Preaching Peace Lectionary

Pentecost Sunday, Year A

Gospel Anthropological Reading

Death is not an inspirational subject. Death evokes grief, anger, sadness, loss, change, heartache, and loneliness as well as retaliation, blame and revenge. But it hardly seems to be an occasion for inspiration. And yet this is precisely what the text affirms today. Death, specifically, the death of Jesus, is in-spirational, it is in the death of Jesus that the Spirit is given.

We have observed that the Johannine view of Jesus’ death is the hermeneutic key by which we are to understand all life, all human existence. We have stressed that the death of Jesus and its significance is to be found in the forgiving character of Jesus, as he is wrongfully executed. It is the forgiving victim that creates the only true reality. The old reality of victims seeking redress and revenge is over, “it is finished.” The new reality of the love of God is seen absolutely and precisely in the forgiveness of Jesus as he dies. It is this word of forgiveness, this openness of Jesus to be reconciled to his enemies that is the signal element that frames the New Testament discourse about his death.

From the perspective of the Johannine gospel, death is no longer the problem, it has become the solution; death, which formerly ended life, now becomes the path that leads to eternal life. But we should not thereby exalt death, as though death in itself was redemptive. Rather it is our orientation to death, in particular Jesus’ death, that occasions our current experience of redemption.

Sadly, this has been frequently missed, glossed over or mythologized by clergy and theologians for almost two millennia. This has occurred whenever the death of Jesus has been characterized by violent retribution; whether, e.g., we seek to blame others for Jesus’ death (the so-called ‘blood libel’ Year A_Passion Sunday) or when we articulate Jesus’ death as God taking vengeance, pouring out wrath upon Jesus as he dies. In either of these cases, the death of Jesus becomes myth and is no longer gospel.

This ‘mything’ of the death of Jesus occurs with greater frequency in so-called Christian cultures experiencing outbreaks of mimetic crises. Not only can this be seen historically, but it is quite easy to see in our own culture. The embeddedness of the satisfaction theory of the atonement is the most significant marker of this mythologizing of Jesus’ death. The great contribution of American Evangelicalism is not it’s missionary impulse, but it’s constant defense of this myth as it spreads this false rendering of the gospel throughout the world. Liberal Christianity has rightly rejected such an interpretation of the death of Jesus, but has also failed to find any saving significance in Jesus’ death. Liberal Christianity has all too frequently obfuscated Jesus’ death in its rejection of the cross as the revelatory key to understanding Jesus’ life. This is why ‘liberal lives of Jesus’ end up presenting Jesus as some soapy ethicist or Platonic idealist or radical revolutionary. There seems to be a common thread on both sides of American Christianity in this misperception of Jesus’ death. Sad, yes. Wrong, yes. Inspirational? Hardly.

Yet the Fourth Gospel will clearly underline a crucial aspect of the death of Jesus in saying that the Spirit of God comes to us through Jesus’ death. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, it is the Crucified who gives the Spirit, it is the Crucified who in-spires us.

Death evokes a spirit. When we read that 7 soliders died in Iraq, or a child was killed in Florida, or a woman was executed in a Texas prison a spirit is invoked. This spirit is the spirit of retaliation, revenge, the spirit in need of a scapegoat. It is the spirit of violence, the spirit of the cycle of perpetual vengeance. This satanic spirit satisfies our lust, our thirst for retaliation, and justifies our continued use of a mechanism that has been utterly revealed and destroyed in the death of Jesus.

Jesus’ death also invokes a Spirit. Because Jesus’ death is a reflection of God’s character, Jesus’ death is an invocation of God’s Spirit; a forgiving God revealed in the forgiving, dying Jesus, calls forth the holiest of Spirits, the spirit of forgiveness. Yet, this Spirit is rejected in modern Christianity because we still insist on interpreting Jesus’ death through a theory of the atonement grounded in some sort of ‘lex talionis.’ God must get even; God must balance the scales of injustice and does so by threatening wrath upon those who ‘do not believe in the death of Jesus.’ This is pure “Christian” myth.

