Lent IV, Year B
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people,and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned 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.For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
If Nietzsche were here today, he would find the modern day ‘cult of the victim’ to be abhorrent. If that ‘cult of the victim’ had any Christian underpinnings, we are sure he would ruthlessly dismantle them. There is a fine line between the modern cult of the victim and Girard’s mimetic scapegoating hypothesis, a fine line which in reality is a chasm. The contemporary obsession with the victim would not have been possible without the gospel revelation. Unfortunately, that is as close as the current “victim” and the Gospel come, because modern victims, like Abel and unlike Jesus, demand redress. And if they are dead and cannot speak for themselves, their kith and kin demand justice.
Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than that of Abel.
The gospel is not about a gentle Jesus meek and mild who submitted to authority, as a slave to a master, but it is a story about one who was so in tune with the Creator that he could do… virtually anything. The choice not to invoke resentment but to be actively forgiving (which takes great inner strength) while being tortured to death is what shatters the mirror of myth that had long shrouded the process of victimizing.
The Fourth Gospel, as much as Paul or the Synoptics, is firmly anchored in a theology of the cross. No matter where we turn in our early Christian literature, there is nothing being said if the cross is left out. The so-called Gospel (sic) of Thomas and the alleged document Q which, of course, have no passion narrative cannot be said to be representative of the faith of the early Christians. There is no gospel in an ethical Jesus, or a wise and sagacious Jesus, or a revolutionary Jesus, or a Gnostic Jesus. That is, if by gospel one means light, revelation that takes place, in and around the passion of Jesus as every single significant writer in the New Testament reminds us.
While this is not the place to deal with atonement theories, we must mention that our text also poses a challenge to those who have used this text sacrificially. Some have thought that Christian atonement is unique when it is really just a mirror of all other religious thought. We refer here to the commonly accepted ‘penal satisfaction theory of the atonement.’ Some preach this text and describe God’s giving of his son as a giving over to wrath. This is a false reading. This atonement theory is foundational to fundamentalism and must be deconstructed if we are to have hope of being balanced.
The text for today lays a claim upon us: to acknowledge that the purpose of God is revealed not in judgment but in love. To fail to acknowledge the character of this love, displayed in the life of Jesus, is to be in the darkness. It is to fail to see that any judgment that is passed is the verdict we pass on ourselves and even from that verdict, we shall be delivered.
Resources: see Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, and J. Denny Weaver The Non-Violent Atonement , as well as the article by Robin Collins “Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation” in Willard Swartley, ed., Violence Renounced.
The text today from the Fourth Gospel offers many exceptional entry points for a mimetic reading. We observe the following:
1. The Son of Man saying
2. The comparison to Moses
3. The Johannine ‘Words with Two Horizons’
First, the Son of Man has not been mentioned in the Fourth Gospel since the end of chapter 1 where the angels of God would ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. Here the Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’, that is exalted in the same way that Moses ‘raised/exalted’ the serpent on the staff. Implicitly, we are dealing with the same theme as last week’s lesson and next week’s lesson, namely the suffering of the Son of Man
Second, the Johannine use of the verb ‘to exalt/to lift up’ has an ironic twist to it. Exaltation and glorification are terms used of enthronement ceremonies. But, according to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is exalted, not in his resurrection nor in his ‘ascension’ but precisely in his greatest humiliation, death on a Roman cross, raised a few feet off the ground. The use of the verb ‘to exalt’ is one of many in the Johannine Gospel that requires a mental shifting of gears, sort of like a hermeneutical Mobius strip. These words with double ‘horizons’ provide a vehicle for the author to take you to the ‘other side’ when interpreting his text (Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel)
If we read the entire chapter 3 we will have already encountered a few of these. In 3:3 anothen can mean either ‘again’ when temporal or ‘above’ if spatial. In 3:8 pneuma can connote breath, wind and spirit. In 3.14 and 8:28, as well as in next week’s gospel reading, the verb hupsao can mean both ‘exalt’ and is thus comparable in meaning to doxazo (to glorify), as well as ‘to lift up’ as on a standard.
