VII Easter, Year C
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We begin today with (an apocryphal) story we have heard with apologies to all of our friends in the Churches of Christ. Sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas. When people came to church, dressed in their Sunday best, the men would have to keep their hats with them in the pews, so someone suggested that they build a hatrack and place it in the narthex where hats could be hung. This led to division in the church for some people did not want a hatrack in the narthex. The church ultimately split and it is said that there is now the Hatrack Church of Christ and the Non-Hatrack Church of Christ.
This story, while probably not true (although in America anything is possible) illustrates the degree to which we have taken so-called religious freedom. In America, churches split over the silliest things. There are hundreds of thousands of different churches registered with the federal government as non-profit organizations. In the course of my life I have had the privilege of attending many different types of churches all over the country. One thing I have consistently noticed is that churches often take their identity by asserting what they are not, that is, they are not this or that. If they hold to a symbolic view of the sacraments, they do so in opposition to those who hold a sacramental view. If they sprinkle with water at baptism, they do in opposition to those who dunk. If they perceive church leadership in terms of pastors, they do so in opposition to those who have priests. If one group doesn’t ordain homosexuals they do so in opposition those who do. If one group accepts inerrancy they do so in opposition to those who don’t. And the list could go on ad infinitum (or ad nauseum as the case may be).
Christian unity is no longer a reality. While we may confess that ‘we believe in one church’ we do not live it in practice, it has become for us an ideal to be pursued but not realized. The twentieth century has seen all kinds of ecumenical conferences and conversations and the establishment of the World Council of Churches which some have not joined in opposition to liberalism. And so we continue to splinter further and further apart so that we create confusion as to who is the true church. We are holy, they are not. We are saved, they are not. We are righteous, they are worldly. We are God’s children, they are doomed to hell. And so on and so forth.
We might ask what kind of message this sends to the world. Suppose you were not a Christian but desired to study the Christian faith, where would you begin? Which branch of Christianity would you say is the ‘true people of God?’ Catholic? Episcopal? Lutheran? Reformed? Baptist? Holiness? Pentecostal? Nazarene? Church of Christ? Check out the Yellow Pages for any major city and note all the varieties of Christianity represented. Which is the right place to begin? Which has any claim to be ‘historic Christianity? Does longevity give this right? Does doctrinal purity give this right? Does morality give this right? Who is the true example of Jesus in the world today?
If all of this does not turn your stomach it should at least turn your head, for what we are up against is what occurs when churches have allowed mimetic rivalry to dominate instead of the Lordship of Jesus. If you are a pastor, you are more than well aware of how mimetic rivalry can afflict a church. Just look to your last board, council or consistory meeting. How many times have you had to defuse conflicts between parishioners over the most trivial of problems? How many times have you had to mediate between power hungry people who in genuine piety believe that what they assert is God’s will? Maybe you yourself have struggled with this in relation to another pastor in your locality.
The relevance of Christianity was a theme for the twentieth century, but as we have passed into the twenty first century it must be asked whether or not we have passed this time and whether or not we have become totally irrelevant because our messages, whether conservative or liberal, Catholic or Protestant all represent varieties of the same religious paradigm: that of mimetic violence. Is the God that we proclaim any different than that found anywhere else on the planet? We have sought to demonstrate that Christian theology, particularly in its more popular forms is in reality no different than ancient myths. The Christian faith today might just as well be called the Christian myth, for in it’s structure it is sacrificial, in its message it lies. It lies about God and it lies about Jesus. In too many ways it makes God out to be a persecutor, a judge who will demand recompense. It has failed to articulate clearly the love which God has for the world, conditioning this love with law and obligating it to violence. Bonhoeffer was absolutely correct, Christianity, today, no longer tastes, feels, smells or seems like Jesus.
Christian unity within congregations and within denominations can easily be seen to be unity against. Like political or familial unity , church unity often depends on a scapegoat, someone extruded, discounted, marginalized and all too frequently demonized. We are not like this group or that one. It is the false unity found in random victimage (see the Introductory Article on The Scapegoat). The unity created by victimage will always have as a marker an anti-alterity (an against-the-otherness). In contrast to this, the unity found in the gospel is a unity that also begins with a victim, but it is a unity that stands with the victim. In short, the church is the community who stands by Jesus, and consequently, all victims. Or as Bonhoeffer put it in his poem ‘Christians and Pagans, ‘Christians stand by God in his hour of suffering.’
