradox that constitutes them, an internal duality that human language cannot express in a simple, straightforward fashion. Human language has never assimilated what the New Testament is talking about here. It does not command the necessary resources to express the power of bringing people together that false transcendence possesses in the real, material world, in spite of its falsity and imaginary nature. Modern readers don’t understand the problem the New Testament authors encounter, and so they gladly read into the theme of the powers all the elements of superstition and magical thought that they wish to find in the Gospels. (pp. 95-98)
Girard also makes the following comments on the Roman Empire, the “power and principality” which is behind the Book of Revelation:
The Roman Empire is a power, even the supreme power in the world where Christianity appears. It must therefore rest upon a founding murder, a collective murder similar to the Passion, a kind of “lynching.” At first glance this thesis appears improbable, absurd. The argument goes that the empire had its beginning too recently and artificially to connect it to an event so primitive as our “founding murder.” And yet . . . we know the historical developments fairly well that resulted in the basis of the Roman Empire, and we can only confirm that they coincide admirably with the concept of this founding basis that we find in the Gospels.The successive emperors draw their authority from the sacrificial power that emanates from the deity whose name they bear, the first Caesar, who was assassinated by numerous murderers. So like every sacred monarchy, the empire is based upon a collective victim who is divinized. There is something about this so striking, so impressive, that it is impossible to see it as pure and simple coincidence. Shakespeare, who was extremely perceptive in such matters, refused to do so.
Shakespeare does not minimize this founding fact. He has an acute awareness of mimetic processes and how they are resolved, and he is an incomparable reader of the Bible. So rather than viewing the reference to Caesar’s divinity as mediocre political propaganda, as so many modern historians do, the dramatist centered his tragedy of Caesar in the murder of the hero and defined quite explicitly the founding, sacrificial virtues of an event that he both connected and opposed to its counterpart in the distant past: the violent expulsion of the last king of Rome.
One of the most revealing passages is the interpretation of the sinister dream Caesar’s wife has the night before the assassination. The interpreter clearly announces the founding character, or rather “re-founding” character, of this event:
It was a vision fair and fortunate:
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
in which so many smiling Romans bathed,
signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
reviving blood, and that great men shall press
for tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance. (II, 2, 83-90)
The cult of the emperor explicitly reassumes the primitive scheme of the founding murder. This imperial doctrine certainly comes late in history and is too self-conscious not to include a bit of the artificial, but those who conceived it clearly knew what they were doing. They were quite successful, as the long life of the Roman Empire has proved. (pp. 98-99)
5. Bredin, Mark. Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation. Bletchley, England: Paternoster, 2003. Bredin cites René Girard as one of his main guides in seeing “Jesus the Nonviolent Teacher and Activist.” In the foreward, Richard Bauckham writes: “[Bredin] brings to his study a Gandhian understanding of nonviolence and a Girardian suspicion of redemptive violence, not as prejudicial but as heuristic approaches by which to highlight what is ideologically remarkable in Revelation’s presentation of Jesus’ victory by non-violent witness…. Revelation’s Jesus appears not as a violent revolutionary, but as a revolutionary against the forces of violence.”
6. In 2004 I began a sermon series on the Book of Revelation, after hearing a lecture by Lutheran New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing, based on her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, which I highly recommend. It exposes the Rapture theology behind the Left Behind series which have been wildly popular in America. She lays out the Rapture theology as based on the “dispensationalism” of John Nelson Darby, a nineteenth century preacher, whose interpretation of Scripture has become foundational among many “evangelical” Christians in America — made even more popular by the Left Behind series (which has sold around 50 million copies). For more from Rossing’s book (primarily on dispensationalist politics) see Easter 4C.
7. For more on the violence of the Left Behind series and Rossing‘s assessment, see the page “Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 1998 I preached on this text, interpreting the poetry of the Tree of Life in Revelation with the same poetic image in the hymn “There in God’s Garden,” written by Kiraly Imre von Pecselyi in the early 17th century. (This hymn appears as #668 in the Augsburg Fortress hymnal supplement With One Voice.) Pecselyi mixes this image of Jesus as the tree of healing for the nations with images of the cross. For example: “There on its branches see the scars of suffering; see where the tendrils of our human selfhood feed on its lifeblood. Thorns not its own are tangled in its foliage; our greed has starved it, our despite has choked it. Yet look! It lives! …”
Pecselyi’s poetry is more compact and can help to recover all the dark images that are otherwise lost in our whirlwind Easter dash through the Book of Revelation. We skip over all the dark passages that confront us with the “fornication” of Babylon. Yet the tree of life survives and continues to invite us (Pecselyi again): “See how its branches reach to us in welcome; hear what the voice says, ‘Come to me, ye weary! Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow, I will give you blessing.'”
