Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
There wasn't a whole lot of social mobility in the ancient world. A lot of that was because a person's honor was the family honor. If you're born the child of someone important, you're important. If you're born the child of an outcast, you're an outcast. Your birth pretty much set your destiny, since what's possible for you was a function of who your family was.
There were some ways, though, in which you could become affiliated with a higher-status family; the best chances for social mobility (not that there were many such chances) came from these. If you were able to become enslaved to an important family, you would be considered part of the slaveowner's household; while you might be among the lower-ranking members of the household, the importance of the household might make you outrank the highest members of less important families. The closest analogy I can think of in our culture is this: who do you think would get the better table at a posh Hollywood restaurant -- the personal assistant to a studio boss, or the vacationing rector of a small, rural parish? A man enslaved to the emperor is, as a member of the imperial household, an important person, and once freed, this person is important as the emperor's freedman. The connection is permanent.
There were other ways too of joining a family. Adoption happened sometimes, even between adults. And then there were things like circumcision. Interestingly enough, there were cultures other than Jewish ones that practiced circumcision in the ancient world, and when a man from one of these other cultures (and hence who was already circumcised) converted to Judaism, the rule was that a cut would have to be made specifically so that blood was shed. Circumcision in these cases functions a little like the making of "blood brothers" among children; by the shedding of blood in the way that Abraham shed his own blood when he was circumcised, a man who was not literally a blood descendent of Abraham becomes nevertheless a son of Abraham, a child of God, part of the people of Israel. Now THAT's mobility – becoming part of God's chosen people.
In many ways, saying that anyone could join God's people by establishing a blood tie to Abraham, who was called out of Ur by God, was pretty radical. But Jesus offered something even more radical than that.
Jesus offered people the chance to become family – not the fraught, dysfunctional version of family that many of us are familiar with, but family that loves as God loves, family in which each person gives of herself or himself with abandon and never loses out, because each other member is giving in the same way – without blood shared or further blood shed. The Gospel According to Mark gets this across when Jesus, leaving his mother and brothers by blood waiting outside, says, "whoever hears the word of God and does it is my sister and my brother and my mother" (Mark 3:31-34). The Gospel According to John gets that across in this Sunday's gospel, by saying that absolutely anyone can be born from above, from the Spirit (interestingly enough, the expression "born again" doesn't appear here!), becoming sister and brother and mother to the one who has been "lifted up," and now occupies the highest place.
The blood that Jesus shed plays a very important role in this gospel, though not in the gruesome way described by some, but because it was the last blood that would ever need to be shed for us to become one human family, children of one God, loving one another as our elder brother Jesus loved and loves us. That's why in Paul's thought, to insist on circumcision is to deny the Good News of the Cross. To all division, to all denial of our connection to and obligation to care for one another, to all striving to get in God's good grace or to keep others out, Jesus says as he says of all bloodshed: IT IS FINISHED. All that is needed for new life, new hope, a new world, has been accomplished, for God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus, sent to save the world from all that divides and dehumanizes.
Thanks be to God!
Wow. That was fantastic. Up until now I have never quite made the various connections between circumcision, bloodletting, and familial structure in the Ancient World in the way that you have. Wonderfully done. This will greatly aid in the preaching of the Word on Sunday!
Posted by: RDG Stout | Feb 18, 2005 1:10:20 PM
Thanks! I'm working on my sermon for Sunday now, and I'm feeling stuck. Sunday's sermon is a special occasion, part of a year-long "Preaching/Teaching" series in the parish where I work. At various points through the year, we're offering two-part Sunday morning classes on various subjects related to the congregation's discernment of its mission, with the second Sunday of the class also including a sermon on this topic. This Sunday is the second Sunday in the Preaching/Teaching unit on scripture and how we read it, so I'm to preach a sermon about reading scripture. Here's what I'm finding hard:
I don't want to talk about how to read these texts; I want to DO a reading of these texts! They're just too interesting for me to want to do anything else.
