Epiphany I, Year B
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." Then he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered, "Into John’s baptism." Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied– altogether there were about twelve of them.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And Jesus must deal with this new awareness too. So he will be led off into the desert so that he may reject all potential scenarios that do not reflect His Father’s will, especially the mimetic views of the warrior messiah.
This business of what constitutes consciousness or self-consciousness has been the subject of intense discussion. Eugene Webb (Philosophers of Consciousness) has placed Girard in this conversation and has shown the christological application of this discussion. He says, “If the mimetic mechanism, then, is the false subjectivity underlying our illusion of autonomous individuality, where does Girard think this genuine subjectivity is to be found?….The only truly conscious freedom, that is, and therefore the only genuine subjectivity we can experience, is that which the New Testament calls “Christ in us,” the inward presence of the God of non-violent love as the subjective principle of our actions….Before the one source of genuine freedom enters our lives and becomes the fountainhead of true subjectivity – which is Christ’s life in us – we are only the puppets of mimetic desire.”
In addition, as Webb goes on to note we must at this point speak incarnationally.
We take this to mean that in the day-to-day experience of Jesus, he did in fact understand the implications of mimesis on a grand scale (even if he wouldn’t have called it that). Jesus is in relationship to every mimetic power, from money to Caesar, from Torah to family, from honor to Temple, from demons to sickness, and the list could go on even to name death itself. What the gospels assert is that Jesus experienced all these things with us in himself, and this is reflected in his sense of identity being “tested” and his response in light of his experience of the Father. The truth ‘in, with, and under’ the text is how Jesus answered this question and vanquished mimesis until the time of its transformation.
His identification with us is an invitation to become identified with him and his vision, the vision of the reign of the God of Peace, the Abba of creation. He becomes like us that we may become like him.
The lectionary reading highlights the christological affirmation of the “Bat Qol”, the voice from heaven. This misses the very important conclusion, namely, that Jesus is to be tested by “Satan,” or the mimetic powers. Nothing else in Mark’s gospel makes sense if we do not recognize that Jesus had to wrestle with and conquer the possibilities of ‘bad’ mimesis for himself. Both Matthew and Luke recognize this in their expanded forms of the temptation narrative.
In order to do justice to the point of the christological affirmation it is crucial to place it in the context within which the gospel of Mark places it, namely, in the desert experience of the prophets. The context provided by John the Baptist already positions Jesus outside the norm in spite of Mark’s “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.” As we observed in Advent, the desert is a topographical piece of information that carries with it the history (the stories) of those who lived in it.
One can observe this in the earliest strata of Isaiah. John’s appearance in the desert was thus a challenge to “establishment” religion as were the prophets before him.
This challenge is more fully seen in that John is dispensing atonement apart from the temple system. Atonement is given through the sign of baptismal repentance. Arguably similar to the Qumran community’s practice of ritual lustration, John the Baptist was not a lone voice critiquing the temple practice. The Hebrew prophets were quite clear that the temple authorities of their time did not treat the rest of society in a manner in keeping with God’s will and called for specific changes. While Matthew and Luke have expanded narratives that suggest that John was fairly practical about how people needed to treat one another if they were to change their minds, for the author of Mark, as in the Fourth Gospel, John bears witness to Jesus. According to Mark, John was preaching about The Coming One who would give God’s Spirit.
In this brief narrative, the Spirit is promised, given, and tested by the principalities and powers of the mimetic mechanism. The text does not tell you whether Jesus passed or failed. It will be in the succeeding stories that we will find that Jesus not only passed but in passing began the process of transforming the mimetic powers. The following Sundays in Epiphany are all about what occurs here in the omitted verses 12-13 (so therefore we encourage you to include them in your reading).
The key to the gospel of the kingdom is repentance. Repentance is the opportunity given us to change our minds, to change our way of thinking, to turn about and move in a new direction. Repentance invites us to move from our worn out and tired definitions and descriptions of God to an experience with the Living God.
In the Markan text it is revealed that Jesus is the One upon whom God pours out his Spirit. An aspect of our text concerns the question of consciousness. Since the advent of historical-critical studies, the question of the self-consciousness of Jesus has been debated with great vigor. Nineteenth century German critical scholarship split into two distinct movements. The liberal side is exemplified in Adolf von Harnack’s famous assertion that the gospel is not about the Son but about the Father. The early form critics relegated this baptismal text to ‘legend’ or ‘myth.’ The authenticity of every Son of Man saying was argued for or against. Still, a growing chorus of scholars this past fifty years has argued that indeed we can know something about Jesus self-consciousness. As this debate is now over 200 years old and shows little sign of letting up, we will choose to assume that the text is ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
The baptismal story does not have a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures. The language, however echoes Psalm 2.7, Genesis 22.2 as well as Isaiah 42.1. The use of the prophecy from Isaiah is a key to understanding what is happening here. Vincent Taylor (The Gospel According to Mark) says, “here the idea of the Messianic Son is combined with that of the Servant, and while it is possible that this fusion was effected earlier in certain circles, it is to be traced to the mind and experience of Jesus rather than to the Evangelist.” Further, “the ideas, indeed, are fundamentally Jewish, although they are combined in a new and creative way,” and “what is expressed is a new and vital relationship to God which transcends Messiahship as it was it was understood in Jewish thought.”