2. In my own experience I feel the constant pressure of modern consumerism as weed-like vines and thorns that want to choke off the life I graciously have in Christ. To me, resisting consumerism is the number one spiritual battle. Consumerism calls us to consume seemingly endless goods, but it’s only with life in Christ, I think, that I am able to come to see that consumerism spawns a selfhood that ends up feeding on me.
How does one resist? This is where I find the traditional tithe so meaningful. To set aside 10% (or more) in gracious giving to others helps keep God’s gracious gift of life before me always — precisely because it is so difficult to do in today’s consumerist climate. I’m forced to constantly evaluate what truly gives me life almost every time I spend money.
Talk about tithing seems to rob the poetry of its power. And yet I think that is because part of consumerism’s game is to have us make the separation between “material” and “spiritual” matters. According to consumerist thinking, how one spends his or her money is a purely material decision; the language of the Tree of Life is spiritual. But isn’t it precisely that separation that keeps us blind to the consumerist selfhood snaking its tendrils up around that tree to feed on the lifeblood?
3. In speaking meaningfully about consumerism I have found the PBS TV show “Affluenza” to be of great help. Seeing it as a disease means that Jesus can heal it. Link to a sermon “Just How Much Does Jesus Heal Us?” It refers to a quiz at the Affluenza website. In 2001 this sermon was part of a series of Easter sermons with titles of pattern “Just How Much Does Jesus … Us,” filling in the blank each week with a different verb (love, forgive, heal, et al.).
1. Repeated from last week: The Johannine Farewell Discourse is a favorite in Girardian literature. The following is a list (not exhaustive) of places where the Discourse is featured: Renè Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 15, “History and the Paraclete”; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 7.D., “The Gospel of John” (p. 204-210); Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio series, tape #10 (link to my notes / transcription of tape #10); James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 3, “The Discovery of Jesus’ Imagination” and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 187-197.
2. Paramount in the above references is Girard’s interpretation of the Paraclete in ch. 15 of The Scapegoat, which has laid the foundation for all subsequent readings. See the notes for Easter 3C on Acts 9 where there are portions of the last chapters of both The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning on the Paraclete.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 16, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
4. An example from James Alison‘s treatment of this passage:
This brings out the sense in which the Parakletos who will come will be sent in Jesus’ name (Jn 14:7). That is, he will bring into creative presence the person of Jesus through the loving imitation of his disciples. It is not that the Holy Spirit is simply a substitute presence, acting instead of Jesus, but rather it is by Jesus going to his death (and, by giving up his Spirit bringing to completion his creative work — “It is accomplished,” tetelestai — 19:30) that all Jesus’ creative activity will be made alive in the creative activity of his disciples. The memory of Jesus here (“he will bring to your remembrance”) is thus not in the first place the cure for the absence of the teacher, but the bringing to mind, and thus to the possibility of creative practice, in dependence on Jesus, of Jesus’ creative activity. This is the sense of the peace which Jesus leaves with his disciples: not the peace which is the result of the suppression of conflict, or the resolution of conflict, such as is practiced by the mechanism of expulsion of the world, but the creative peace that brings into being: the primordial peace of the Creator from the beginning. (The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 190)
For a full treatment of the Paraclete link to “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 I was Interim Pastor in a mid-sized “post-industrial” city where churches were closing at a rapid pace. This parish had made some good decisions several years earlier to sell their old, larger building and build a new, smaller one — up-to-date with video projection and a good multi-media set-up. But it remained an aging congregation, with the possibility of only having forestalled closing their doors a few more years through their move. As Interim, I needed to gently challenge them with the ‘change or close’ scenario facing thousands of congregations across this culture.
I believe that one of the most important books to help navigate this passage is Diana Butler Bass‘s Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. My reading of St. Paul through the lens of Mimetic Theory sees his basic message to include a transition from being religious (“works of Torah”) to spiritual (“faith”). (For more on this, see my reflections on Romans 3 for Reformation Day.) In any case, I presented some of Butler Bass’s basic thesis as a prelude to making this conversion a theme of my time with them. For the moment, the context of this Gospel Reading provides assurance as Jesus prepares his disciples for the shocking, dramatic change about to happen in their ministry journey. Two thousand years later we still are in need of that reassurance in the face of the challenge — hence, the sermon, “The Advocate Is Still Teaching — Are We Listening?”
2. In 2010 I had just received my new copy of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Vol. 8) version of The Letter and Papers from Prison and was “blown away” by the prophetic quality of it. His reflections under the shadow of Nazism seemed to steer him towards many of the insights that now are becoming more prevalent in the Emergence Church. My sermon, “Thoughts on a Day of Baptism,” shares excerpts from Bonhoeffer, especially from a letter to his godson, Dietrich Bethge, whose baptism he would miss (1944) due to imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp.
3. In 2007 the sermon, “Mother’s Day for Peace,” wove together reflections on peace from John 14 with some backstory on Mother’s Day.