Our text for today indicates that Christian unity is the unity found by accepting God’s verdict that we are all persecutors and that we stand under the love shown to us in the cross of Christ. This is indicated in two ways, first in the use of ‘doxazo’ (to glorify) which we have seen refers to the glory revealed in Jesus’ suffering and second in the phrase ‘katabole kosmou’ (vs 24). This is a phrase worth exploring. It has two potential meanings which are not mutually exclusive. ‘Katabole kosmou’ can mean from the ‘creation/foundation of the world’ (= the created reality or nature) or from the ‘false creation of the world’ (the foundation of human culture). The phrase occurs in Matthew 13.35 (as a LXX quote from Psalm 78.2), and again in Mt 25.34, Lk 11.50, Jn 17.24, Eph 1.4, Heb. 4.3 and 9.26, I Peter 1.20, Rev 13.8 and 17.8. It is foreign only to the genuine Pauline letters. The translation of ‘katabole kosmou’ will depend upon whether or not we see the ‘kosmou’ as referring to the created order or to the ‘order’ which we have created in victimage. In most cases, the ‘katabole kosmou’ refers to the founding myth of Genesis 3-4, although occasionally it refers to the saga of Genesis 1-2. There are two foundings, the founding or creation of God and the founding of human culture. The Johannine use of ‘kosmos’ seems to us to indicate that it is the origins of the sacrificial mechanism that is in view, particularly when we take into account the use of ‘doxazo.’
As ‘the lamb slain before the foundation of the world’ Jesus is the archetype of all victims, this is particularly true of Matt 25.34 and Luke 11.50 in the Synoptic tradition as well as Eph 1.4, I Peter 1.20 and the references in Revelation. There is no unity apart from the victim, the only question is whether that unity is unity against or with the victim. In the Johannine prayer of John 17, the unity that obtains between the Jesus and the Father is the unity given to the believers, to those who have ‘believed
Jesus ‘logos’ (message). The purpose of this unity is so that the ‘kosmos’ might believe that the Father has sent the Son (17.21). Somewhere it is has been pointed out that on the road to Damascus, Jesus does not ask the apostle Paul, ‘Saul, Saul, why don’t you believe in me?’ but rather ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ It is our persecutorial or retaliatory tendency (our ‘original sin’) that is queried. Faith arises when we recognize our place as persecutors, as those who unjustly victimize and repent and take the side of the victim, thus breaking the false unity of the victimage mechanism. As long as those in Rome or Geneva or Plano, Texas insist on marginalizing others in the name of Jesus they will not bear witness to the Lamb slain from the ‘katabole kosmou’ but to the sacrificial myth and thus will never experience the unity found in the Trinity.
The commentaries tend to miss what we have noted regarding the distinction between divine henosis and the unity of victimage by not contexting the phrase ‘katabole kosmou’ with the glorification = crucifixion of Jesus.
Well, the rubber meets the road. Will we continue to prattle on about Christian unity seeking some sort of doctrinal basis for all of our agreements or will finally recognize that the gospel is not about metaphysics but about concrete human realities? Will we continue to scapegoat others and find our unity against others or will we finally come to terms with the prosecutorial roles we play in our personal, ecclesial and familial relationships? Will we hear Jesus’ Abba and experience Trinitarian unity or will we obey sin, death and the father of lies, the Satan, the Prosecuting persecutor, the ultimate mythologizer? Who will the churches follow? This is the question for Christianity today and it is an urgent question given the state of conflict that exists in our world
Some Sermon Thoughts…
A professor of mine in seminary once said something that has stuck with me ever since. It went something like this:
“You know, when church groups get together for meetings, they spend a lot of time at the beginning “building community” because that’s what all the “group facilitation” books tell them to do. This is a waste of time, because we don’t ever “build community.” To believe that is an act of arrogance. We have community by virtue of our oneness in Christ. What we need to do when we get together is “recognize” our community, not try to “build” something as though it didn’t exist.”
An amazing statement, one that rings loudly of truth.
I’d say, as preachers, that we have a rather “Socratic” job before us when it comes to the unity of the Church. The unity exists. Our only difficulty comes in our failure to recognize it. Perhaps if we accepted the reality of our union in Christ before beginning our conversations, we’d accomplish more as we try to show our unity rather than create it. As preachers, we declare that unity, we may decry the apparent dis-unity, but only for the way that it hinders our ministry to the world, not as if it were something real.