Tag Archives: Church

Reading Karl Barth: The “Bremen” Sermon

According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s “Bremen” sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 6, The Modern Age 1789-1989, 776, cited in Johanson, The Word in the World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 25).

This sermon, from November 1934, was given when Barth was forty-eight years of age, and shortly before his expulsion from Germany by the National Socialists. The Nazis had seized control of the German nation, were interfering in the life of the church, and seeking to gain a totalitarian control over all the affairs of the nation. Although Hitler and the Nazis are never mentioned directly—Barth does not allow them to intrude into the sermon—they are in the background especially as the “Jesus of our pious imagination.” The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus.

The sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, comment about context, etc.:

Jesus made his disciples—which means, Jesus compelled his disciples—to get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” He made them, he compelled them to go their own way without him, while he was somewhere else. They probably didn’t understand what he wanted of them. It probably wasn’t what they wanted. But that was of no consequence for them: they allowed what they were told to be right for them and they did it; they obeyed. And this already tells us something decisive about ourselves, who are Jesus’ disciples, his church. This tells us that the church of Jesus Christ is the place where there is a bond which regulates human activity, a bond which cannot be debated over, which we have not chosen for ourselves, and from which we cannot release ourselves, but on the other hand a bond in which we also have the security and consolation which enable us to go on our own way as we should. Disciples of Jesus are people who are answerable to Jesus, and precisely for that reason answerable to no one else, people who are entirely bound, and precisely for that reason and in that bond, free people (Johanson, 46).

And so the sermon proceeds as a line-by-line exposition of the biblical text from Matthew 14. The text itself is front and centre, rather than various points abstracted from the text. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.” Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. Thus the solitary Jesus of the story indicates that he “alone” is unique and sovereign; there can be no other sovereignty in competition with him. All other supposed sovereigns are “ghosts,”—fakes, yet still capable of being a destructive power in the world. There is no prize for guessing what Barth is saying here!

In Barth’s hands, Peter is the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! Is Peter’s request to walk on the water the result of pride (Calvin) or serious faith? Barth refuses to commit himself to an answer here, but says:

What is required—what Jesus Christ continually requires—are rocks like this who are certainly not perfectly untainted people, who are perhaps seriously objectionable in many ways and will have much to answer for, but are nevertheless ready to do something quite specific, to render obedience to a specific word by undertaking a specific service. In the church of Jesus Christ there is not only waiting, there must also be those individuals who are continually hastening, watching, rising where they are called to, with all the perils that entails. The church could not do without them, and the church cannot do without them today either. And now in this hour, the text puts this question to each and every one of us: And you, are you not also called to obey in a specific way? To be sure, we must examine ourselves to see whether we are ready to obey the orders of Jesus Christ, or whether the appeal we are now hearing might not come from some chimera within our hearts. But equally, let us examine ourselves to see whether it is not the result of our cowardice and unbelief if we not assume this specific task, this specific act of obedience to which we are summoned! (55)

It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

Barth finds in Peter’s example “the history of every great event in the church” (58). Peter has heard the word of Jesus but looks also at the storm, the wind, and the waves. Now it is no longer a matter simply of Jesus and his word, but of the storm, “of practical and strategic matters, of oneself and one’s desires and crises” (56). But even Peter’s little faith did not forfeit the faithfulness of God toward him. In the dark years that followed this sermon there is no doubt that many in this congregation would have been seriously confronted with the force of this dilemma: will I respond to the sole lordship of Jesus Christ—at great personal cost, or will I falter and look away, trying both to obey Jesus’ command to rise and walk, and to stay in the safety of the boat.

How, though, can we be sure that we are hearing his voice, his command, his encouragement—“is it him, or is it the illusion of our hearts?” (56). Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But we must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us. How may we distinguish the command of Christ from the deceitful or frightened desire of our own hearts?

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

An Easter Vigil


My mother has been a devout Roman Catholic all her life and raised me in the Church. Unfortunately, I have been a wayward son, leaving the Church for a different branch of Christianity, and migrating through several forms and denominations over the years.

My mother has had her own journey within the Church, the Roman Catholic Church being large and diverse enough to accommodate a variety of forms within its overall structures. In the early 70s she became an early participant in the Catholic charismatic movement. Later, she became more deeply involved in a covenantal community movement within the church although, on account of her family, she never actually joined the community. More recently, which means in the last decade or two, she has participated in the Neocatechumenal Way, or the “Neo-cats” as she sometimes calls them.

