Lectionaries

VI Easter, Year B

Main Text

Gospel Anthropological Reading
Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions
Gospel So What?

Epistle Anthropological Reading
Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions
Epistle So What?


Main Text

Acts 10:44-48
Ps 98
1 Jn 5:1-6
Jn 15:9-17

(Acts 10:44-48)
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the HolySpirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.


(1 John 5:1-6)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

(John 15:9-17)
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.


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Gospel Anthropological Reading

Observing that Girard has said very little about positive mimesis, Willard Swartley ‘consider(s) this a neglected area in Girard’s work and in writings on Girard.” (Violence Renounced) One of our interests at PreachingPeace.org has been to discern the parameters of such a venture. We believe that the Gospels give us two sides to positive mimesis, both of which are essential for understanding the other. Positive mimesis is expressed in the Synoptic tradition, in every type of narrative and saying. Something consistent is going on here in the life and person of Jesus related very specifically to the (re)ordering of our relationships. Healings, teachings on forgiveness, exorcisms, our relationship to God (and temple, Torah and land) are all re-valued in Jesus. Gandhi and Dr King saw this. What is revalued has to do with violence, violence structured relationships.

More importantly, what these peacemakers saw was political, they both understood and saw with great vision, the power of love expressed as non-retribution, thus recognizing the implicit connection between systems and Powers. The gods are not friends. They may make alliances or form agreements, but they do not lay down their life for the other gods. Walter Wink has done us the great service of interpreting the biblical text as well as our current situation in regard to this (The Powers, Vol 3). The Synoptic active non-resistant Jesus is not a figment of scholarly imagination. Positive mimesis expressed as forgiveness, non-retaliation, love, reconciliation, etc, is shot through these texts.

There is another side to this business of positive mimesis. It is given in the Fourth Gospel. It gives us Jesus’ reflection on his agency, a reflection that essentially comes down to “When I look at myself and how I act and what I think and how I feel, I sense a deep and powerful affinity with my Father.” That is, the language about Jesus’ relationship to the Father does not need to be seen exclusively in philosophical (or metaphysical) terms. Rather, we may see in Jesus’ self-expression an awareness of the unity of spirituality and relationships.

It is clear from many texts in the Fourth Gospel that the notion of agency plays a key role in understanding the sonship of Jesus. It is his ambassadorial function. It is about his relationship to his Father. So much so, that one could say that Jesus “exegeted God” for us (1.18). This is important because it demands that we ask what is going on here. According to the Fourth Gospel how does Jesus exegete God?

Positive mimesis plays a small role in Girard, not because it is unimportant but because Girard is focused on an anthropological reading of the Gospels. Girard works primarily with the events that lead up to and culminate in violence, in the Cross. Positive mimesis is really only possible after the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. What Girard has observed about mimesis that is essential for our understanding is that desire is imitated Positive mimesis is the positioning or focusing of desire on the only One who can be for each of us and hence for all of us. It is about the imitation of God.

These then, are the two sides of a coin. In the Synoptics it is termed ‘following’, in the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the Way. This Way…. is the way of friendship.

A convenient designation for negative mimesis is rivalry, the process of model/obstacle, the experience of the skandalon. Positive mimesis can best be termed friendship. “Friendship is no passing feeling of affection. It combines affection with faithfulness. You can depend upon a friend. As a friend you become someone upon whom others can depend. A friend remains a friend even in misfortune, even in guilt. For between friends there rules no prejudice that defines one, and no ideal image after which one must strive. Nor is friendship an alliance for mutual advantage, as is the case with so-called business friends. Between friends there rules only the promise to walk with each other and to be there for each other, in other words, a faithfulness that has to do not with acting and possessing but with the individual person and with being.” Jurgen Moltmann (The Passion for Life)

Moltmann puts his finger on two important elements of friendship. First is that there exists no ideal image for which one strives. That is, we do not set up the other as model and thus potential obstacle. Second, Moltmann places together ‘acting and possessing.’ Friendship does not have to do with the act of ‘grasping’ the other, neither is it fake or hidden behind a persona. Friendship is the freedom of presence.

Have you ever been in love? Do you remember just sitting there goo-goo eyed in the presence of another? Do you recall hanging on to every word, every little action? Can you remember how you felt as you were sharing, so free, so unconfined, so heard? The openness of a truly loving friendship is remarkable. This is why our text connects the two, ‘greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends.’

The Fourth Gospel gives us a theory of positive imitation, the Synoptics a sociology of positive imitation (although when examined in enough detail it is possible to see the other way around as well). Together, they tell a remarkable story, the story of the visitation of the Creator, who rejoices to call us ‘friends’ and in full union with the Creator we may like Jesus also know and follow this One.

