Last revised: September 16, 2022
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FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR C
RCL: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
RoCa: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2022, I was working in two congregations as a “Bridge Pastor,” and my theme was more widely on the need to revitalize our Gospel message for today, and more specifically on the need to have our typical Us-vs-Them thinking transformed by God’s creating one new humanity in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:14-15). Since Us-vs-Them thinking shapes our long traditions of storytelling, the Passion of Jesus Christ represents a whole new way of telling stories — basically, a new kind of story. We continue to resist that new kind of story, persisting in telling most of our stories with the old frame of Us-vs-Them, the good guys defeating the bad guys. We see that resistance in today’s Gospel Reading, as Jesus’s hometown crowd tries to run him off of a cliff when he changes the script.
The resulting sermon, “Undoing Us-vs-Them: A New Kind of Story,” explores how, despite our resistance, the new kind of story is making its way into our world, slowly reshaping things. I use a contemporary movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, as an example of that reshaping in our actual stories; and Mahatma Gandhi as an example of actually rewriting the story of history.
In 2019, I had a different take: Richard Rohr often comments that the most important word in the organization he founded, the Center for Action and Contemplation, is the word and. Action and Contemplation are two sides of the same coin. Luke 4 is sliced up into three portions in the Revised Common Lectionary, the launching of his mission in Nazareth in Epiphany 3C and 4C and also Jesus’s battle with Satan at the end of forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) that begins the season of Lent, Lent 1C. Taken as a whole, I would propose that Luke 4 represents Action and Contemplation. Jesus bold action of battling Satan becomes embodied with the Jubilee text (Isa. 61:1-2a) as the launching of his public ministry and is of one piece in the narrative with forty days of contemplative prayer in the wilderness.
Last week we emphasized the action of God’s Jubilee politics coming into the world through Jesus. This week we pick up the contemplative side of the coin, not only with the entirety of Luke 4 but also in conjunction with St. Paul’s ode to agape-love. In 2019 I was nearing the end of an interim ministry and seeking to introduce the new pastor to the congregation, whose approach to ministry gives a prominent place to contemplative prayer. Link to the sermon notes for this 2019 sermon.
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred. Williams has helpful overviews of the prophet Jeremiah on pp. 144-145, 154-156. The first portion is in a section that looks at all the calls of the major prophets. Jeremiah’s call in this lection is “a paradigm of the prophet as exception, as isolated, as one who lives in loneliness apart from the community.” (p. 144)
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
1. “jealous” in verse 4; Greek: zeloo. Lexicon: (1) as commendably striving for someth. desire, show zeal (for), set one’s heart on (1C 12.31); (2) of a strong personal concern for someone be zealous or jealous (over) (2C 11.2); (3) of an attitude of misplaced zeal be zealous for, eagerly seek, try to win over (GA 4.17); (4) in a bad sense, of hostile emotion based on resentment (be moved with) envy, be filled with jealousy, be jealous of (AC 17.5).
I think it’s interesting that this word can both mean zealous and jealous. In fact, it is translated as “strive” (NRSV) in the two verses on either side of this pericope! 1 Cor 12:31: “But strive (“be zealous”) for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” 1 Cor 14:1: “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
2. “resentful” in verse 5; Greek: ou logizetai to kakon, which more literally means “thinks no evil,” which is how it was rendered in the KJV.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, ch. 7, “Sacred Violence and the Reformation of Desire: Eros and Agape.” This chapter begins with a quotation of 1 Cor 13:13 and develops the possibility of reforming our desire through God’s agape. The second part of this chapter, on “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” is one that also pertains very much to this section of 1 Corinthians since the context of chapter 13 is about the church, the Body of Christ. The first part of chapter 7 in Sacred Violence, primarily the section titled “Eros and Agape: A Different Angle on the Same Triangle,” argues in a nutshell:
Eros is triangular — lover, model/obstacle, beloved — and agape is triangular — lover, creator/God, beloved. In the latter triangle the different angle is the divine nonacquisitive desire instead of human acquisitiveness. The creator God in the place of the model/obstacle gives to the mimesis of desire its proper form as the constituting power of the self. Eros is desire structured by lack and the pursuit of death; agape is desire flowing from the divine plenitude that fulfils our lack. They are both triangular, but there is one angle that is different, and that distinguishes the nature of each. (p. 166)
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 1, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
3. James Alison, On Being Liked, ch. 9, “the strangeness of this passivity . . .” The passivity which Alison explores in this chapter is the wonder of being known by God. He quotes St. Paul in three places to set up this theme: Gal. 4:8-9, 1 Cor. 8:1-3, and 1 Cor. 13:11-13. The crucial phrase for this theme in 1 Cor. 13 is: “Now I know in part; then I shall know even as I am known.” After quoting 1 Cor. 13:11-13, Alison comments:
In other words, St Paul simply takes it for granted that “being known” is what underlies all our knowing, and that we do not yet know properly because our “being known” is still to some extent veiled from us in a world run by rivalry and death. And this “being known” is in fact the reception of a loving regard towards which we, like so many heliotropes, find ourselves empowered to stretch in faith and hope. No wonder love is the greatest of these three, because it is the coming towards us of what really and inalterably is, the regard which creates, while faith and hope are the given response from within us to what is; the given response which love calls forth, while we are “on the way.” Faith and hope are a relaxing into our being uncovered, discovered, as someone loved. But they are relaxing into love’s discovery of us. (p. 133)