Each Easter Saturday for quite some time now, mum has attended an all-night vigil on Easter Saturday (after the foot washing on Holy Thursday, and Good Friday services!). We would arrive sometime on Easter Sunday for family get-togethers, and mum will have been up all night and still going, preparing the house and the food and welcoming us all in.

Mum is in her mid-eighties now, and though increasingly frail, still very much alert and sociable. But after a full day out with one of my brothers on Easter Saturday, she was tired and did not think she could attend the vigil; the logistics simply made it too difficult. I asked her if it would make a difference if I came along with her, stayed the night, and so, if she needed anything, I would be there to assist. She said she would have a rest and call me back. She called back within five minutes—no time to rest! I picked her up later that evening and we arrived at the vigil about 11pm as things were just about ready. Once mum was seated she didn’t get up for almost seven hours! (Getting up and down is pretty difficult.) Nevertheless, she loved every minute of it.

It was my first time at the vigil. So what was it about?

First, it was a combined celebration with, I think, four distinct catechumenal groups meeting: two from the Cathedral, one from Kelmscott (or were there two groups from Kelmscott?), plus the newest group, from St. Kieran’s in Tuart Hill, who also hosted the event. There were perhaps 60-80 people present, including a good number of children. It was very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, perhaps an indication of the strength of Catholicism in non-Western contexts, though there were also a good number of “typical Aussies” there (sorry for that; everyone there was likely an “Aussie.” I will have to find an expression that conveys accurately, those with an Australian heritage going back several generations!).

The evening seemed mostly led by laity, both men and women participating in readings, exhortations, and worship. A number of priests were present but their participation was quite limited apart from the formal aspects of the mass. It was clear that those present were very ordinary in terms of work, relationships, family, schooling, and financial responsibilities, dealing with the struggles and joys of life common to just about everyone. The youngest were infants, mum amongst those most elderly. There were not many teenagers, though I do know that a number of the young family groups became involved in the community when they were teenagers.

What set these otherwise quite ordinary people apart was their faith, their sheer devotion to Christ and to their Church. Also evident was a sense of genuine and at times quite exuberant joy, tempered but not constrained by the liturgical form the evening took. Also prominent is the love of the group which I have previously noted in the way the group cared for my mother after my father’s death, and the way in which they have long included her in their communal life, assisting that inclusion with very regular and practical support.

The Neocatechumenal Way emphasises liturgy, Scripture and community with a focus on Christian formation in the tradition of the catechumenate of the ancient church. Given that the Roman Catholic Church practises infant baptism, it is a largely a post-baptismal formation. They also emphasise worship and vibrant communal singing, for the evening was full of it. The worship style was a particular kind of folk music, based on guitar and percussion: not an electronic or electric instrument in sight. The simple rhythms made it easy for the kids to join in too, with each kid able to play a variety of percussion instruments during the night.

What I observed on Saturday evening-Sunday morning indicates the rich fruits of this formational activity, and suggests, to my mind, the crucial necessity of such formation in the increasingly hostile environment in which the church exists in the contemporary west. I could not help but be reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’s continual emphasis that the church must become of community of people capable of forming others in the practices that sustain a truly Christian existence and witness in a world torn and suffering and idolatrous.

A little anecdote captures something of the evening for me: during one section of the proceedings the children present were invited to pray (and many did), the community as a whole responding, “Lord, hear our prayer.” One little girl aged perhaps eight or nine, prayed for those present, for the babies who were baptised, and “for all those sick and suffering,” that they might be helped by God and by others. Already she was learning that to be a Christian is to pray, and to care, to be aware of the needs of others, and of the necessity of responding to their need.

So what did they do for over six hours? Stayed tuned!

Continued Tomorrow…

A Challenging Day in Church

Zacchaeus Stained GlassGoing to church can be a bit of a challenge, especially for those not used to the practice. The environment is unfamiliar, as are the people, and what goes on. Even those who attend regularly can find it a challenge, for a variety of reasons.

I found it a challenge last week, but in a different kind of way. After a time of congregational worship, three of the younger pastors shared their reflections on what has been the month’s preaching theme: The Table. Each of the pastors anchored their reflections in a story from the gospels. Josh spoke of Jesus and Zacchaeus having a meal together, and of its resulting in Zacchaeus’s repentance (Luke 19). Jess spoke of the rich, young ruler whose “table” was too full for Jesus to have a place, even though he was hungry for eternal life (Luke 18). Andrew referred to Jesus eating at the home of Matthew the tax-collector (Matthew 9) as the on-lookers asked, “Why does Jesus eat with such scum?” (NLT)

The short reflections circled around coming to Jesus, making space for him in our lives, and following him. I was challenged, however, arrested even, by these gospel texts. In the Zacchaeus story Jesus proclaims “Today salvation has come to this house.” What is this salvation of which Jesus speaks? For Zacchaeus, his repentance was a concrete turning from greed to give to the poor. His turning to the poor was, for Jesus, a sign of his turning to God.