Jeff adds:

Can a coin have three sides?

Positive mimesis seems, in the Fourth Gospel, to have a third aspect revealed as well. Yes, Jesus’ imitation of his Father’s desire for the other, a non-possessing desire that gives itself for the other, is revealed and offered as model, but there is, I think, a deeper healing of mimesis.

At its root, mimesis leads to violence because mimesis manifests itself in imitated, mediated desire. We find ourselves in conflict with one another because mimetic desire inevitably leads to desires that compete for limited objects of desire. There just can’t be enough objects to satisfy desire.

Worse, desire is mimetic (so suggests Girard) because the human agent believes that the object of desire modeled by the “other” brings with it “being.” Possession of the object is thought to grant the possessor a “being” that we all desire and, to some extent, lack.

These are, in the end, inescapable effects of “desire” unless desire itself is redeemed. We cannot imitate Jesus’ manner of relationship, love as Jesus loved, until we heal desire. If we do not heal desire at an elemental level, the imitation of Jesus’ relationships and behaviors becomes little more than a more subtle form of response to prohibition. Don’t own too much, don’t be jealous, don’t, don’t, don’t.

What makes Jesus’ relationships possible is his desire for his Father. We may imitate that desire, turn our desire to that which he had, because in this desire, and in this one alone, there is sufficient object to make rivalry unnecessary. Everyone can desire the Father without competing. What is more, this is the only object of desire that conveys what all objects are intended to covey, “being.”

Loving one another as Jesus loved us simply will not happen until we and the Father are one, were Jesus and the Father.

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

We wish to play today off of the work of Rudolf Schnackenberg. In his commentary he has a brilliant paragraph on the linguistic cultural background of friendship. He says, “friendship is in fact a theme that played a very important part in the Graeco-Roman world. There is no corresponding word in Hebrew, but the matter is present in Hebrew literature (see, e.g., the ‘bond of friendship’ between David & Jonathan, I Sam 18:1-4). The idea of friendship, however, first appeared in a much more emphatic way in the sapiential literature (see especially Ecclus. 6:5-17). In Judaism, Abraham is depicted as the friend of God (acc. to Isa 41:8; 2 Chron 20:7) and this description appears frequently in the non-canonical writings (Jub 19:9; Dam 3:2; Apoc Abr 9:6, 10:6; Test Abr. 13:6; Philo Mos I, 156; Sacr 130, etc). The Israelites are also given the same honorific title (Jub 30:21; see also the rabbinical writings) as those who are concerned with Torah (Aboth 6:1). John 15:3 with its special reference to dying for one’’ friends, cannot, however, be traced back to Judaism. Jesus himself hardly ever made use of the idea of friendship. We can be quite certain then, in the case of the evangelist, a Hellenistic influence was at work.” (The Gospel According to John , III)

We have several questions we would like to put to this. First we acknowledge that the Greeks and Romans had already explored the concept of friendship and had drawn some conclusions regarding it. Second, we also acknowledge that there is a developing inter-penetration of Judaism and Hellenism in the centuries before Jesus all around the Mediterranean. But, just because there is not a Hebrew word for friendship, does not mean that there is not the ability to be friends. Nor does it mean that friendship is not explored.

Second, Schnackenberg says Jesus hardly ever made use of the idea of friendship. We agree. Friendship is not an idea for Jesus but an intentional way of relating to others. To be certain, we believe the author of the Fourth Gospel had been a native of Jerusalem with some social standing in the Jerusalem community, whether by position or by birth we do not know. Thus, our author would have been exposed to more ‘Hellenistic’ influence than say, certain rural Galileans. But why is it that we think Jesus could not speak even rudimentary Greek? He grew up just 12 miles from Sepphoris and we haven’t a clue as to what he did for his first 30 (at least) years. As can be seen from his teaching, Jesus had obviously thought something through to the degree of an Einstein or a Siddhartha. He was no dummy. If we follow the suggestions of some, like T.W. Manson (The Teaching of Jesus), it would appear that Jesus was familiar to a degree with Hebrew and Greek as well as his native tongue of Aramaic. Children all over the world (except in the United States) are bi- or tri-lingual. We are simply saying that it is possible for Jesus to have had friends of a high social caliber who were acquainted with Greek and that Jesus, on occasion may have used Greek with them. Thus we should not be surprised that Jesus may also have been acquainted, in some respects, with ‘Hellenized Judaism.’