The war of the spirit of retaliation against the Spirit of forgiveness is clearly demonstrable just by reading the newspaper. We are so caught up in an eye for an eye that when someone who has been wronged publicly forgives their enemy we stand in awe and wonder how they could do such a thing. From whence did they derive the inner strength for such a feat?

Modern Christianity is frequently charged with a ‘loss of Spirit.’ And this is true. But we should rather say that too much modern Christianity is filled with a false spirit. This false spirit is powerful, it is the spirit of the one who ‘is a liar (a mythmaker) and a murderer from the beginning.’ It is the spirit of the satan, the prosecutor, the persecutor, the blamer. Fight, fight, fight, might makes right. This may be the spirit of Christendom but it is not the Spirit of Jesus.

Rene Girard has carefully shown that so-called Christian culture follows this false spirit; this spirit that demands victims and requires sacrifice. And Girard has rightly argued that this spirit will end up consuming us all in an apocalyptic frenzy of uncontrolled human retaliation. Who is to say how close we are to this event? But if we do not change, if we do not preach the News that is Good, the Gospel, we hasten our own demise and death will always be feared. For the Johannine author, not only the resurrection but also the cross manifests the power of the Spirit, the inspiration of God. It is not simply how one lives, but how one dies; our final word echoes all the language of our lifetime. How shall we then live? How shall we then die? Whose spirit are we filled with, by whom are we in-spired? Does our blood, our life, like Jesus’, speak a ‘better word than that of Abel?’

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

John 6-8 forms a unified piece. At first sight this may not seem true and many have struggled with what they perceive as a randomness to the Fourth Gospel. But there is an explicit Jesus/Moses parallelism going on here. The manna/feeding of the 5,000 and the shekinah/light of the world narratives are the brackets around the striking of the rock from which water poured forth/Jesus’ death pouring forth the Spirit. There are impressive rabbinic parallels to this effect, including some midrashim that say that both blood and water poured out of the rock Moses struck. These three ‘miracles’ are brought together in Jewish tradition, the Fourth Gospel is but one witness to this triad of miracles.

Even as Moses struck the rock and out poured ‘blood and water’ so too Jesus was struck and out poured ‘blood and water’ (19.34, I John 5.6). The correlation of the Spirit with ‘blood and water’ of course invites a sacramental interpretation, but it also, by virtue of the character of Jesus’ death, invites a non-sacrificial interpretation. To do otherwise is to run the risk of mythologizing the text.

The problem of the nominative absolute in 7.37 has led to an either/or speculation – Is it Jesus or the believer of whom it is said ‘rivers of living water shall flow from his/her belly?’ In typical Johannine fashion, there is an implicit play on words here, it is not one or the other but both/and. Johannine ecclesiology and Johannine Christology are inseparable..

Here are some other examples of words and phrases with double meanings in the Fourth Gospel.

2.19-21 temple Jesus body or Herod’s Temple
3.3 anothen from above (spatial) or again (temporal)
4.10-15 hudor zon flowing water or living water
4.31-34 eating food lunch or sustenance
6.31 artos bread/manna or divine sustenance
7.33-36 ‘going to the Diaspora Jews’ or going to God
7.39 glorified exalted or crucified
8.21-22 ‘going to the one who sent me’ or committing suicide
8.31-32 political freedom or spiritual freedom
11.11-15 sleep sleep or death
11.23-25 ‘your brother will rise again’ the eschatological resurrection or Jesus, Liberator from death
12.32-34 hysao crucified (humiliated) or exalted

The misunderstanding of Jesus’ death/resurrection is misunderstood at least eight times, 2.19-21, 6.51-53, 7.33-36, 8.21-22, 12.32-34, 13.36-38, 14.4-6, 16.16-19

Other examples of a Johannine ‘double word or irony’:

1.5 Comprehend/overcome
3.8 wind/spirit/breath & voice/sound
5.6 well/whole
7.4 ‘show yourself to the world’ = display your power or display your weakness
7.8 “going up” to ascend the road to Jerusalem or to die
9.4, 11.10, 13.30, 21.3 night
13.1 ‘to the end’
13.8 wash bath or baptism
13.36 follow discipleship/death
19.14 ‘King of the Jews’ (used ironically)
19.30 tetelestai
19.30 gave up/handed over the Spirit
21.15ff agape, phileo