So, too, the rich young ruler came to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus’ answer: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Again, the link between “salvation” and generosity to the poor is evident. Finally, Andrew’s reflection showed Jesus amongst the outcast (though these tax-collectors were not poor in the economic sense), the “sick”, the morally bankrupt, sharing the table, enjoying friendship, joining them and calling them to himself.

So what is “salvation” or “eternal life”? What does it look like? What is the nature of this salvation that Jesus came to bring? It involves more than a simple “sinner’s prayer.”

Much more could and probably needs to said to answer these questions adequately. As is often the case, however, it was not so much what the preachers were saying, but what the Holy Spirit was saying through them as they opened Scripture for the congregation. The Holy Spirit was challenging me. That’s one of the main reasons I still go to church week-after-week: to gather with the people of God in a place where the Word of God is heard and the Spirit of God is active. I don’t think I would still be a Christian without this (sometimes challenging) spiritual practice.

And so I went home challenged.

And also grateful for the ministry of Josh, Jess and Andrew—all Vose students past or present—who serve God by serving his people. As another year at Vose is about to commence, I hope that many more students and graduates will take up the humbling call to serve God in Word and Spirit and congregation—and wherever else the Lord may call.

Social Justice and Christian Faithfulness

alysia-harris2Our new little small group read “Justice is more than a political issue now—it’s a spiritual one.” Alysia Harris is an award-winning poet whose poems “come from a love for the world and from a desire to see it transformed” (from her web-page). She is also an educator, scholar, and activist. Until now, I had not heard of her, but some of the lines of poetry on her homepage are extraordinary:

Obese as the night sky is, its greed does not outweigh the first mouthful of dawn.

We ain’t no Medusas here but each one of us got a stare that could cut glass.

I like much of what Alysia has said, including her (very radical) commitment to reconciliation, and to acting locally and relationally, her recognition that the state is not our liberation, and her conviction that social justice must “be done” through a theological lens.

I would have liked to see more about the church, the community of Jesus, as the place where those commitments are to be realised – if we are to “turn again to” and follow the way of Jesus. And I cannot help but wonder if making Christian faith a subset of “my identity” will ultimately subvert the gospel – if “I” rather than Christ remains the centre of my identity and agency (see, e.g. Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21; 3:20).

There are important issues here, including the slippery relation between Christian faithfulness and progressive politics. (See my recent post on Relevance or Resilience).

Baptized in the Spirit 5 (Frank Macchia)

Baptized in the SpiritChapter 5 Toward a Spirit-Baptized Ecclesiology

At 101-pages, this is easily the longest chapter in the book. The first half of the chapter is devoted to a number of sections in which Macchia details the approach he takes to ecclesiology, before an exploration of the classic marks of the church, and a consideration of preaching, sacraments and charismatic fullness as additional marks of the Spirit-baptised church. “The central thesis of this chapter is thus that Spirit baptism gave rise to the global church and remains the very substance of the church’s life in the Spirit, including its charismatic life and mission” (155, original emphasis).

Macchia begins with two sections that argue for a relational ecclesiology, in which koinonia is the central motif. The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion both within the divine trinity and between God and humanity. Spirit-baptism is fundamentally a relational event which issues in the creation of the church as a new community with renewed human sociality. The church is to echo and embody the relationality and open hospitality of the holy Trinity.

The Spirit is the Spirit of communion. Spirit baptism implies communion. This is why it leads to a shared love, a shared meal, a shared mission, and the proliferation/enhancement of an interactive charismatic life. Spirit baptism thus implies a relationship of unity between the Lord and the church that is not fundamentally one of identity but rather communion. … Spirit baptism has a relational structure that has communion at its essence, the communion of self-giving love (156-157, 160).

Thus, “Baptism in the Spirit is baptism into an ecclesial dynamic, the ecclesial Spirit” (167, original emphasis). The church, grounded in the gift of the Spirit, is a network of “graced relationships,” a foretaste of the redemption to come. The ecclesial Spirit sanctifies and transforms us. The power of the Spirit for witness is not some external naked energy which comes upon the church for mighty works, but is primarily “the power of love at work among us” (177).

