Epiphany 1C

Last revised: January 23, 2019
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RCL: Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
RoCa: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation

Epiphany occasioned the wider political context of the Gospel and a reorientation of the church’s teaching on “original sin.” I grew up in a church for which the focus of teaching on original sin was decidedly individualistic. Matthew’s story of Herod and the newborn Jesus frames the Gospel with a view to the systemic sin of violent domination seeded at our human origins.

But moving to Jesus’ baptism this week swings the pendulum back toward the individualistic side — not so much as a balancing correction but as the incarnational truth that battling our systemic sin begins the heart of individuals with the power of love. In my 2019 sermon I began with the Harry Potter saga, which I believe is one of the greatest Christian dramas of all time. It faithfully and imaginatively tells the story of how the power of love may be lived out in standing against the sinful forces of tribalism from our origins.

The New Reformation is about turning from a focus on beliefs about Jesus to following Jesus in the Way of practicing love. One of the best articulations of this task is Brian McLaren‘s The Great Spiritual Migration. So the 2019 sermon begins with Harry Potter and ends with Brian McLaren; here are the sermon notes.

Isaiah 43:1-7


1. Tony Bartlett, the fifth study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 42:18-43:12). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.

Reflections and Questions

1. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Passing through the waters and the flames are both sacrificial images! In Psalm 69, for example, the imagery of drowning in overwhelming waters is followed immediately by clear language of being surrounded and overwhelmed by human enemies. (See Gil Bailie’s lecture on John 2, where he comments on Psalm 69, under #5.) This passage is truly one of a God of victims who promises enduring presence and strength for those who are victims of the nations. Who are those victims ultimately? “…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

2. 43:3b-4: “I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” The idea here is that God will give these other nations to King Cyrus as a ransom for freeing Judah from exile in Babylon. Doesn’t this mean that God, in this verse-and-a-half, is swapping victims, exchanging other victims as a ransom for more favored victims? Is this an example of why Girard sometimes refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as a “text in travail”? It is on the way of revealing a God of the victims but still lapses into an idolatrous view of a God who makes victims even if it is for the good cause of being on the side of other victims.

The favoritism of these verses also seemingly goes against the grain of the inclusivism with which the passage ends. Why would God favor Jewish victims over Egyptian ones if the goal is to gather all creatures, all victims from the corners of the earth?

3. Such questions raise the mystery of the biblical idea of chosenness. What does it mean to be a chosen one of God? This may be the question of the day, because the Baptism of Jesus clearly raises the issue of chosenness. If our Christian belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah is correct, then we should have our best window into the meaning of chosenness through him. Posed against the background of this passage from Second Isaiah, the chosenness of Jesus might first of all be seen as the real answer to salvation for all of God’s creatures: God gives the Son to be the ransom to our powers of sacrifice, not Egypt or Ethiopia or Seba or anyone else. And the Son obediently lets himself be made the ransom. It is the Son’s obedient willingness to be made the sacrifice that can free us from the notion of a God who forcibly makes victims to save others. The necessity of the Cross is not a matter of the Father’s will forced on the Son; it is an agreement of wills, a mutuality of loving desire. The Son agrees with the Father that it will be necessary for someone to willingly accept victimage in order to expose it and ultimately save us from it.

It is extremely important here, with help from the Girardian anthropology, to see that the necessity of a sacrifice comes from us, not from God. We are the ones who demand sacrifice and then project that demand onto God. If God is ever to break that anthropological necessity and save us from it, then it also becomes necessary not to forcibly overturn it, which would entail its own kind of sacrificial slaughter, but instead to submit to it exposing its power as penultimate. We can conclude, then, that chosenness by the God of victims is, in the first instance, a willingness to be on the side of victims to the point of exposing yourself as a victim.

But Jesus is raised from the dead, willing and obedient to forgive even those who made him a victim. He is saved from the sacrifice after sharing in its death. He is raised to be able to begin sharing his power of New Life. Chosenness by God is, in the second instance, to receive the power of New Life, even in the face of sacrifice’s deadly reality.

This chosenness can be subjected to similar questions as above. Why is only Jesus saved from death at this time? Isn’t it favoritism? But Jesus’ Resurrection makes the power of New Life available to all those who believe, right now. And it’s final goal is to claim “…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Note: in coming weeks we will read Paul’s vision of the Resurrection from 1 Cor. 15, a vision for which Christ’s new power of life will someday be “all-in-all.”)

