Easter 5C: “Marco…Polo!”
By: The Rev. David Clifford
As the weather is getting warmer, I am reminded of my childhood and playing during the summer. One of the many activities that we enjoyed throughout the summer was swimming. I remember playing Marco Polo in the pool. I doubt this particular game has anything to do with the Italian merchant and explorer. I think it was just a cool name that sounded fun in call and response. The basic rules of the game were that one person closed their eyes and waded around in the water shouting “Marco” while the others attempted to avoid Marco, yet were required to shout “Polo” in response to Marco’s call.
As we got older and more competitive, we began to find new ways to avoid Marco. We began to learn new rules to go along with the general principle. One such additional rule was known as “fish out of water.” This applied to any of the Polo shouters that would get out of the pool to avoid being tagged. If Marco shouted “fish out of water” and you were out of water, you then became Marco.
Our text from John’s Gospel left me shouting “fish out of water” at Jesus. Many people focus upon the second half of this particular text and the love covenant. This is important. Many argue that this love ethic is the defining ethic for the Johannine community. However, I was struck by Jesus’ statement in verse 33: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”
It is at this point that I find myself shouting, “Fish out of water! Fish out of water!” We may find ourselves asking some of the same questions that Simon Peter asked in the verses following our text: “Lord, where are you going?” and “why can I not follow you?” (verses 36 and 37). If you are like me, you may find yourself wading in the pool, with your eyes closed shouting, “Marco,” yet hearing no “Polo” in return.
Our passage begins with Jesus pointing out the glory of God. This is about as accessible as Kierkegaard’s definition of the self: “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” In verses 31 and 32, Jesus declares in a somewhat similar fashion, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”
The Greek for “glorified” in this particular passage is doxazo. The Hebrew for such glory is kabod. Kabod is the Hebrew that is used when Moses finds himself in the presence of God throughout the Exodus journey. The glory of God, in this respect, could mean the presence of God among us. It is one thing to experience such a glory being led by a pillar of fire or cloud of smoke, standing in the blinding light of God’s appearance to Moses, or being in the physical presence of Jesus for the disciples. It is something else to attempt to find such a glory for Marco; wading alone in the pool, hearing no one respond with “Polo.”
In some way, this Marco experience is an experience of a parousia people. Parousia is an ancient Greek term meaning presence, arrival, or official visit. Many today speak of the parousia as the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. Karl Barth argues that parousia includes Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost as well, not limiting parousia to the final return of Christ.
In one sense, to be Christian means to live in the present moment, between the past embodiment and incarnation of God in Jesus and the eschatological return of Christ in the future. This text in John’s Gospel points us to this reality. It points us to a time when we may be wading in the pool alone, shouting “Marco!” In such an anxious moment, what is it we should do? How is it we should continue without the glory and presence of God?
The radical theologian Thomas Altizer argues that God moves in relation to the world constantly forward and downward. “God…is a perpetual and forward-moving process of self-negation, pure negativity, or kenotic metamorphosis.” In one sense, God’s glory and presence is constantly getting out of the pool, changing places with us and the world. This process is continual and on-going:
Remembering the radical Christian affirmation that God has fully and totally become incarnate in Christ, we must note that neither the Incarnation nor the Crucifixion can here be understood as isolated and once-and-for-all events; rather, they must be conceived as primary expressions of a forward-moving and eschatological process of redemption, a process embodying a progressive movement of Spirit into flesh. At no point in this process does the incarnate Word or Spirit assume a final and definitive form, just as God himself can never be wholly or simply identified with any given revelatory event or epiphany, if only because the divine process undergoes a continual metamorphosis, even moving more deeply and more fully toward an eschatological consummation.
Within Altizer’s radical Christianity it not only makes sense for Jesus to get out of the pool, it is the only way toward the eschatological redemption. In fact, Jesus commands us as to what we are to do in the moment that he leaves the pool. “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (verse 34). As anxious and terrifying as it may be for us to shout “Marco” alone in the pool, if we merely open our eyes, I believe we will begin to witness those we share the pool with us. As the Spirit embodies our own flesh this Easter, may we begin to search the waters.
As we break the rules of the game, as I often did during those summers attempting to catch the fish out of water, we will notice that there are other “Marcos.” Others with hands out and eyes shut shouting and hearing no “Polo” in response. If we open our eyes searching for Jesus, we may not always find him. Because where he is going, we cannot follow. However, we can love those around us. We can live into to the glory of God’s presence. We can become the “Polos” for a pool full of “Marcos.” If we can love the way Jesus loves us, we too can be glorified; we too can become the presence of God for the world around us. Such glory and presence is love for one another, and love for one another is the glory and presence of God. And all of God’s children shouted… “Polo!”
Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. p. 13
Joseph L. Mangina (2004). “Reconciliation has eschatological force”. Karl Barth: theologian of Christian witness. Aldershot: Ashgate. p. 118.
Thomas J. J. Altizer The Gospel of Christian Atheism. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966. p. 84
 Ibid. p. 103-104
The Rev. David Clifford is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David currently serves as interim minister of First Christian Church in Greencastle, Indiana. He is also working toward licensure as a mental health counselor as a resident at the Christian Theological Seminary Counseling Center. David lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife and three children.