I'm thinking of trying to do the sermon kind of like an instructed Eucharist, where you go through the service, hitting a metaphorical "pause" button at points to say, "now watch what I'm doing with my hands ... this is why we do it this way." It's a real challenge to do this kind of "instructed interpretation" within the time constraints of a sermon, though.
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Feb 19, 2005 11:56:57 AM
The connection of circumcision, bloodletting, and the cross as a means of creating the family of God is interesting. Along with that: the "birthing" images in this gospel are, I think, powerful. John 1 lets people know it is possible to become the children of God. John 3 speaks of being born from above, of water and the spirit. In the last discourse, Jesus speaks of labor pains and the joy that follows birth. But, where does this birthing happen? It's on the cross a really interesting birthing image occurs: Jesus side is pierced and blood and water flow. This has a familiar ring to it, as a pregnant woman may begin delivery with the breaking of water, a flow of blood. It's on the cross that the birthing happens -- and the creation of family does occur there, Mary and the beloved disciple are linked as son and mother. Some eucharistic liturgy recognizes this: by the baptism of your suffering and death, you gave birth to your Church ...
Posted by: Roger | Feb 19, 2005 1:41:47 PM
wow, I have to think about this. Blood brothers, circumcision, birth. That's not the way I was going with a John 3 sermon this week. I don't know.
But I really like your thoughts each week, Sarah.
Posted by: Walk | Feb 11, 2008 5:54:24 PM
Thanks for this, Dylan. It's so funny how scripture can inspire such a wide array of responses. I'm not really going in your direction this week, but I can see how yours works and the truth of it.
What has struck me has been the trust of Abram to follow God's call (from the Old Testament reading) and how that compares/contrasts with the story of Nicodemus & Jesus. The question becomes, do we trust enough to follow, with all our confusion and questions about what it means to come out of the darkness into the light?
But a family comparison does come to light for me right now (pun definitely intended). Sometimes, when I was a kid, I would have rather curled up dead on the spot than admit I was part of my own family. I think we all go through that feeling at some point, even those of us who are fortunate enough to come from fairly healthy families. But preferring to remain unconnected to your family is like preferring the darkness to the light. We're part of the family Jesus is creating, but you can't be part of it from the shadows!
Thanks again - your stuff is always thought-provoking!
Posted by: Scott | Feb 13, 2008 1:20:04 PM
Thanks for your thoughts each week.
Thanks also for this gentle reminder that blood language in the bible is not always language about sacrifice, but it is - I think - more often than not language about covenant. Then again, I think sacrifice is more connected to covenant than it is to the brutal trading of blood (life) for sin that many describe.
I recently did a bible study on 1 Peter 1 where the group and I explored the blood language in this way. It was very freeing for most of them. It also moves well into Eucharist and the words of institution in this way. I.e. Jesus didn't die to make it okay that you stole a piece of gum. The ransom comes in the covenant.
Per your previous comment about water and blood being a birthing image - I'm not sure that is what John had in mind when he wrote it. However, after being at both my boys' births I would have to say that this could very well be one of those instances where the Spirit moves beyond the bounds of our intentions! I like the connection.
Posted by: Owen | Feb 15, 2008 11:33:41 AM
Taking the Gospel with the Epistle I think you get an analogy where birth in the flesh is to birth in the spirit as law is to faith. Birth in the Flesh (being Jewish) and Law hold together as the old way that was limited, broken and judged. Birth in the Spirit and Faith -- those are a new opening, a new unfolding into a new covenant, a new age of Grace.
Nic, interestingly, finds himself in the place of Abram, being shown a new promise by God and being invited to go. But it's not what he's known, not where he's grown up, not a destination that is at all familiar.
To which Jesus says, look at the wind! You don't know where it comes from or where it's going, but you hear it here now. So it is for those who risk being born of the spirit -- they can't say exactly how the spirit has brought them to this point and certainly have no idea where it will take them, but they hear it now and trust it.
Fun blog. Thanks,
Posted by: Phil+ | Feb 16, 2008 8:49:13 PM