In this light, I find Isaiah 43 remarkably close to the Gospel. It only lacks the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, to fulfill its all-embracing vision of chosenness through perfect obedience to God’s desire.

4. For more on the notion of ransom from Mark’s perspective, see the notes on Mark 10:35-45 at Proper 24B.

Acts 8:14-17

Exegetical Notes

1. “Receive,” or “accepted” in the NRSV (Gr: dedektai from root dechomai), in 8:14 is interesting when compared to the use of dechomai in Luke 9:53. In the latter, in connection with a Samaritan village, we read that “they did not receive” Jesus, to which the disciples want to respond by calling down fire from heaven upon them. Here, in Acts 8:14, we learn that “Samaria had accepted (dechomai, “receive”) the word of God.” The Luke 9 story often gets titled “A Samaritan Village Rejects Jesus,” the choice of verbs, “reject,” being much stronger than the actual verb “not receive.” The other problem in 9:53 is that the antecedent for “they” is not clearly the Samaritan village. In fact, the number (both in English and Greek) does not match: “a Samaritan Village” being singular, and “they” being plural. Better grammar would be “it did not receive him.” I have argued in an essay entitled “The Work of René Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics” [link to an earlier version of the portion on Luke 9:51-62], that the antecedent for “they” in Luke 9:53 is the “messengers” in 9:52 that Jesus sent ahead to prepare for his reception in that village. But, as the text tells us, Jesus meanwhile makes a crucial decision to set his face toward Jerusalem, so these messengers (“they”) did not receive him (nor the village, obviously). But everyone, including the disciples in the text, seems to want to scapegoat the Samaritan villagers as having actively rejected Jesus. (Read all the subsequent commentaries on this passage!) If the history of interpretation, beginning with the disciples, is correct, then this is the only passage I can find in Luke-Acts that says anything negative about Samaritans. The “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is obviously positive; and Luke singles out that the one leper who came back to give thanks to Jesus was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16). Here in Acts 8:14 we read that Samaria received the word of God. Quite a contrast to the village in Luke 9:53 that supposedly rejected Jesus!

2. Note that “receive” in 8:15 is not from the same Greek verb that I was discussing in note #1. dechomai has the connotation of hospitality, as in welcoming or “receiving” someone. The verb in 8:15 is lambosin, from lambano, which one lexicon describes as:

(1) act. as bringing under one’s control “take”; (a) w. the hand “take hold of,” “grasp” (AC 27.35); (b) “take away,” “remove” (RV 3.11); (c) “take into possession” (LU 19.12); (d) as being seized by illness, demon attack, strong emotion “come on,” “seize” (LU 5.26); (e) as taking a due portion of someth., as taxes, tithes, collections “receive,” “accept,” “collect” (MT 17.24); (f) as taking to oneself someone’s words, teaching, or testimony “receive,” “accept,” “come to believe” (MT 13.20); (2) pass. as being a recipient of someth. “receive”; (a) materially, “receive,” “get,” “acquire” (2C 11.8); (b) spiritually, as being a recipient of God’s grace, forgiveness, life, etc. “receive,” “obtain” (RO 1.5); (c) “be selected,” “chosen” fr. one or more alternatives (HE 5.1).

I find this quite interesting from a Girardian perspective. When it says “The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,” can we read into it the connotations of acquisitive desire? They seek to grasp or acquire the Holy Spirit through prayer. Should that be the prayer of every Christian? Instead of imitating the desires of others for earthly objects, we imitate Christ and the apostles in seeking to acquire the Holy Spirit, for it is that Spirit of God which will teach us to desire without rivalry. When John and Peter lay their hands on them (an acquisitive gesture?), they acquire the Holy Spirit. Am I reading too much into this use of the verb?

Reflections and Questions

1. “they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Does this imply that there are two baptisms as some in the Anabaptist tradition have claimed? The person and role of the Spirit begs sorting out from such passages. Hopefully, we do a little of that below.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


1. Gil Bailie, the audio tape lectures on “The Gospel of Luke,” tape #3. Link to my notes and transcription of this lecture. Also, see the gospel notes for Advent 3.

2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 27-28.

