The Devil is in the Derails
In the previous section, I noted some data and reflections on the decline of my own denominational family, the ELCA. I was thinking about yet another of those interminable and unhappy conversations of which I am a part these days. I’m talking about the conversation about whether the ELCA is actually “in decline.” In my experience, that sort of talk is regarded as unhelpful, too negative, lacking hope, and downright seditious. So generally, I just keep my mouth shut.
We Americans have lived for over two centuries in a culture of official optimism. This culture is based on several inter-related narratives. The first of these narratives is that of American exceptionalism. From the Puritan errand into the wilderness and the shining city on a hill to the red MAGA hats of today, we live in a culture that believes we are the best, the first, the greatest, and always the winners. That’s true, not because of anything we’ve actually done, but simply due to our exceptional character as a people.
That narrative infects all American churches to one degree or another. It feeds our myth of continual progress. Whether as individuals or as a nation, every day and in every way, we are getting better and better, we say. Reports to the contrary are discounted and/or attacked as negative thinking or just plain false. We live with a triumphalist narrative. And we embrace the myth of redemptive violence – the belief that violence committed in the name of exceptionalism is not only justified but produces divinely desired results.
You can read in detail about the out-workings of these myths and narratives in Charles and Rah’s excellent book, Unsettling Truths, and Du Mez’s award winning historical analysis, Jesus and John Wayne. In different ways, they make the point that these myths are all in the service of the controlling myth in our officially optimistic culture, the myth of white, male, supremacy.
It is that myth which informs and underwrites the nature of our American ecclesiology and how we have trained mainline pastors during the “Age of Association.” I refer you to the previous section for that discussion. Willie James Jennings, in After Whiteness, puts it this way.
“White self-sufficient masculinity is the quintessential image of an educated person, an image deeply embedded in the collective psyche of Western education and theological education, flexible enough to capture and persuade any and all persons so formed to yield to it” (Kindle Location 548). This image has shaped how we do church for longer than any of us can remember. “The heart of our troubles is also the way these concepts prepare us for a gathering governed by whiteness and the protocols aimed at its performance of control, possession, and mastery” (Kindle Location 2109).
The problems we face in the White American churches are much worse than we are being led to believe. Technical fixes won’t do the job. Reorganization won’t do the job. Reshuffling the deck chairs on the denominational Titanic won’t do the job. And the people who point out that nothing less than white repentance and reparation must precede reconciliation and renewal end up on the outside looking in.
So, the end of the Bread of Life Discourse is a tract for our time. Just when we thought we might get out of this Discourse with a happy ending, things go from bad to worse. Peter speaks, he thinks, for the Twelve: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69, my translation).
Now is the time to turn to the audience and announce, “And they all lived happily ever after. The End.” Karoline Lewis notes that Peter gets it right for once. “Peter’s answer serves to summarize the entire discourse and thereby the meaning of the sign itself,” she writes. “Who else but Jesus is the source of eternal life?” (Page 101). But that’s not the end.
There is no blessing on Peter as the recipient of a Divine revelation of the truth, as we find in Matthew. Nor is there the Big Screw-up that at least justifies Jesus in calling someone Satan. Peter gets the right answer, and Jesus explodes another bombshell. “Jesus replied to them, ‘Didn’t I select you, the Twelve, and [yet] one of you is the Devil?’ He was speaking about Judas, Simon Iscariot; for this one – one of the Twelve—intended to hand him over” (John 6:70-71, my translation).
It’s no wonder the lectionary folks end the appointed reading with verse 69. Who wants to clean up the discipleship disaster Jesus leaves at the end of the Discourse? But, as they say, that’s why we get the big money.
Lewis encourages us to take on this hermeneutical challenge because it really stands behind the Bread of Life Discourse as a whole. She points to the fact that “choice” is a major emphasis here at the end of the Discourse. She argues “that those who encounter Jesus are put in a position of choice, a position of crisis, decision, and therefore judgment. Even though Jesus chooses Judas,” Lewis suggests, “Judas must still choose Jesus” (page 102).
