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The Purloined Kingdom



OT: 2 Kings 6:15-17

NT: Luke 17:20-21

Text: Thomas saying 5: "Jesus said: Know what is in thy sight, and what is hidden from thee will be revealed to thee. For there is nothing hidden which will not be manifest."

Many of the sayings of Jesus are riddles. Jesus seems to have known that any truth he might simply tell you would not do you as much good as some truth you might come to by your own efforts. In this he was like Socrates who sought to coax his hearers to produce the truth from within themselves. That's where it was, if they would only realize it. As Tillich said, our problem is not that we are strangers to the truth, and so must be introduced to the truth from without, by someone else. No, our problem is that we have somehow become estranged from some truth that we really know, deep down. So we need someone to jog our memory, to prompt us to put two and two together. And so Jesus lets fly one of his sayings, followed after a pause with an implicit "Get it?"

Thomas, saying 5 is one such saying. It assumes we are curious about some great mystery. There is some blank we want very much to fill in, and so we look for a way to get the information. Where to find it? Say, isn't Jesus Christ a heavenly revealer? Why not go ask him?" Jesus the answer man. But he will not be cast in such a role, no matter how much traditional Christian theology may wish to portray him. Theologians approach him with questions, but he answers them with more questions. And so here.

He seems to be saying that the mystery is not what or where you think it is. In fact, something only seems to be mysterious to you because you are failing to grasp something obvious. If you can figure out A, then Z becomes B, it falls right into line. Your problem is that you think you understand the basics, but you don't. And that is why something else seems so complicated. It wouldn't if you'd got off on the right foot at step one.

Recently I had an inexplicable malfunction on my fax machine. The machine is built to send me a printout self-diagnosis, but it couldn't give me a clue. I felt the headache coming on. What on earth could be wrong? No doubt some glitch in the dilithium microsubprocessors that I could never find in a million years. And then I discovered that the phone jack had slipped out of the socket. That was it. We ignore the simple thing before our nose and go on a great quest, a wild goose chase.

The disciples are all set to go on a safari for the mysterious truth. And Jesus tells them, save your trouble. What you're looking for is right at your feet. Don't you see it?

"Know what is in thy sight, and what is hidden shall be revealed to thee." Because it is what is in your sight that is hidden in the first place. Somehow you do not see it.

As I read this saying last week, I thought immediately of Poe's tale, "The Purloined Letter." Had Poe known the Gospel of Thomas, he might have used the fifth saying as an epigram, because it is a perfect summation of the premise of the story. Perhaps you know it. It is one of the three adventures of Poe's pre-Sherlockian Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin.

One day the frustrated Prefect of the Paris police knocks on Dupin's door and tells how he and his men have been searching for months for a stolen letter, all without success. It seems that the Queen had received some sort of love letter from a secret admirer and had hastily stashed it on her desk when the King came in. While his majesty did not notice the letter, soon a conniving government minister entered and did readily recognize the letter and what it meant. He managed to pocket it in plain sight of the Queen who however dared not say anything lest the King be alerted to her indiscretion.

The minister kept the letter to blackmail the Queen into favoring his policies. The Queen set the police on the trail of the minister to retrieve the letter as discretely as possible. They have made nightly searches of the minister's apartment, but to no avail. Every imaginable hiding place has been scrutinized with utmost care, but nothing.

Eventually Dupin saves the day, reasoning that the minister, a clever rogue of his acquaintance, would have anticipated the secret searches and outwitted the police by "hiding" the letter out in plain sight in a letter rack on the mantel. No one thought to look there!

This particular story has attracted a lot of critical attention. This week I have read Jacques Lacan's "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'," then Jacques Derrida's critique of Lacan, "The Purveyor of Truth," and, finally, Barbara Johnson's mediation of their debate, "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida." I won't try your patience with the whole agenda of the debate, but here is something significant I got out of it.

All the critics agree that in Poe's story the stolen letter functions as a symbol for communication in general. Every message, whether oral or written, is like a letter sent from sender to receiver. And just as the Queen's letter was stolen, and finally stolen again from the thief, every communication of ours is liable to go astray, to miscommunicate our meaning. A caricature of our words may return to haunt us. Our words may come to the ears of others whom we did not intend to hear them, and what was meant innocently becomes problematic. Every communication of ours may be misconstrued, its meaning lost in echoes.