3. Crucial to this passage is the role of the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is not the first to receive it. Mary is, in her obedience to God’s loving desire for saving Creation. Jesus will, of course, be the perfect performer of God’s will, so much so that Luke speaks about it as the passing back and forth of the Holy Spirit. Jesus receives it at baptism and then offers it back at death: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Several weeks ago this passage figured prominently in parsing Raymund Schwager‘s comments on Hebrews, which are also very poignant to the issues raised above about surender to sacrifice as God’s way of overcoming evil. See Schwager’s comments on Hebrews at Advent 4C.

4. The role of the Holy Spirit is also enlightened by Girard‘s work on John’s Paraclete as the Defender of those Accused. For more see the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”

5. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, has a section which goes a long way to shedding light on many of the issues raised here about both the surrender of the Son and the role of the Spirit. His section on the Trinity, “The Revelation of the Triune God in the Redemption Event” (pp. 196-217), is climaxed by the section on the Holy Spirit, “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity” (pp. 209-217), which I think provides a fitting summary of many of the themes raised by these lessons.

6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 11, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).

7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “The New Thing John Can Point Toward but Not Imagine“; and in 2016, “The Form of a Dove.”

8. 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 baptism of Jesus reflections in 2016, “Beloved Children of God“; and in 2019, “Celebrating Our Baptism.”

Reflections and Questions

1. 3:17: “…the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The question is: which is the fire that’s unquenchable? Would the average person answer “Hell”? I think so. John the Baptist might even have had such an image of hell in mind in speaking these words. Is that, then, the same fire with which Jesus will baptize? (“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”)

We need to be very clear about what fire is meant here, and I think this is one of the most important issues for which the Girardian anthropology gives us good direction. When we think of consuming fires, destructive of people, the Girardian anthropology helps us to see that these fires are our sacrificial fires which we then project onto God. We believe God to be the ultimate demander of such holocausts. The most ultimate holocaust, then, is the one sanctioned in the popular notion of hell. God sends the wicked to an ever-consuming, eternal fire.

I ponder the fire image in the Advent 3C gospel notes; I take on the entire popular notion of hell in my Pentecost 2000 sermon “Fire of Love.” Especially in the latter, I would maintain that the fire which should most closely be connected with the Holy Spirit is a Fire of Love. Jesus came to baptize with that Spirit and that Fire. If it burns away the chaff, it is a Fire of Love that burns away the chaff of our hardness of heart that keeps us enslaved to the sacrificial fires we continue to project onto God.

Let’s ask the question again: which is the fire that’s unquenchable? Without faith, the fires of our holocausts of violence would seem to be the unquenchable fire. The 20th Century sure seems a testimony to those fires being unquenchable. But I believe the hope of the Christian faith is that it is Christ’s Fire of Love that will ultimately prove to be the unquenchable fire.

Link to a sermon pondering these questions and themes entitled “Chosen . . . to Be on Fire“; or a 2013 version “Fired by Love.”

2. Omitting verses 18-20 leaves out the most interesting difference of Luke’s version of this story. All the others have John baptize Jesus, or at least prominently on the scene. But Luke 3:19-20 removes John from the picture before Jesus’ baptism. The parallels to this come much later in Matthew (14:3-4) and Mark (6:17-18). Why does Luke make this change? I think that Luke tends to draw a greater contrast between Jesus and his messianic competitors. Here is an example with John the Baptist. I think that Luke 9 presents us with such a contrast between Jesus and Elijah, first in the Transfiguration story, and then in the story I alluded to in my comments on Acts 8:14, i.e., Luke 9:51-56. When the disciples ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, some ancient authorities add “as Elijah did,” presumably referring to 2 Kings 1:10. Jesus’ answer to his disciples makes it clear that he is different from Elijah. Isn’t it interesting that John the Baptist also talks so judgmentally in terms of fire?

3. This is always an ideal day to preach on the meaning of baptism as a call to ministry. Link to a sermon entitled “Your Ordination.”

4. What follows the baptism is Luke’s version of the genealogy (Luke 3:23-38). Often for us this might be somewhat of a throw-away passage. But Luke places it rather prominently. As Gil Bailie notes in his lectures: ‘Matthew begins his gospel with the genealogy. But Luke waits until the voice from heaven says, “you are my Son.” Now the question is, “Whose son is this?” Answer: the genealogy, “…son of Adam, son of God.” The most ancient version of the creed.’

Especially in more traditional cultures, genealogies are very important. Link to a sermon that tells the story of a missionary in Papua / New Guinea who found out just how important such genealogies are, entitled “Real Sons and Daughters.”

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