We also would point out that in the Synoptic tradition, Jesus is seen within the framework of the covenant that God made with Israel. As the elect, the chosen, Israel served God. Jesus is also a servant of God. Jesus, in the Synoptic tradition, closely allies himself with the marginalized. He eats with them, expressing friendship through the hospitality of a shared meal. He redefines relationships in terms of mercy expressed, forgiveness proffered, love demonstrated. To say Jesus hardly made use of the idea of friendship may be to miss just how he became a friend to those around him (and thus how we can become friends as well).

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Gospel So What?

Jurgen Moltmann referred to the Eucharist as the feast of freedom. Intimately connected to this freedom is the relational term of friendship. The Christian community has the rare opportunity to live non-mimetically, to become free from the restraints and constraints of negative mimesis. In a sense, the church is where we practice mercy, love and forgiveness, so that when we take our relational game into the world we know what to do.

Genuine peacemaking is really all about becoming friends. We do not say ‘making friends’ as though friendship was an ideal to be sculpted. Rather we become good friends by practicing the skills we are taught: mercy is better than sacrifice, love one another, forgive one another. Practicing these skills is more difficult by far than mastering the history of Western philosophy. These skills are constantly being put to the test, and how frequently we find ourselves seeking solace in our guilt and shame when our skills fail us.

These skills and others are essential for the 21st century church to develop and nurture. If history records that a future ‘war against Christians’ left Christians bloodthirsty, retaliatory and vengeful, then it will be said that Christianity missed its own point.

Many are the relationships in which we can always be practicing our ‘love’ skills. We are, however, commanded to do so in the context of our Christian community. We are not speaking of an ideal but the reality given us in the Lord Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being. Either we are about being friends with God and each other or we are about why some people are our friends and others aren’t. If we are the latter, we are not following Jesus. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not those who harbor justification for their anger and retaliatory projections. Blessed are those branches on the vine that live in love.

2006:

American Christianity is torn in two. It is becoming more and more difficult for folks on the right and the left to be friends with one another. We can see this in our ‘Christian’ politicians. Many of them attend church on Sunday, and spend the rest of the week stabbing each other in the back. And then they all attend soirees together. Go figure.

One cannot speak of befriending enemies in America today. To do such is to ‘aid and abet terrorism.’ Recently, the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams has been called into question, for here are people who go to great lengths to make friends with those who are deemed enemies. Why would they do this? Because Jesus called them to give their lives as friends. Tom Fox died in March, not as an enemy but as a friend. His witness to us today is in stark contrast to the Christian preachers whose call to arms cuts off any hope of true friendship.

I wonder if has Christianity lost its capacity to make enemies friends? Thank God, Jesus didn’t or we would be up a creek. We are called to imitate Jesus today, not George Bush or Dick Cheney or Condeleeza Rice, not Tony Blair or Jack Straw or bin Laden or Zawahiri. Jesus alone is the standard by which we are to know friendship. Can we do this before it is too late to make friends with our enemies?

Jeff adds:

I wonder if it’s possible that Jesus commended a way of life (loving one another as we have been loved) that isn’t possible. Somehow, I doubt it. In other words, in this world of division and more division, where love of enemy seems a world away, we are reminded this week that it is entirely within our ability!

I often use the tried and true “law/gospel” structure for my sermons, and this would seem to be a week in which it would work particularly well. We can view Jesus’ words here as potential commandments, as “law” and inspire in our listeners a certain dread, almost despair as the love he shows (if described accurately) seems well beyond our feeble reach. Then, when we recognize that Jesus does not tell us what to do here, but what we are now, through him, ABLE to do, what we can do by (first) imitating his desire/love for his Father, we open to our listeners a vista of possibility, a view of the eschatological present. Now, that sounds like Gospel to me.

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

What does it mean to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?  Furthermore what does either of these have to do with being “begotten by God?”  For the past several centuries under the influence of European Pietism and American revivalism, to be ‘born again’ meant to acknowledge Jesus as one’s personal savior (personal savior – two words never brought together in the New Testament).  By the 1960’s under the influence of Billy Graham and Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ), all that was needed was to acknowledge the four spiritual laws, sign one’s name at the back of a pamphlet and Voila! one became a Christian assured of salvation.  But is it really that simple?

The author of First John has a clear horizon for understanding the revelation of God: God is revealed uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, the flesh and blood human crucified visibly before all (1:1-4 and 5:6).  For this author, as for all the early Christians, Jesus’ death was not divorced from his life or one might say there is a clear and unbreakable bond between incarnation and atonement.  This is in contradistinction to Christianity in America today where both liberalism and fundamentalism sever this bond; fundamentalists place all emphasis on atonement (death), liberals on Jesus’ ministry (life), each eschewing the other pole.  This is due to the fact that both conceive of Jesus within a sacrificial framework.