Koinonia is not simply a matter of redemption, for human being is ontologically relational—this is part of what it means to be in the imago Dei. Yet this relationally has been decisively distorted by sin. In redemption, the self is not obliterated but renewed. Macchia develops a relational and ecclesial anthropology in which the dialectic of the self-in-relation and the self-in-solitude (before God) constitutes true and free human being, and which issues in non-oppressive relations. Spirit-baptism decentres the self, renewing and re-establishing it on a new foundation in the love of God.

The Spirit is the one in the many. This Spirit brings people into the common life of the divine communion in a way that does not abolish their otherness but rather enhances and fulfills it. They are stripped of their self-centered tendencies and liberated to be all that they were meant to be in the midst of their uniqueness (176).

A second set of sections deals with problematic matters in ecclesiology, the challenge of pluralism on the one hand, and the relation of church and kingdom on the other. With respect to the challenge of pluralism, Macchia insists that the claim of the church is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who, as the risen and ascended Lord, is the Spirit-Baptizer, the one alone who can and does bring us into fellowship with God. His gift of the Spirit demonstrates and confirms his deity, and hence his uniqueness and pre-eminence.

Yet, the Pentecost event is also inherently and radically plural and inclusive—as witnessed in the gift of tongues from all nations. Thus, the church also is a plural and inclusive company, rather than a hierarchical and domineering institution. Macchia insists that ecclesiology must be both christological and pneumatological. To emphasise only one side or the other is to lose the dynamic of the church which is grounded in the pre-eminence of Christ as the saving revelation of God, and/or the diversity and relationality of the church grounded in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

At Pentecost, the legitimate reaching for God implied in various cultures and religious expressions finds fulfillment in the grace of God revealed in the crucified and risen Christ as the one who imparts the Spirit in the latter days. Their differences and past histories are not dissolved but affirmed and granted a new loyalty and a new direction. In the process all idols are forsaken and the cultures are pruned. But the critical pruning is demanded of the church as well. Though the church is the central locus of the kingdom of God in the world, the church is also a loving fellow traveler with the world’s religions while pointing them to the superiority of Christ. Spirit baptism can be developed so as to respond to [the] critique of ecclesiastical superiority in the world but in a way that rejects [the] reduction of Jesus to simply one symbol of the sacred among others (188).

The offence of the Christian claim remains:

Drawing the boundaries of the Spirit Baptizer to Christ alone is exclusivistic Christologically, but…we deal here with an exclusivism of Christ “and not with the self-serving principle of sectarianism.” It is an exclusivism of the one who is uniquely inclusive on the ecclesiological level. … There is simply no way of eliminating the risen Christ as the Spirit Baptizer from the gospel without affirming another gospel (189, original emphasis).

Finally, Macchia argues that the relation of the church to the kingdom must be understood dialectically, whereby there can be neither separation nor identification of these two realities. The church is not the kingdom, but is established by the kingdom as its witness and sign (191-192; cf. 165).

There is no critical dialectic between Jesus and the Spirit. He is the king and the Spirit the kingdom. But, as noted above, there is such a dialectic between the Spirit/kingdom and the church. Thus, the church is not the final word but a penultimate witness to the word of the kingdom who is Christ (192).

Indeed, Macchia suggests that the church will ultimately “exhaust” its purpose when in the eschaton it is “caught up in the more expansive new Jerusalem” (166). This eschatological reserve, together with the knowledge that the church is the church of the Crucified, helps keep the church from being triumphalist. Any continuity between the kingdom and the church is established as a gift by divine grace and is never the possession of the church in itself. The church may strive toward the kingdom, but does so in a spirit of repentance, witness and obedience (197).

A Hauerwasian Advent (3)

Stanley Hauerwas MatthewHauerwas reads the story of Matthew chapter 2 as the intersection of “apocalyptic time” with “everyday time.” That is, the eternal intersects times, enters time, and transforms time. The time of the kingdom challenges the time of Herod.

Herod is a pawn used by Rome to maintain order useful to Rome. Jesus is born in an occupied land, a small outpost, on the edge of a mighty empire. Jesus is eventually killed under Rome’s authority, and at the time his death will mean nothing to Rome. … Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence by cross and resurrection (37).

Too often the political significance of Jesus’ birth, a significance that Herod understood all too well, is lost because the church, particularly the church in America, reads the birth as a confirmation of the assumed position that religion has within the larger framework of politics. That is, the birth of Jesus is not seen as a threat to thrones and empires because religion concerns the private (38).

