Gospel: John 15:9-17
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I 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. 16You 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. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Gods are the enemy. The gods created humans to make their food and do the dirty work of the world.1 The sacred is the place of danger; the place where the god might lash out.2 Put a leg rope on the priest, for it is too dangerous to enter near to God; this legend reveals our fears.3 Gods require blood. This week we read news of 140 children apparently sacrificed on the one day.
It is thought the children were sacrificed as floods caused by the El Nino weather pattern ravaged the Peruvian coastline.
"They were possibly offering the gods the most important thing they had as a society, and the most important thing is children because they represent the future," said Gabriel Prieto, an archaeology professor at Peru's National University of Trujillo, who has led the excavation along with John Verano of Tulane University.
"Until now, the largest incident of mass child sacrifice was believed to have occurred in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán - modern-day Mexico City - where 42 children's bodies had been discovered."
We love and serve the gods so that things will go well with us and the gods will favour us or, at least, leave us alone. We give life for the gods. We still do this. As we struggle with the end of economic good times, and the ascent of the frightened rich in this country, we are only too happy to sacrifice the children. 43 children remain in the tabernacles of Nauru, scapegoats for those who hope to buy off the gods of the current day.4
Photo: Children in Australia's Concentration Camp on Nauru. Amnesty International
13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I 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. (Jesus in John 15, although note the word δούλους, translated as friend, can also be translated as slave.)
In John 15 we see that the sacrifice, the violence against human life in order to appease the god, is fundamentally reimagined. Jesus, the sacred figure who is both king5 and sacrifice6, who is always at risk of being the lightning rod of the god's rage,7 who is in the role of the one who we both reverence and fear, loves us. He lays down his own life. It is not taken from him.8 His followers are not his slaves; they are his friends. It seems harsh to translate Jesus' servants as slaves in this reading, but the position of a servant with respect to the master was always ambiguous, and a place of danger.
This change had been a long time coming, hinted at, but hardly heard.
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6)
God had placed a rainbow in the sky as promise he would never again destroy all flesh.9 The world was created good.10 Just as the Babylonian mythologies of the hostility of the gods were rewritten in Genesis,11 child sacrifice was attacked in the story of Isaac and Abraham,12 and forbidden in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.13
But we are always ambivalent. Uzzah is struck down on the spot, in 1 Samuel 6, for steadying the ark in case it fell. Job's family is wiped out because God is in a bragging contest with Satan, even though Job
would rise early in the morning and offer burnt-offerings according to the number of [his children]; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did. (Job 1:5)
And people who are sick tell me "God is dealing with me." God still regularly punishes us with hurricanes and earthquakes,14 and in many places, holds hell over us. These walls were painted only in the 1930s and hang over the preaching of the love of God each Sunday!
St Mary's Church, Bairnsdale
There is something buried deep in our psyche here. There is a shadow side to our relief that God saved us from the plane crash, for the same crash killed dozens of others. We judge those who are ill-fortuned; there must be a reason. We look for reasons to blame those whose children are astray. How often is it hinted, or said out loud, that the ways of God were not respected? We touch wood; we cannot believe the gods will not extract a price for our relative peace, let alone good fortune. We turn on the famous if they fail us.15
I often take a nap on a church pew in the time between bible study, and the church council which comes late in the afternoon. I lie on my back and contemplate the high arches of the church and the filtered light of the place. It is peaceful, and set apart. The noise of the highway is muted. But it is not a sacred place. When I look to the front of the church, it is empty.
We have made it so— Jesus, and initially by accident, us. We have placed a couple of potted plants to break the starkness of the empty place where the altar once stood. The altar has been pulled down onto the floor of the church so that even those in a wheel chair may gather around the table for communion. When we are not present, there is nothing there. The sacred has been removed.
At communion we wait for everyone to come to the front. This can take time; walkers are clumsy and slow when you must navigate between pews, and there are also some of us who should be on walkers, but won't use them. Those who cannot stand sit at table in the front pew. I go up into the pews to invite visitors to join us. If they demur, I encourage them to stand with us as friends and honoured guests; you don't have to take the communion, but be together with us, I say. Some folk are able, some choose to stay in the pew.
We are Protestants who don't know quite who we are; there is a chalice and there are small glasses. We drink from the glasses, and as the elder is taking the tray around the circle, I take the chalice to someone who is in need, or who is an honoured guest. We eat, and we drink together. It is the best time.
But it is not sacred, and we are not scared. We are friends. For all that we gather to worship God, there is a profound levelling of the table. God's love is not high, nor stern, and never ambivalent. We are learning that as we leave the table, the love of God goes with us. Not as some charm or aura. Rather, we remain within the blessing of the table as much as we take our table manners with us.