It is a wonderful chapter about the healing powers of relaxing into God’s love. Let me give you just a bit more:
The point of this is that St Paul is not making some arcane or mystical point in talking about the essential Christian discovery as being one of being known by God. On the contrary, he is showing some of the first fruits of the extraordinary anthropological discovery about who we really are which came into our ken in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection. If the true Other who is prior to all of us is absolutely not on the same level as all the rivalries, fears, acts of possession, and creations of identity over against each other, then the emergence of that other destabilizes what we took to be our self by making available to us a capacity to relax into being called into being without having to forge a being over against the other. . . . In other words, the Other who is prior to us is not in rivalry with us, and we don’t need to possess who we are as though we would lose it if we didn’t grab it. There is not a scarcity of being or of regard from the other, against which we need to protect ourselves. And so we find ourselves being discovered and known in just the same sense as a really first-rate impresario spots a talented future actor or singer long before the actor or singer knows that they are really talented, have what it takes. And it is in the impresario believing in them that they are able to be discovered. They were “known” before they knew it. And if we were to be such an actor or singer saying “I was discovered,” we wouldn’t merely mean that someone with the right connections had simply lighted upon our talent which was already there. We would mean that their act of knowing, of discovering was actually creative of something into being. Our talent would be in some kind a symptom of their discovery of us. (pp. 136-137)
4. James Alison brings in 1 Corinthians 13 in the twelfth and final essay of Jesus the Forgiving Victim, “Neighbours and insiders: What’s it like to dwell in a non-moralistic commandment?”, an essay primarily on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Near the end of the essay Alison makes extended comments on 1 Corinthians 13 that are vintage Alison on a grace perspective:
It is as we begin to get a sense of what it is like to be loved from that space of God’s giving that we begin to be empowered, and impelled, to open it up for others.
And that, I think is actually the really difficult part of Christian morality: not what we do, but perceiving what has been done for us, becoming attentive to the one who is speaking us into being. This is because it is so much more difficult for us to allow ourselves to undergo something, to appreciate what we are finding ourselves on the inside of, and to allow ourselves to be stretched by it towards others, than it is to say “I haven’t got the time for all that ‘being loved’ stuff — just tell me what to do.”
Yet this sinking into appreciation of being loved is no merely passive exercise. In fact it is usually through little acts of being stretched out towards others that we find ourselves becoming more aware of being loved, and the two moments, activity and undergoing, then enrich and inform each other.
In any case, I would like to offer you an exercise to enable you to sit over time in a sense of being on the receiving end of being loved. We’re going to look at the famous passage from 1 Corinthians about love. This has acquired very particular associations for us owing to its use in weddings. So it tends to get linked to a particular account of love, and a particular moment of love, neither of which are bad things. But the passage is much richer than that. I’m going to read this passage not, if you like, as a piece of abstract moralism defining what love is, but as an invitation to dwell in what it looks like to be undergoing the presence of One who loves you. In other words, everything we’ve seen about Jesus the forgiving victim coming towards us, and our sitting in his regard. (556-57)
What follows is a phrase-by-phrase contemplation on 1 Cor 13:4-7, sitting in regard of God’s unconditional love for you and me. Beautiful! And his summary of this passage is essentially a summary of what he has been about in the entire book:
This, all this, language of Paul’s, is filling out dimensions of the regard of the Forgiving Victim in our midst. This is the space which Jesus has opened up for us so as to show us how God looks at us. It is as we find ourselves being looked at in this way, as we sink in to allowing this regard to tell us who we are, that we find ourselves impelled from within, contagiously, to do the same for others. (561)
5. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 186. This passage is quoted in the context of a very different conversation, questioning about how we can see Christ’s self-sacrifice in a true spirit of love and not self-destruction. He writes,
A further text finally gives us a pointer to the answer we have been seeking: “For if the blood of goats . . . sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the power of the eternal Spirit offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, purify our conscience from dead works so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on our hearts; it came about also “by the power of the eternal Spirit.” The nature of this Spirit we have already seen fully in the second part of this work. It is the Spirit of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), of love (1 Cor. 13), of joy, of peace, of forbearance, and of gentleness (Gal. 5:22ff.). It does not make us into slaves (torturing ourselves), but into sons of God, and calls out from within us “Abba” (Rom. 8:15). A will to self-destruction is totally at odds with the working of this Spirit. If Christ surrendered himself in this Spirit, then his sacrifice cannot in any way be seen as (indirect) self-destruction. The working of the Spirit after Easter throws the decisive light on the innermost mystery of Christ’s will in his passion. The Spirit is never a spirit of aggression or self-aggression; it works rather from within the victims of violence; it stands by the persecuted in their need and protects them from inner subjection to their adversaries (Mark 13:11 and parallels).