This sacrificial framework (which we have explicated in many places on this website) did not exist in the early church nor can it be found in the New Testament (except perhaps marginally if at all).  On the contrary, Jesus is the divinely authorized model of human existence in both life and death.  As such, he is also, at the same time, the visible model of the divine life, revealing the very character of God as Love and Light.  This two-fold understanding of Jesus lies behind the confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.

It is to be noted that Messiah is not a category of characteristics laid out in numerical fashion and then applied to Jesus by pre-Christian Judaism.  There were many different and varied understandings of Messiah (see the many essays in The Messiah edited by James Charlesworth [Fortress, 1992]).  Jesus’ life and ministry brought a new definition to Messiah.  Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise of God to send an agent to redeem Israel, is characterized by forgiveness, inclusion, mercy and the restoration of relationships.  He is no warrior figure, nor is he a Go’el, in complete contrast to so many messianic portraits from the Psalms of Solomon to I Enoch. Jesus, as a redemptive figure, is the living flesh and blood demonstration of what God looks like in the flesh, one who is non-retributive or in a word pacifistic (I know Niebuhr is turning over in his grave about this).  But the facts of the Gospel narratives speak for themselves.

Thus, to be ‘born again’ precludes any understanding of Jesus that is sacrificial or militaristic (and Q.E.D., precludes any Christian existence that is such).  This is why in First John there is a turn to love (αγαπη).  This crucial turn is both ethical and epistemological, it is both theological and anthropological, and it is the heart of the faith of Christianity.  It brooks no rivals.

To love as Jesus loved, to love the brothers and sisters and Jesus loved his own is to love God, to share in the divine life and so to be called a child of God.  In the sphere of love there is no room for hatred, retaliation or apathy.  Αγαπη is the mode of existence of both God and God’s children.  To live in this love is to overcome the world that is grounded in the violence and murderous rampage of retaliation and vengeance.  It is to live honoring all life and all human blood.  It is this way of being, and only this way of being that can be called ‘born again.’ Any other way of existence is a false birth, a partial abortion, an unformed faith.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

Note that the confession of Jesus in 5.1 is Jesus as the Messiah, while in 5.5 it is Jesus as the Son of God.  This is similar to the formula found in Matthew’s version of the confession at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16).

There is also the larger question as to the phrase ‘son of God’ which means one thing in a Jewish context and another under the influence of Hellenism.  Richard Bauckham has discussed this at length and concluded that in a Jewish context the Hellenist overtones of ‘being’ are not implicit when used in a Jewish context, the connotations refer to the identity of God (see Jesus and the God of Israel, Eerdmans 2008, influenced by Hans Frei’s work The Identity of Jesus Christ[Fortress 1975]).  At stake, according to Bauckham is monotheism.  Especially here Bauckham criticizes those who differentiate ‘ontic’ from ‘functional’ Christologies (e.g., Oscar Cullmann).  The shift is rather to the question of divine identity and that “we can see that, throughout the New Testament texts, there is a clear and deliberate use of the characteristics of the unique divine identity to include Jesus in that identity.  Once we have rid ourselves of the prejudice that high Christology must speak of Christ’s divine nature, we can see the obvious fact that the Christology of divine identity common to the whole New Testament is the highest Christology of all.  It identifies Jesus as intrinsic to who God is” (31). 

Earlier discussion of christology which presupposed either a bifurcation of Palestinian (Jewish) and Gentile or influenced by a ‘history of religions’ approach which moved from the low Christology of Jewish Christians to the high Christology of Greco-Roman Christianity have been overturned.  Now many New Testament scholars (Bauckham, Moule, Hengel, etc) argue that so-called high Christologies were formed early on within the Jewish Christian worldview.

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Epistle So What?

Preaching through First John is to repeat oneself from sermon to sermon; the repetition of the vocabulary of First John is akin to the ritual effect of the scapegoat mechanism, but here the repetition is not one of violence but love and light.  We need this repetition to counter the repetitions of anger, violence and retaliation that comprise so much of our human existence.  This agapaic repetition is both beneficial and necessary.

It is crucial today that folks in the pews understand the costly nature of following Jesus in the way of Love.  Love is not the trivial ‘drippy’ new age gushy sentimental feeling one gets looking at a new puppy, it is the costly choice to forgive when one is hurt, to be reconciled with those who are just trouble and getting dirty when religious folks assert that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ (what a lot of CRAP that is!). 

Real Love is blood and guts, real life, in the trenches living in relationships.  Anything else is just an advertisement for a cheap substitute.

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