And even when deprived of any particular meaning, the mere fact of the letter, of the thing having been said, is powerful and continues to make waves, as when Alexander Haig was embarrassed and discredited after the near assassination of President Reagan. He said, "I'm in control here in the White House," but the media did not hear the last few words and leaped to the conclusion that Haig was power-mad and had leapfrogged the whole line of succession. By the time they realized they were wrong, the damage had been done. Meaning had strayed; Haig's letter had been purloined.

Reading "The Purloined Letter," I could not help but think of another letter, the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. This was the passage that came to mind: "Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit (i.e., by a prophecy) or by word (i.e., oracle), or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the Day of the Lord has come" (2:1-2).

There are a few places in the Pauline corpus where he mentions some lost letter. This makes New Testament scholars drool: a lost letter by Paul! Or in this case perhaps an early pseudo-Pauline forgery! Scarcely less intriguing! What is this letter? What happened to it? If only we might see it! What a mystery! Except that the mystery might well dissolve if we noticed something right in front of us. For more than likely the "lost" letter is simply First Thessalonians!

It might be that First Thessalonians, which does seem to say that the coming of the Lord is immediately at hand, is a forgery which this letter means to correct. Or maybe it is Second Thessalonians which is a forgery trying to undo the damage caused by First Thessalonians, which like Harold Camping, had catastrophically disappointed people with a premature expectation of the Second Coming. Or maybe both letters are genuine, but Paul had not meant to say the Second Coming was quite that imminent, and he regrets that his letter had been misread.

In the few verses after those we just read in the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul lists the signs of the oncoming end, just to show that, since some of them haven't transpired yet, the apocalypse can't be expected immediately. One of these is the rise of the "son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, pretending to be God."

This thumbnail portrait of the Antichrist was derived from the attempt of the Emperor Caligula to install a divine image of himself to be worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple. You may be interested to know what happened next. When this plan was announced, the Jews sent an embassy to Petronius, the Roman legate in Palestine. They threatened an agricultural strike, martyrdom if necessary. Petronius realized how high the stakes were, so he sent a letter to Caligula, asking him not to send the statue. Caligula received it, didn't like it, and promptly dispatched a letter ordering Petronius to kill himself. The letter went on its way, but while it was in transit, Caligula himself died! This news, too, was sent to Petronius. Which letter would reach him first? The order to commit suicide, which as a loyal Roman he would have obeyed? Or the letter that would nullify the order to kill himself?

Petronius owed his life to the fortuitous circumstance that the news of Caligula's death arrived first! His life had been saved by the purloining, the prolonging of the delivery, of the first letter! So the meandering, the straying of meaning, may be saving grace. The unpredictable dissemination of meaning may be the chance mutation that allows survival.

In any case, First Thessalonians turns out to be the Purloined Epistle mentioned in Second Thessalonians. "Purloined," as Lacan points out, derives from the same root as "prolonged" and implies the letter has gone astray before finally reaching its intended destination. And this is what happens, or at least what can too easily happen, in all of our attempts to communicate. Paul had tried to communicate the hope of an early Coming of Christ, but that promise was delayed, prolonged, purloined, and so the letter in which he said it became a purloined letter.

Indeed, at this point it occurred to me that all of Paul's Epistles are purloined letters (and so is the rest of the Bible). Why? Because you and I, and all Christians of the twentieth century, are reading these documents which were addressed to the concerns of people long dead. 1 Corinthians was written to the Corinthian church of the first century, not to a Montclair Baptist church in the twentieth. They have somehow become misrouted in the meantime! Whenever somebody in the early church collected these letters of Paul from the churches he had originally sent them to, he rerouted the letters. Ever since then, we have been reading somebody else's mail.

And that's where hermeneutics, the whole science of Bible interpretation, comes in. We need rules, as if there could be any, for redirecting a writer's words written for others, as if they were addressed to us. It's a pretty tricky business, full of ambiguity. And yet worthwhile. For no one would deny that we can eavesdrop on Paul's letter to Corinth and pick up some valuable pointers. But in the last analysis, that's what we're doing: reading somebody else's mail.

I think it is significant that Islamic theologians deny that a letter could properly be considered scripture, since a letter is a word from one human being to another, not a word of God to humanity. I appreciate their insight that any word from God that we overhear must be very oblique, and the lessons we draw from it must be very tenuous. We simply have no business citing these texts as the conclusion of an argument, as a theological trump card. Paul wasn't trying to referee the particular game we are playing in the 20th century. He was in the first-century arena.