There is also an amazing passage in Must There Be Scapegoats? in which Schwager moves deftly from the Parable of the Wicked Tenants to 1 Corinthians 13 in order to elaborate a core Trinitarian theology that is saving human desire from envy to love:
The revelation of the true God occurs when all “evil winegrowers” gang up against the “beloved Son” as against a powerless sacrificial lamb. Girard shows how sacred ideas arise in the course of the expulsion of the scapegoat. The biblical writings initially unmask these ideas as idolatry and deceit. But on a deeper level, they bring an entirely new meaning to Girard’s theory. Sacred ideas do not arise by accident from this banding-together. The one necessary scapegoat for the world is in reality also the Son of the true God; he reveals himself as such by demonstrating through his resurrection that all human projections and deceptions are at work among those who conspire against him.
This revelation is possible only because God shows at the same time that he is not a reality exterior to humankind. As such he would remain an object of open or hidden rivalries. The Son can be recognized as the Son only because the Spirit interiorly converts the hearts of those who gathered against him and gathers them anew in the name of the Son. The Spirit does not do something disparate. fie reveals God to be the ultimate secret of the human heart; he gives an entirely new character to the negative gathering against the Son. The interpretation of the biblical texts unfolded up to now thus leads directly to a theology of the Trinity. The fateful triangular structure of human desire is overcome in the revelation of the threefold divine love. The human being does not desire an object directly. Just as one’s own desire is aroused and directed towards an object only through someone else’s, so too is the Spirit sent into one’s heart and directed towards the Father through the will of the Son. This analogy between the triangular structure of human desire and the revelation of the triune God cannot be developed, however, in the present context; it would require a separate study.
Some brief indications are still to be made concerning the new gathering created by the Spirit. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, the explanations about the one Spirit and the many gifts and about the one body and the many members are immediately followed by the hymn of love. Here Paul explains how any activity acquires its true meaning only through love. Without it all efforts remain “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Without it, even deeds of faith and the sacrifice of one’s body have no merit. Of love itself, however, Paul says that it is not jealous, but forbearing and kind. In our analyses of the Old Testament we have already seen, at least in the example of David and Jonathan and of the two women before Solomon, that only a love that loves the other as its own life can overcome the tendency towards rivalry at its very roots. Accordingly, in his hymn Paul does not praise some vague feeling, but the love that, by imitating Jesus, is ready to sacrifice the lover’s own life. The effective power of the Spirit is made manifest in this world by empowering human beings to make a total dedication of their lives. (221-23)
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 this passage in 2016, “The Greatest of These Is Love.” Also, his book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, ch. 13, “Faith, Hope, and Love,” especially pp. 272-73. He writes, after quoting vs. 4-7,
In these qualities, we can see love as a deep renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Insisting on our own way, being resentful, rejoicing in the shortcomings of others, are all ways of putting ourselves on top of other people. Surely this short list is meant to stand for any attempt to put ourselves above other people. As long as we try to “win,” we lose at love. When we are willing to “lose,” we win at love.
Reflections and Questions
1. The words “jealous” and “resentment” catch the eye of a Girardian, as they point to experiences of mimetic entanglement. The exegetical notes caution against a one-to-one correspondence between the Greek words and our modern experience of “jealous” and “resentment.” But they are still instructive. zeloo perhaps is more like mimetic desire itself in having the potential to fall in either a positive or negative direction. In this context, Paul is using it to mark out the negative, jealousy, and countering it with the supreme form of non-rivalrous desire, agape. I’m not aware of any one Greek word that would correspond with “resentment,” but Paul’s phrase of “thinking evil” perhaps comes close. Resentment is a state which has one always pondering evil against one’s rivals.
In any case, Hamerton-Kelly’s reflections on reforming desire are right on for this text. God’s agape through Jesus Christ brings the possibility of reforming our desire away from jealousy and resentment to love.
2. Link to a sermon reflecting on agape love entitled “My Love Can Be Jesus’ Love.”
1. See last week’s resources on the first part of this passage in Luke 4:14-21, since they really form one story. This passage in its entirety is essential to Luke’s story of Jesus since it recounts the inauguration of his ministry. Crucial is the theme of Jubilee from Isaiah 61:1-2 and the theme of mission to perceived enemies. One might see it as Luke’s version of Matthew’s inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in the Sermon on the Mount. Luke rings out both the same blessings to the oppressed (compare the first part of this passage with the Beatitudes) and a love from God that reaches out even to enemies (compare the second part to Matt. 5:38-48).