I remain in that love out in the kitchen and hall, or in the debate of a council meeting, about as much as I continue to honour the person I honoured in communion. As much as I fall back into irritation, criticism, or complaint, which forgets they are above all my friend for whom Jesus also laid down his life, just so much do I step out of God's love. God does not punish; God loves. God never ceases to love; instead, I step out of the love. The love is constant. God's love is, and always has been. There is nothing I can do to gain it. It is all mine.
The gods command. Jesus does not command. "This is my commandment" is contrast, not command. Jesus invites us to friendship.
I wonder if the child Samuel was left to sleep "in the temple of the Lord" precisely because he was a child, and Eli felt the sacred place unsafe. Certainly, the young man to whom I offered the padded pews in the air-conditioned church of a Tennant Creek heatwave, visibly flinched at the thought of sleeping there, and chose to sleep on the concrete floor of the hot hall. I sleep in the church, and consider that a profound blessing.
Andrew Prior (2018)
There is one other point about the Enuma Elish which needs special mention. The tablet containing this part of the story is damaged, but it seems the gods complained they had too much work to do. So Marduk created human beings to "free the gods from menial labour" (Sarna The Meaning of Genesis pp1-4) and made the first human being from the blood of Tiamat's second husband, Kingu. We are born of violence in the Enuma Elish. We are born for servitude in the Enuma Elish.
Now to the first chapter Genesis which, we will see, has a vastly different understanding of reality. Andrew Prior
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ 20Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’22Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’
47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place* and our nation.’ 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Also John 18:10- 14:
10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’
12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
It fascinates me that Malchus, whose ear was cut off, has a name which means King. "The king reigns only by virtue of his future death," writes Girard. "He is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed." Gil Bailie. Does this slicing off of the ear prefigure the death of the king? Is it telling us that the king is scarred by the mutilation of his ear, yet ultimately returns? King-Malchus is intimately involved in an event seen by many as the absolute forbidding of violence by Jesus. Wolfgang Palavar says in Rene Girard's Mimetic Theory, Chapter 6:
According to Girard, this reverence for the future victims of ritual sacrifice is central to the rise of kingship: "The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed" (Violence and the Sacred, 107). If the victim, before its sacrificial death, is able to transform the community's veneration into real political power, we are confronted with the beginnings of kingship, or rather, in even more general terms, the beginnings of central political power. The stronger this power can develop, the longer the king's eventual sacrifice is delayed. Kingship is rooted in the reverence the community shows the victim during the "lapse of time before the sacrifice" (Things Hidden, 53), which is then transformed into political influence. This power can become so pronounced that ultimately, it is not the victim who is sacrificed, but rather a substitute, any arbitrary victim close to him. [I always think of the Prime Minister offering up a Cabinet Minister to the baying press!] The more the king is able to resolve conflict within the community and keep internal rivalries in check, the less his sacrifice— or that of the surrogate— is necessary. The element of sacrifice is marginalised until it disappears completely, giving rise to a form of political sovereignty that shrouds the connection to the scapegoat mechanism and is responsible for our intuitive scepticism with regard to the connection between ritual sacrifice and kingship.
17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Remembering the complaint of violence in 6:12, von Rad wrote
The Hebrew word that we translate as "rainbow" usually means in the Old Testament "the bow of war." The beauty of the ancient conception thus becomes apparent: God shows the world that he (sic) has put aside his bow. (pp134)
In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes (The Symbolism of Evil, Harper Collins 1967), order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolised by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.
Genesis is not the story of people who projected themselves onto the notion of a primitive and violent god. It is the story of a people gradually discovering a just, faithful, merciful God in a world where the gods were known for being gratuitous and capricious, faithless, and merciless.
The next article, The Flood – A first reading , shows some of the change within Israel. I say that God changes during the story of Noah, which reflects a change in the apprehensions of God's people:
God has a change of heart
Something in God changes. God makes peace with us.
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
22 As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.’
It's not that people will no longer held responsible for their actions, but that the ground is not cursed because of us. There will be no more floods like this one. The statement reads as much as a mercy to the creation which suffered because of humankind, as it is towards humankind itself! It puts us in our place. We are simply one player rather than the centre of the world.
The echo of this particular ritual substitution is alive and well, with recent history confirming the close connection remaining between celebrity, leadership and the proneness of such widely envied persons to be made victims. Hence a whiff of the ancient sacred, in all its terror and wonder, is retained.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The 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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also at One Mans Web
The Grapevine in the Best Marigold Hotel (2015)
John 15:9-17 - The Butler Did It (2012)
John 15:12-16:15 - Pentecost for Poddlers (2012)
John 15:9-17 - The smelly side of love (2009)
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