The author of the Fourth Gospel uses double meanings and irony to provoke the reader/hearer to consider whether or not she ‘sees.’ Five different verbs for seeing are used and often ‘to see’, ‘to know’ and ‘to believe’ are interchangeable. The question the Fourth Gospel poses is strictly hermeneutical in character: are we seeing things from above or from below (8.23)? Are we seeing only ‘humanly’ or from the perspective of God (3.12)? The Fourth Gospel associates one plane with truth, the other with lies and deception, violence and murder. The one is the hermeneutic of appearances, the other is the perception of right judgment. “Do not judge by appearance, but judge with right judgment” (7.24).

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Gospel So What?

Some elements of American Christianity have confused eternal security with Homeland Security. Some argue, in the name of Jesus, that the maintenance and perpetuation of American culture, as a Judeo-Christian culture, is essential to world life and happiness. Whatever it is called, this is not gospel.

Today we celebrate the presence of God with us, of Jesus with us. But which God, which Jesus do we follow? Whose Spirit fills us? The test is in our behavior, whether we ‘love one another.’ This is the hardest, most difficult test to pass. It is easy to be holy, to not drink, dance or swear. It is easy to be a Christian, to believe in the Bible or the church or the pastor. It is hard to love one another. Again, it is easy to go to church, to evangelize, to pray. It is easy to have values, morals and ethics. It is extremely difficult to love one another, to hold forth peace, patience, and kindness even to those who have wronged us.

In these last years we have seen a resurgence of the interface of politics and Christianity in America. We have also seen an upsurge in a spirit of violence and retaliation in the guise of justice and liberty. It has been said that ‘Christianity has been hijacked.’ And this is true (but not any more so than it has been ‘hijacked’ for almost 2,000 years).

Today we must preach gospel, stripping the myth of human violence of its inspirational power. Violence will never be an effective antidote for itself. As long as we continue to engage violence in our words, actions, political philosophies or theologies, our movies, media and art, as long as we seek retaliation we share only in the spirit of fear. Perfect love casts out fear. The antidote to violence is to ‘love one another.’ Love does not extrude, nor hate. It does not retaliate or wish vengeance on another. Love knows no hell, love has no enemies. God is love. And the Spirit we are offered in Jesus is the Spirit of love.

Christianity is at the bar but will it pass the test? Jesus stands at the door and knocks. Can we hear him? Will we answer?

A sermon thought:

This week, in Newsday, there was an example of the result of the Spirit’s giving in the death of Jesus. Two teenagers, guilty of killing a young, engaged couple as they raced their cars at nearly 140 miles an hour down a dark road. The words of forgiveness from the family are worth reading.

You can find the article by clicking here. (It will open a new window, so you won’t lose your place.)

(If you read to the end (there’s a second page) you’ll see a reference that “justice must be done.” In light of the rejection of vengeance “This isn’t about punishing you…” and the proclamations of forgiveness, I think this passage needs to be read as a recognition that choices have consequences, nothing more.)

Recommended Reading:

Anthony Bartlett Cross Purposes

J. Denny Weaver The Non-Violent Atonement

James W. Douglass The Non-Violent Cross

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

This section of this particular page is not yet completed, but will be done a few weeks before the Sunday in question. It will be the heart of the discussion, offering an anthropological (“Girardian”) reflection on the lectionary texts. It will be complemmented by the other sections, but this will be the primary material.Back to top


Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

This section of this particular page is not yet complete. In it, there will be materials pertinent to the historical/cultural setting of the texts under consideration, to the extent that they contribute to a non-violent understanding of the text. (We won’t re-hash historical/cultural materials that are well known and add nothing to the “peace” discussion.)Back to top


Epistle So What?

The “so what” section for each week will go here. Less scholarly, more reflective. In this section, we’ll try to give our answer to the questions, “Okay, that anthropological stuff is nice, but “so what?” How do I use this in a sermon? How do I relate this to my congregation’s world?”Back to top