T.F. Glasson (Moses in the Fourth Gospel) observes that there is another possible word play in our text. In the Septuagint of Numbers 21:8, “the word used for the standard or pole on which the brazen serpent was placed is semeion; this word or some cognate is regularly used for standard in the Greek Old Testament, and as we know quite definitely it also means sign or miracle and is so used in John.” Further, “it is rather remarkable that the Hebrew word nes means both standard and sign (or miracle), and the Greek word semeion has the same double connotation, it also means both standard, or something lifted up, and sign or miracle.” The ultimate semeion is the Cross of Jesus; all other signs are but witnesses to this.
Today’s text was made popular in the twentieth century through the work of the American evangelist Billy Graham. We grew up hearing that God loved us and had a wonderful plan for our life. We also learned that we screwed up and God needed to punish us and that Jesus stepped in and took our beating. We were told if we believed in Jesus, God would be merciful to us and not slam us with some kind of nasty eschatological sentence. All others would go to hell.
Now, this whole thing starts off right but ends up rather quickly in the dustbin of religion. To interpret this text in an exclusionist manner is to misread the text and to remain in darkness. One can only interpret this text in an exclusionist fashion if one is first committed to some kind of retributive justice in God. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as heralds of the good news of Jesus Christ, to make sure that we do not read our scriptures from the perspective of myth, which excludes, and to make sure that we take our cue from the text itself and read ‘from below,’ from the perspective of the victimized, from the horizon of the cross. Only when we do this will we find that we can be inclusive in our soteriology.
Second, the self-giving, selfless sacrifice of Jesus is highlighted. When, in our atonement theories, we make the cross an event between Jesus and God (Jesus suffers God’s wrath or some such), we sacralize Jesus and begin the process of Christian mythologization. On the other hand, if we begin with Jesus self-giving as a fundamental Christological and soteriological axiom, then his forgiveness of us for killing him as he hung dying is the true word of the gospel.
Political, social and economic systems in the Christian West have long been tied to atonement theories although this correlation wasn’t realized until the late twentieth century. As Preachers, we do ourselves and the gospel, not to mention our congregations, little good, if we persist in announcing a christified version of all the other gods of religion. During this Lent, we are given opportunity to repent of our mimetic ways of thinking. As Bernard Ramm used to tell his students, “God forgives our theology just like he forgives our sin.”
I watch a lot of football and I’ve always wondered, “does anyone actually go get a Bible and read John 3:16 after a touchdown?” And if they did would they hear judgment or grace? (I’m usually too busy celebrating or crying.)
I wonder how long the church will not see that if it is going to preach a loving God, it must be loving; if it is going to proclaim that God forgives, it had best forgive, if it is going to teach that God loved us, while we were yet enemies, it must love all enemies. I paraphrase Nietzsche: “If you want me to believe in your Redeemer, you had better look a little more redeemed.” Are we not signposts, pointing to Jesus, just as He is the signpost who points to the Father?
I, for one, am not going to surrender the beauty and power of this text to those who think they have a lock in their sacrificial rendering of it.
(Thanks to Pastor David Miller of University Mennonite Church, State College, PA, for today’s commentary).
In these verses, the author of Ephesians sets forth the anthropological perspective that undergirds the argument made in this epistle. The former state of the recipients of this marvelous letter was, like the rest of humanity (you all share the same common ground!), captive to the demonic powers that hold sway in this present age. The result of this captivity is to “live in the passions of the flesh.” This common ground of humanity is characterized as being “by nature children of wrath.”
“Children of wrath” (tekna orges), is a grammatically ambiguous phrase. It can mean either children belonging to/under wrath or wrath-filled children. This phrase has most often been interpreted as a Semitic shorthand for being those who are suffering under the effect of divine wrath. (The NIV opts to hide the ambiguous meaning of this phrase by rendering it – objects of wrath.) This fits neatly into the logic of substitutionary understandings of the atonement. However, does it follow the logic of the author of the letter to the church in Ephesus?
The author of Ephesians juxtaposes and answers the wrath-filled nature of human beings with the powerful declaration – But God who is rich in mercy! God’s love and nature are opposite of human nature. God is not, according to this text, vacillating between wrath and love. Rather, God answers wrath with love. Full description of the role of the cross as the means by which God declares, demonstrates and makes peace with and among human beings will come just beyond the scope of this week’s text (see verses 13-18). This way of being that is God’s gift, is to characterize the people of God who, reconciled to one another, are to now live to make known the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (see 3:10).
