For Sunday May 17, 2015

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Acts 1:15–17, 21–26

Psalm 1

1 John 5:9–13

John 17:6–19

The more I contemplated the readings for this week, the more uncomfortable they made me feel. Every one of them pushed me in a direction that I didn't want to go. All four readings draw sharp boundaries between the blessed people of God and the cursed remainder of humanity.

Isn't such binary language sanctimonious and self-serving? Exclusive in the worst sense of the word? Dangerous? It goes without saying that it's politically incorrect.

I wonder — does my discomfort with this dichotomy say more about me or more about the Biblical narrative? Maybe some of both?

Consider the four readings.

St. John the Evangelist by Zampieri (1621–1629).
St. John the Evangelist by Zampieri (1621–1629).

First, there's Judas. Judas brings out the scapegoat in us. John calls him "the child of hell." John also calls his fellow Jews "children of the devil" and "Satan worshippers." Luke says that the "wicked" Judas got what he deserved. Both Luke and John say that in his perdition Judas fulfilled Scripture. These are awful things to say about someone. We wouldn't and shouldn't say such things today.

Psalm 1 describes two types of people, two ways of life, and two destinies. The wicked, the sinners, and the mockers "are like chaff / that the wind blows way." They "will not stand in the judgment." The righteous, on the other hand, delights in God's word and his ways, and so, "whatever he does prospers." Never mind that sometimes the wicked prosper, like human traffickers in Libya, and sometimes the righteous perish, as in Nepal, Yemen, and Syria.

John's epistle contrasts those who believe God, and unbelievers who "call God a liar." In short, "He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." John's sharp boundaries between the living and the dead don't allow for any middle ground.

Then, there's John's gospel with its many dichotomies. Reading John reminded me of a book by Robert Gundry with a wonderfully wordy title: Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian; A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, In North America (2002).

John the Evangelist on Patmos, 1490.
John the Evangelist on Patmos, 1490.

Gundry thinks that American evangelicalism is sick, and that what it needs is a good dose of the strongly sectarian gospel of John.

The Jesus of John, says Gundry, is unapologetically sectarian. Jesus has numerous long discourses in John, most of which are about himself. And what does he say? He's not merely a peasant preacher or renegade rabbi. No, Jesus not only speaks the word of God; he is himself the Word of God. He makes absolute and unconditional claims upon those who hear him.

In John, those who believe “get it” and understand, while unbelievers do not. John contrasts those in the light and those in the dark, believers and unbelievers, children of the Father and children of Satan. “John,” writes Gundry, “is using the antilanguage characteristic of sectarians. They define themselves over against the world, unbelievers, the nonelect. They form themselves into an antisociety that uses an antilanguage.”

John's Jesus lives at the margins of society. In John, the “world” is almost always a negative term. Jesus never eats with “sinners” like he does in the synoptics. He reveals himself to his followers but not to the world, and he even says that he prays for his followers but he does not pray for the world. This anti-worldly message demands an other-worldy life: “The one who loves his life will lose it, while the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

The church, then, ought to be "culturally engaged with the world enough to be critical rather than so culturally secluded as to be mute, morally separate from the world but not spatially cloistered from it, and unashamedly expressive of historic Christian essentials but not quarrelsome over nonessentials."

Piero di Cosimo, St. John the Evangelist, oil on panel, 1504-6, Honolulu Museum of Art, USA.
Piero di Cosimo, St. John the Evangelist, oil on panel, 1504-6, Honolulu Museum of Art, USA.

Believers are "called out" (ek-klesia) and "separated from" (hagiazo) the world. Peter calls the church "a peculiar people." Early critics derided believers as a "third race" after the "first race" (Greeks and Romans) and the "second race" (Jews). But what does this look like in practice?        

It's unclear to what extent early Christians lived in a sort of sectarian social ghetto — whether self-imposed or forced, isolated from mainstream Roman society, or the degree to which they slowly permeated the educated and professional classes. We shouldn't generalize, for it depends upon what time and place we're considering. But here are two very different snapshots.

Writing in the early third century, the Roman lawyer and Christian Minucius Felix portrays believers as on the periphery. His short work is a dialogue between the believer Octavius and the pagan critic Caecilius. Caecilius complains that Christians just aren't good citizens — he combines class snobbery with sociological insights:

"Isn't it scandalous that the [Roman] gods should be mobbed by a gang of outlawed and reckless desperadoes? They have collected from the lowest possible dregs of society the more ignorant fools together with gullible women; they have thus formed a rabble of blasphemous conspirators… They despise our temples as being no more than sepulchers, they spit after our gods, they sneer at our rites, and, fantastic though it is, our priests they pity — pitiable themselves; they scorn the purple robes of public office, though they go about in rags themselves" (8.3-4).

"You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our sacred games, from food ritually dedicated by our priests, from drink hallowed by libation poured upon our altars. Such is your dread of the very gods you deny. You do not bind your head with flowers, you do not honor your body with perfumes; ointments you reserve for funerals, but even to your tombs you deny garlands; you anemic, neurotic creatures, you indeed deserve to be pitied — but by our gods. The result is, you pitiable fools, that you have no enjoyment of life while you wait for the new life which you will never have… If you have not been privileged to understand the concerns of a citizen, you most surely have been denied discussion of the affairs of heaven" (12:5-7).

Tertullian, writing at roughly the same time, paints a different picture. He boasts that believers had quickly permeated every level of Roman society.

The Vision of Saint John (1608-1614), by El Greco.
The Vision of Saint John (1608-1614), by El Greco.

"We are only of yesterday and have filled everything you have: cities, apartment blocks, forts, towns, marketplaces, even the military camps, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the forum. We have left you only the temples." In his next chapter, he gives a different impression: "We Christians shrink from all burning desires for renown and position… there is nothing more foreign to us than affairs of state" (Apol. 37.4; 38.3).

A century after both these writers, there came a remarkable historical paradox: the greatest persecutor of the church (the Roman state) became its biggest supporter (Constantine) and the center of its ecclesiastical power (the Roman papacy).

With our ultimate "citizenship in heaven" (Philippians), believers are "resident aliens." We experience an ambivalent and divided loyalty — ultimate loyalty only to the heavenly city of God and its "politics" of self-sacrificing love, and merely penultimate loyalty to the earthly city of man.

In his classic book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 1984), Robert Wilken acknowledges that Christians responded to their critics: "There was a genuine dialogue, not simply an outpouring of abuse. The credit goes as much to the Christians as to the pagans."

But credit also goes to our critics, for in their attacks they forced believers to clarify and develop their particular way of life. Wilken concludes with advice that is as timely today as it was two millennia ago: "Christianity needed its critics and profited from them."

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