This Sundy’s sermon is for Easter 6B, and the lections are 1 John 5:1-6, Revelation 20, and John 15:9-17. This is my first draft, and I’m working a little ahead, since I will be away most of the week for the Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity conference in Washington, DC. I’m following a little bit of a series: Easter 4B (“Good Shepherd Sunday,” as it’s known to some) was a Girardian reading of the 23rd Psalm, the sermon was titled “The Sheep as Victim.” This morning’s sermon for Easter 5B was on John 15:1-8 (the beginning of the “abide in me” discourse) and the Acts 8 story of the conversion of the Eunuch, titled “What is Cut Off from the Eunuch.” The theme is following the Girardian teaching of the voluntary vicitimization of Christ being the logical exit out of systems of vicitimization.
Jesus says “You do not choose me, I have chosen you.” This might sound all well and good, but we hear Jesus say this, and we can contrast it to the image of God separating the good from the bad at the end of time in Revelation 20. So which is it—God chooses all of us, or we choose the ways of God?
Is this question not at the heart of all of the controversies surrounding mainline Protestant Christianity right now? Two weeks ago the United Methodists at their General Conference were debating a resolution acknowledging the deep divisions in the church, stating that the church can be faithful in disagreement over human sexuality. Right before the vote was taken an African delegate stood up and likened gays to those who practice bestiality; and then the denomination voted against the resolution stating that there is division in the church.
At the heart of this matter is the heart of every social issue that the church has faced—whether it is a matter of sexuality, or of popular culture, or of alcoholism, or of child labor, or slavery. We have on one hand Jesus saying that God loves everyone whether they choose to love God back, and on the other hand, we have John of Patmos giving the vision of the end times that has been entrenched in our popular thinking of the apocalypse: the true followers go one way to be with God for eternity, and the rest go to Hell to be punished for an eternity. Both are in the Bible, and nearly every social issue comes down to it: Is Christianity a religion of radical love and acceptance, or is it a religion of judgment for not walking the straight and narrow?
And in asking this question we know that in the United Church of Christ, along with other mainline Protestant churches, we like to side with the Christianity of radical love and acceptance, and deny the religion of judgment—because the religion of judgment is not “nice” and is not politically correct. And a lot of us come into the United Church of Christ retreating from the Christianity of judgment, and many of us clearly understand the problem with the Christianity of judgment: there comes a point where many churches are so judgmental that all that’s left of the church are a few families who are intermarried and interrelated.
While thinking about our Gospel reading—where Jesus says, you don’t choose me, I choose you—I kept thinking of the classic episode of The Simpsons where it’s Valentine’s Day at Springfield Elementary School, and everyone gets a Valentine, except for little Ralph Wiggum. Lisa Simpson feels bad for Ralph, and she gives him one of those cheap school-children’s valentines with a picture of a train that says “I choo-choo-choose you.” Lisa thinks she did a good deed and moves on with the rest of her day.
But Ralph, who only got one valentine, becomes obsessed with Lisa, believing that the valentine saying “I choo-choo-choose you” was a statement of undying love. Lisa tries not to break his heart, until she can’t take it anymore and then blows up at him on a national television show.
Bart Simpson later recounts the event by playing a recording of the show in slow-motion, saying while watching the show frame-by-frame: “You can actually pinpoint the second his heart breaks in half!”
When children exchange valentines, it’s not really a game of winners or losers, everybody wins. Kind of like in little league sports where everyone gets a trophy. But we know this is not really the way of the world, even if we try to create systems where our children don’t learn the ways of the world just yet. But the fact is that by shielding the world from children, or from ourselves, we create a situation where we don’t really understand the world, and we just pretend that the world is something it is not. When God takes on flesh as Jesus, Jesus enters the game of life as a loser—not as a winner. For Jesus to say, you don’t choose me, I choose you, is to consider picking teams. If you’re playing basketball, you might pick Jesus to be on your team because he’s tall, or because he’s fast, or perhaps the Son of God knows how to ball, but very often we choose Jesus to be on our team because we’re told to, or out of a sense of obligation.
The fact is that Jesus is on the side of the losers. Jesus doesn’t want chosen out of a sense of sympathy or obligation: we might think we choose Jesus when we choose Jesus. To the contrary, Jesus chooses us to be on his losing team. The Book of Revelation seems to make sense from this perspective, that the losers of this world will end up being the winners of the next world or the life that is to come. I don’t think that John of Patmos really wrote down these words out of a sense of justification that the real losers are the winners now, but instead I think that his images are really about the urgency of the situation of the game of winners and losers. Very often our winners complain about the burdens of winning too much. Very often the winners believe that they’ve hit a triple, when they were really born on third base. It’s not uncommon that the winners of the game chalk their success up to hard work when the luck of the draw or circumstances already established set the stage for their success. The losers are told to keep trying to win a game they cannot, and the losers are instructed that they’re not working enough or paying their fair share of the winnings. In Christ we find not just the ultimate loser of the game, but the ultimate victim of the game—willing to lay down his life for his friends.
Our reading from 1 John says that Jesus comes with water and blood. With our common and shared baptism we become one in the victimhood of Jesus, with his blood shed as the victim to render the rules of the game of life to be irrelevant. If the board of the game of life has you down as the loser with Jesus, his blood washes over the hard, straight edges of the board game and into a way of living that is liberating, boundless, and bottomless. The eternity of salvation is an awesome idea—but is one that is without structure, without rules, without dice to roll.
1 John teaches that “this is the victory that conquerors the world, our faith”—note that our faith, our faith as victims, rules the world, and not some sense of the power of religion over other victims. Conquering the world is not to victimize those who victimized you, or to turn the table on the winners, but to step off of the board completely. We, as losers, protest the game by bleeding off of it with the water and blood of Christ. Jesus says that “I no longer call you servants” because the notion of servitude and slavery no longer applies in this New Creation that Christ offers. “I do not call you servants because the servant does not know what the Master is doing…. I give you these commandments so that you may love one another.”
Haven’t we been in situations with friends or families, where we just wished we could put down the old tired arguments of the past and get along? With this being Mother’s Day, I believe that this is the prayer of many mothers: that the feuding just stop. That bygones be bygones. Or have we experienced a time when people were so mad at each other that they couldn’t even look at each other, and then some radical act of forgiveness occurs, and it is as if nothing ever happened, and everyone around the situation can sigh a big sigh of relief? Or when people reconcile and forgive because their feud and disagreement is involving more than just them, but the entire family and a community? This is what I believe the path of righteousness is to follow Jesus.
If the argument or feud is a board game, often about something as simple as a misunderstood valentine, Jesus leads us a path to slip off of the board and into a way of life that makes mothers proud of their families. But just as Jesus offers it to us, and it is ours whether we want it or not, the decision is ours of whether we will do the work, even when the work is hard and requires us to be humble, of following the flow of Jesus’ blood, right off of the board of the board game.