Judas, as they say in Indiana-Jones-speak, chose poorly. “For the Fourth Gospel,” Lewis concludes, “encountering God in the Word made flesh, Jesus, is a crisis moment” (page 102). She describes how the crisis was acute in the community of the Fourth gospel and thus why it is so central in this account. “How do they make sense of those who have not chosen to follow Jesus,” she asks, “who do not recognize who Jesus is, especially those closest to them, friends, family members?” (Page 102).
We should note that this theme will continue in the first paragraph of chapter 7, when Jesus’ brothers have some real issues with his campaign strategy. That narrative flow certainly supports Lewis’ assessment of what is happening here at the end of the Discourse. In spite of Peter’s protest of passionate commitment, at least one of the Twelve will leave. In fact, when push comes to shove, all but one of them (in John’s account) will head for the hills.
The NRSV, among other translations, renders John 6:60 as “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil’” (my emphasis). Daniel Wallace spends some time on the article in question here. He argues that for grammatical reasons the translation should certainly be “The” Devil rather than “a” devil.
The word for “Devil” in Greek is a “monadic,” that is, one of a kind term. There is one, and only one, Devil. While Judas is not himself The Prince of Darkness in the literal sense, he is the “incarnation” of the Devil in the midst of the Twelve in a sense that parallels to a small degree Jesus as the Incarnation of the Divine in the cosmos. The term “Devil” is stronger than “demon” or even “Satan.” A demon may represent the powers of darkness but is a minor character. Satan is the Adversary but has a somewhat positive role in certain Hebrew scriptures.
The Devil is the one who throws an alternative reign against the rule of God that Jesus brings. This is as bad as it can get. And the Enemy lives right in the camp of the good guys. But which one is really the Enemy in this little drama? That is, perhaps, part of the irony of the Johannine account at this point.
Before we get too far into the darkness of Judas’ heart, let’s return to the narrative of the Gospel account. Thatcher describes how the characters of Judas and Peter help to show what belief and unbelief look like for the community of John’s gospel. But it’s not that Peter is “belief” and Judas is “unbelief.” They are really different flavors of the same dish.
Peter represents a perspective that seeks to “comfort” Jesus and to exercise some control over him. Judas is presented here “as the epitome of the general rejection that had just occurred” (page 441). Even those at the very center of the Johannine community were in danger of abandoning Jesus when things got difficult. The community is in danger of derailment in either case.
The Word has become flesh and dwells among us. But his own do not receive him. Therefore, we travel with the Word through life, into death, on to resurrection and finally to ascension with the Father. All of that happens in the here and now and is fulfilled in the Age to Come. We live between the times and must always be in the process of being born from above. We are invited to chew on Jesus as the source of Abundant Life, in a cosmos that offers nothing but the food of death.
We may get tossed out on our ear in the process. We will certainly suffer and struggle. But Jesus promises to abide with us no matter what. Will we embrace those words of eternal life and abide in them no matter how bad it gets?
Resources and Reference
Jennings, Willie James. After Whiteness (Theological Education between the Times). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Matera, Frank J. “Christ in the Theologies of Paul and John: A Study in the Diverse Unity of New Testament Theology.” Theological Studies 67 (2006): pp. 237-256. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/67/67.2/67.2.1.pdf.
Sprunt Lecture Series youtube.com playlist — https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLq1zKD6DFrpTHqt1_QA6hcSWLRADAWrJe.
Thatcher, Tom. “Jesus, Judas, and Peter: Character by Contrast in the Fourth Gospel.” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (October-December 1996) 435-48.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Zscheile, Dwight. “From the Age of Association to Authenticity.” https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/from-the-age-of-association-to-authenticity/?fbclid=IwAR2bhFD6AZxnu9dmBbrU6puAYCWz79M4QhN9SV7cPtn0iRNZUvz0F2balJ4.