What is occurring here is a shift in mimesis. Jesus becomes baptized with the Spirit of God. As such, he represents God on earth. He also represents the people, all of us, before God. The use of metaphors that indicate corporate personality, like the king of Psalm 2 or the Servant of Isaiah, may grate on the nerves of those of us raised with the concepts of the social contract and the autonomous ego. But it contains a similar perspective as Girard’s notion of the ‘interdividual.’ That is, we are all connected, we are all in this thing together.
There is an anti-Christ being proclaimed in some churches today. It is the warrior messiah that Jesus rejected that has come to own the crown of some popular christology. Sadly, in this kind of theology, God is little more than an alcoholic parent in the sky; a tyrant who demands satisfaction, who elects some to heaven and damns some to hell. Jesus is coming again with his terrible swift sword. Completely speculative nonsense in the guise of gospel sells millions. This Hollywood Jesus, the ultimate Rambo, holds much of Christianity spellbound. Violence sells.
We believe that it is important to prepare our congregations to confront this theology of death head-on. Many of them do not subscribe to this theology, though they probably think little about it. Unfortunately, the silence of much of the Church in the face of this murderous god encourages others to believe that it is truly the god of Christianity. We can’t stay silent any longer.
Then again we see the value and the difficulty of looking at texts ‘from below.’ It will always be a temptation for the Church to preach a Jesus consonant with human culture. Because clergy are paid by the very congregations they preach to, it is often unwise to ‘rock the boat’ and we must choose carefully which hills to die on.
The announcement of the gospel of peace, of the Peacemaking God and his Messiah, is a direct challenge to all christology which still associates Jesus with violence, anger, resentment or retribution. The four gospels seem to us to support this proclamation of Peace. We can ill afford to attribute our feelings of resentment to God and then believe that our dispensing of justice is affirmed by him. We will shortly see that Jesus’ ministry led the authorities to suspect him of “blasphemy.” It is surely more blasphemous to re-make God in our own violent image.
The difficulty of writing a commentary using the mimetic theory is that not all texts have something to contribute to a mimetic reading, such is today’s epistle text. On the other hand, by digging deeper the story of Acts 19 brings one back to discerning the role of John the Baptist as the predecessor of Jesus.
As we have noted in our Markan commentary on John the Baptist (JTB), the most significant difference between John and Jesus is that while John proclaims an imminent judgment from God in order to motivate repentance, Jesus brings the positive message of the nearness of God’s reign as a primary motivator to change one’s life/mind. This is truly a significant point and one not to be lightly glossed over as fear is as strong or stronger a motivator than grace. Anyone is sales will tell you that fear of loss (of not getting the desired object) is a fantastic motivator for closing a deal. Many times, stressing the benefits of a product will not be sufficient to move the buyer to act.
Eugene Drewermann in his work has stressed that one of the primary aspects of our ‘fallenness’ is our anxiety, and he uses Kierkegaard’s analysis in Fear and Trembling to undergird his observation that fear of God is what stands behind the problem of religion. JTB stands in the line of Jewish prophets who emphasized the fear of God’s judgment as a motivator for change. This works up until Jesus comes on the scene. But as we have seen (in our commentary on Luke 4 and Luke 7), Jesus removes the notion of God’s retributive vengeance from the equation, His message stresses the foundational character of God’s love, mercy, grace and forgiveness.
One element of the pre-converted Saul/Paul was the fact that he believed in a God who was to be feared, in a God who struck fear into the hearts of humanity, especially ‘God’s enemies.’ Paul’s zealous rage for justice prompted him to participate in the spiral of violence to cleanse Israel from the false prophets who would pollute the people of God with their message of grace.
The disciples of the Baptist who resided in Ephesus would have taken from their master the message about the restoration of Israel, a message based upon the coming winnowing, a separation of the true from the false people of God. John’s message of repentance though couched in apocalyptic terms of separation/distinction was on the mark enough for Jesus to submit to it. Both Jesus and John were focused in their ministry on the hope of restoration that had been part of the ethos of Judaism since the exile (see N.T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God for an explication of this trajectory).
Paul’s message to them concerned the fact that the ‘time of the quenched spirit’ was over, that God had once again poured out the Spirit. We recall that in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet has a vision of the Spirit moving away from the Temple by degrees (9:3, 10:4, 10:18, 11:23). From the time of the cessation of prophecy Israel awaited the gift of God’s Spirit; so too JTB announced that one would come with the Spirit and fire; now Paul announces that One has come who brings the Spirit (notice that there is no mention of the fire of judgment).
No items of interest.
Even so today, proclaiming an unambiguous God, a God freed from the strictures of dualism meets with barely concealed hostility. Persons in the pews have lived their entire lives with a judgmental God, a God who is to be feared, a God who is described by adjectives beginning with omni-, a God in short who is no different than all of the other archaic divinities of the human imagination.
Most of Christianity still lives within the framework of the message of the Baptist and needs to once again hear that God has come fully, unconditionally to all who believe and gives the Spirit freely to all who open their hearts to the this grace.