So we have to be charitable in our interpretations of the Bible. Since mine is no less an indirect inference than yours, I had better listen to yours as seriously as I want you to take mine. Since we are both siphoning off meaning unintended for us, we had better be careful about it and not accuse each other of purloining Paul's letters too quickly, because that sword cuts both ways.

Paul's meaning was derailed, misrouted insofar as the Thessalonians mistook his meaning. And his meaning was something about the coming of Christ, the advent of the Kingdom of God. And the confusion comes from the fact that that kingdom itself has been purloined, prolonged in its appearing. Lost somewhere along the way. 19 centuries later, still it is as far from realization as ever--as Harold Camping proved again only this past week.

And this brings me, after a long process of rerouting, following back alleys through the text, digressions, side roads in the sermon, to another text in Thomas, saying 113: "His disciples said to him: When will the Kingdom come? Jesus said: It will not come by expectation; they will not say: See, here, or See, there. But the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it."

This one might almost be a commentary on the fifth saying, with which we began. The disciples are scanning the horizon for the distant appearance of the Kingdom of God. It is a great mystery, or so they think. They ask Jesus for some clue to know when the Kingdom will come. But Jesus says there is no mystery such as they seek to solve. The Kingdom has in fact already appeared. It is right before their eyes if only they will open their eyes and see it. When will it come? Nonsense! It has always been here! When are you going to start recognizing it? That's the real question.

Another point made in the Lacan/Derrida/Johnson discussion of "The Purloined Letter" is that the stolen letter functions both as a signifier and as something signified. That is, as a written letter, it says something about a state of affairs, specifically an affair of state, namely that the Queen is having an affair that will, if discovered, shake the stability of the state. The letter says something about something other than itself. So it signifies.

But once the crafty government minister recognizes precisely what the letter signifies, and purloins it, the letter itself becomes significant, an object of inquiry. The police search madly for it because it has come to meaning something in and of itself. It has become a powerful weapon. It is a signified thing in itself, whatever the text of the letter specifically says. The police are scouring the place for any sign of it.

And in just the same way, the disciples of Jesus regard the Kingdom of God as something signified. They ask for the signs that will signal its approaching. That, they think, is the mystery. They, and the whole Christian church, has sought for the Kingdom as fervently as the Prefect of the Paris police sought for that letter in every mysterious place he could think of to look. Harold Camping looked all over the Bible for clues to the mystery. But like the Parisian police, he had wasted his time.

What Jesus says, by contrast, is that the Kingdom of the Father is not that to which signs point. It is not some final meaning to be revealed. What no one suspected was that the Kingdom was itself a signifier. A sign pointing to something else. In fact, pointing to everything else! As the Upanishads say, neti, neti: not this, not that. The Ultimate is not any one particular thing, but everything. The Kingdom is spread out all over the earth--and men do not see it! They can't see the forest for the trees! They see all the finite things, but not the infinite sum of them. Schleiermacher understood the Redeemer's God-consciousness right well: it is "a sense and taste for the Infinite."

The Buddhists grasped it, too. Where do you go to find Nirvana, the unknown world of peace and eternal bliss? Do you retreat from this world to find it, as if there were some other world to take refuge in? No, you just learn to recognize that this weary world is Nirvana, once you open your eyes, once you stop expecting the world to be something other than the Kingdom of the Father.

How else can Jesus say you will see his face in the face of the least of his brethren? How else is it possible to look at bread and wine on the communion table and suddenly see there the body and blood of Christ? "If you will know what is in your sight, then what is hidden from you will be revealed to you."

Have you ever heard the truism, which is nonetheless true despite being an "ism," that life will be negative if you approach it negatively, but positive if you approach it positively? The world will be for you the kingdom of God if you expect to see it that way.

The suffering of yourself and of others will be revealed as the crucifixion of the Son of Man. I think Rosemary Guenther knew that. The continuance of your heartbeat from one fragile moment to the next will be recognized as the merciful providence of God. I think Ray Tucker sees that now. The extra strength, the second wind in your moment of extremity will be seen as the grace of God. Linda Chappell knows that from experience, I dare say. The afternoon of boredom will become an epiphany of easy grace and the blessed space of freedom. I hope Martha Lewis sees that. It is already as plain as a city set on a hill, a light that suffuses the whole earth.

Jesus bids us to blink away the blinding scales and to open our eyes to the second sight of Elisha, of Isaiah, who in one moment saw nothing but an empty temple and in the next beheld the flaming seraphs who sang: "Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" 




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