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 24, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
3. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, a section titled “Not a Tame Prophet”:
By evoking the memory of two Gentiles being blessed, Jesus in a sense explodes the expectations he had just raised. Yes, he claims to be the long-awaited liberator, overturning the imperial narratives of the Romans and their collaborators by freeing the oppressed — but no, he will not do so in the exclusive, parochial, or nationalistic mode demanded by their counternarratives. His scope of liberation will be, as with the prophets of old, far broader than simply the members of his own religion and nation. Even outsiders, even Gentiles will be included in the scope of Jesus’ good news.
Yes, he claims the title of prophet, but he will not perform like a tame prophet who works safely within established conventions. If you want him, you’ll have to accept more than you bargained for. He comes with his own narrative, and it won’t be negotiated or compromised. The people who had been praising him a moment earlier now turn ugly:
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (vv. 28-30)
This is not the smooth launch of a typical campaign to be voted in as the next messiah. It’s more like Jesus is jamming his foot on the accelerator of expectations and then slamming on the brakes. It’s not a smooth ride, but a driver like this definitely gets your attention.
4. Sermons and blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of girardianlectionary.net: Tom Truby in 2013, “What Made Them So Mad“; and in 2016, “Love Found A Way“; and in 2019, “He Passed Through Them and Went on His Way.”
Reflections and Questions
1. 4:30: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus slips away at the end, the only difference in pre-figuring the last week of his life, when the crowd once again is fickle, changing from the cheers of Palm Sunday to the cheers of Good Friday. But, here at the end of Jesus’ career, the crowd is successful in its attempts to do away with him.
It might be useful to ask why he slips away here. We often say something glib like, “It wasn’t yet his time.” But why not? What’s the difference between getting to the point right away and waiting for a few more years? For me it has to do with the matter of creating witnesses, disciples. This was a feature that Gandhi was very deliberate about. He always tried to bring the media in as somewhat ‘outside’ observers, witnesses. Two thousand years of the Paraclete working no doubt had something to do with media people witnessing his protests in ways that were helpful to Gandhi; otherwise, they never would have been able to see the violence for what it was. For Jesus, it would take several years of preparing witnesses and then the Resurrection, in order for them to begin to see what was going on. Would such witnesses have been impossible at the outset in Nazareth, even with the Resurrection? Who would the resurrected Jesus have appeared to at that point?
2. This matter of having disciples first might even go to a deeper theological point: that the gospel requires the insight of experiencing the grace of God as love which even extends to enemies. In this sense, disciples are those who think they are friends but come to realize that they have behaved as enemies and are in need of the same grace. The importance of the disciples at the Resurrection is as those who had seen themselves as friends but had to recognize that they had acted as enemies. They deserted, denied, and even betrayed Jesus. They had acted no better than Jesus’ enemies. The Risen Jesus came to them as friends who would be able to recognize their status as enemies and thus receive forgiveness. The Resurrection after a successful lynching there at Nazareth might not have spawned Christian faith, because there was not yet these folks who thought they were friends and then came to realize they were enemies.
Jesus’ comments to his hometown crowd, those concerning Elijah and Elisha, made the scandalous point that God’s love is so wide that it even reaches out to enemies. It is apparently the impetus for their trying to lynch him. Could it have become the insight for conversion? For faith to really take root in such a scandalous God, I think it would take something like the disciples of Jesus to be confronted by a Risen Jesus, confronted by the fact that they had acted as enemies and yet were forgiven.
There is, however, at least one example of a person who actively persecuted Christ and yet was converted. This passage falls in the week of the Lesser Festival, the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan. 25), but his story is the quintessential story of the foundation of the Christian faith being rooted in the realization that we are in fact enemies of God. St Paul was the literal enemy of the Christian faith who came to be so completely embraced by it. He put the matter succinctly in Romans 5:10: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
Christian faith truly takes hold of us when we realize the extent of God’s love reaching out to enemies when we come to see ourselves as enemies. In short, we know that God loves enemies because God has loved us.
How have we been enemies of God, when we thought we were friends? Most often, we have been enemies by breaking the first commandment, by unknowingly worshiping false gods of our own making. Who and what are these false gods? They are the gods who require us to have enemies, outsiders, scapegoats. The true God is the one whose grace erases our idolatrous distinctions by taking the position through Jesus Christ as one of our enemies. This is what mimetic theory, and its anthropology of the cross, can show us most clearly.
Link to a sermon on these themes entitled “‘While We Were Enemies.'”