From a Girardian perspective, humanity is trapped in its bondage to mimetic desire and rivalry. This rivalry is the source of wrath, a wrath not from God but originating and directed by humans to one another. But God refuses to participate in our game. Rather God answers with a model for positive mimesis – Jesus – the servant and peacemaker. Those who claim to be Christ’s followers find that their imitation of Christ is not about winning God’s favor, but demonstrating to the powers of this age their own enslavement that can only be broken by the wisdom of God. (3:10).
The Ephesians letter was written in the heart of the two hundred year period that historians have dubbed, Pax Romana – the era of Roman Peace (27 B.C.E.‑180 C.E.). The relative social stability of this period was significant, but it remains that any unity that may have characterized this period was achieved ultimately by the force and the strength of arms. Read from within this context, the epistle to the church in Ephesus declares a vision of God’s victory and reign in Christ that directly challenges the claims of Rome (and all empires!).
In the opening chapter, the writer of this letter declares that the mystery of God’s will has now been revealed, that will is – to unite all things in Christ (RSV). The means of this unification could not differ more from the means of the Roman empire. Pax Christi and Pax Romana operate by starkly contrasting and incompatible methods. Peace as won by the Roman Emperors was ultimately undergirded by fear and order maintained by the threat of death. The instrument of coercion that preserved Rome’s domination was the cross that demonstrated to all passers by that the empire tolerated no counter-claim to authority.
While Rome was using its legions to unify the world, God was using the cross – not wielded against dissenters and dissidents, but through the voluntary submission of Christ to its wrath, the cross would be exposed, while not painless, as powerless (for Caesar’s purposes). While Roman emperors were seeking deification, God in Christ was engaging in incarnation. While the emperors sought exultation, the Son of God voluntarily endured humiliation. The effect of the cross was not forced submission, but the making of peace between former enemies. Those who were so reconciled were then called – into one new body/person – which was to demonstrate to the powers of this age the wisdom of God. While Rome can through shear power force submission and pacify tribes and peoples, the empire is powerless to effect reconciliation. While those vanquished by Roman armies where paraded as spoils of war – humiliated before the throne and majesty of the emperor; the cross endured becomes the means of liberation, by which captivity itself will be taken captive (see 4:8ff).
This perspective is vital to reading the Ephesians letter – indeed the entire New Testament. The language, affirmation and instructions of Ephesians consistently subverts the logic of imperial control and coercion. God’s favor comes as a free gift (2:9); God has taken the initiative to declare peace to and among former enemies (2:17f); the church is called not to take over the reigns of power, but to demonstrate the wisdom of God to the powers (3:10); positive imitation is the calling of the disciple and community of disciples (5:1); human relationships are to be characterized not by a struggle for power over, but mutual submission (5:21 ff); the followers of Christ are called to lay down the weapons of the flesh and instead, put on the whole armor of God (chapter 6).
In a world increasingly violent, fear grows exponentially. School, mall, home and church shootings are almost a weekly occurrence now. It seems as if violence could break into our world anyplace at anytime. Our natural ‘Adamic’ tendency is to hide behind the closed doors not only of our homes but also of our minds. We cannot see any other way to deal with this escalating violence other than by greater violence.
Pastor Miller’s comments from Ephesians remind us clearly that there is, in this world, an alternative to violence, demonstrated long ago in the singular human Jesus, and now lived out amongst his followers, that way, that alternative is love.
Rene Girard has observed that both violence and love have the power of reconciliation. The former is the unity found in the victimage done to the scapegoat, the latter the self-giving love of Jesus demonstrated in the forgiveness of those who killed him (including you and me). Even so, we as preachers must present these alternatives as the decisive either/or, for we have been called from darkness (violence) to light (love). We, like Jesus, may end up being violated,, but it is for his name’s sake. We may end up dying, but it is as a witness (martyr) to his message and life. In so doing, we become ‘children of light.’ And this is our hope, that like him, we too may live as children of the heavenly Father and so bring healing and hope to a world locked within the sin of spiraling violence and self-justification.