Such a privatised view of religion for Hauerwas, is anathema. That Matthew sets his story in the context of Herod indicates the public and political nature of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The gospel constructs an alternative world. It resists imperial claims. … The kingdom is not some inner sanctuary, but rather the kingdom is an alternative world, an alternative people, an alternative politics. That is what it means for Jesus to be an apocalyptic. He is, in his person and in his work, God’s embodied kingdom. The temptation for Christians in modernity is to equate the kingdom with ideals that we assume represent the best of human endeavour: freedom, equality, justice, respect for the dignity of each person. These are all worthy goals that Christians have every reason to support, but goals that are not in themselves the kingdom. To equate these ideals with the kingdom is to separate the kingdom from the one who proclaims the kingdom. …. “Jesus is Himself the established Kingdom of God” (Barth). Or in Origen’s classical phrase, Jesus is the autobasileia—the kingdom in person (38).

Thus the one born the King of the Jews is a present and enduring challenge to the existing king of the Jews—and to all worldly systems of power that dominate others and rule by fear. Over against a sentimentalised portrayal of the Christmas story, Hauerwas insists that

Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. … The Herods of this world begin by hating the child, Jesus, but as Frederick Dale Bruner observes, end up hurting and murdering children. That is the politics, the politics of murder, to which the church is called to be the alternative (41).

In earlier comments on chapter one, Hauerwas describes the politics of Jesus represented by the incarnation and set forth by Matthew:

Matthew’s gospel is about “the politics of Jesus,” which entails an alternative to the power politics of the world. … A right reading of the gospel requires…a community whose fundamental political act is the sacrifice of the altar. …A theological reading of Matthew, therefore, reaffirms that the church be an alternative politics to the politics of the world. … (29)

In more strictly theological terms, the political character of Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham” means that the person and work of Christ cannot be separated. That Jesus’s teachings have been separated from what some understand to be salvation reflects the accommodation of Christians to the world. The doctrine of the incarnation has unfortunately been used by an accommodated church to give itself the illusion it is faithful because it believes the right doctrine. But incarnation properly understood means that Jesus’s person and work cannot be separated because Jesus saves by making us participants in a new way of life. The name of that way of life is church (30).

An Advent Prayer

To you O Lord we bring our lives
Troubled, broken or at ease
A sacrificial offering
For you to use
Take away our selfishness
And teach us to love as you loved
Take away our sense of pride
And show us the meaning of humility
Take away our blindness
And show us the world through your eyes
Take away our greed
And teach us how to give as you gave
Show us your ways
Teach us your paths
That we might walk with you more closely
Our hand in your hand
Our feet in your footsteps
From the baby in a stable
To eternity, Amen

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4S4RThRFF

Relevance or Resilience?

Mark SayersMark Sayers from Red Church in Melbourne wrote an interesting article for Christianity Today (July/August 2016) entitled, “Creating a Culture of Resilience.” The article argues that the Christian strategy of being culturally relevant in order to win converts, that is, of reducing the cultural distance between the believer and unbeliever, is unlikely to prove effective in today’s “progressive” culture. It is not that relevance is not a strategy that can be applied in some contexts, but the progressive culture sweeping the West is fundamentally post-Christian.

The emerging progressivism has tapped into a long-repressed desire, particularly in the young, for a radically different and better future. In the new progressive cultural mood, Catholic writer Jody Bottum sees a facsimile of Christianity, in which the categories of sin, shame, guilt, salvation, and the elect return, shaped around not theology but the goals of progressive politics. Every missionary tries to build cultural bridges in order to communicate the gospel. But the new progressivism subverts and frustrates this search. It is precisely the church, after all, that progressivism judges as immoral and sinful. The new progressivism is ultimately a form of post-Christianity. It is a new faith that attempts to achieve some of the social goals of Christianity—especially the elimination of oppression, violence, and discrimination—while moving decisively beyond it. For many young adults, leaving the church is less a leap into apostasy than a step toward social aspirations the church imperfectly realized, while subtracting dubious religious restrictions and the submission of the individual will (59-60).

He warns that when the church seeks to evangelise the progressive culture by means of a strategy of cultural relevance, it is likely that the church itself will be colonised by that culture. Instead, he counsels a strategy of resilience, which he defines in terms of faithful and courageous commitment to what the early Christians termed “The Way”:

An overriding commitment to church and Christian community, seeking to follow Jesus with the entirety of one’s heart, soul, and mind in the face of endless choices and options. The commitment to surrender one’s will to God, sacrificially following him as a servant. The decision to live fully with the Holy Spirit’s guidance in a world of anxiety, fragility, and emotionalism run wild. … True relevance to this culture will not come by accommodating its demands, but by developing the kinds of people who can resist them. … Resilience amid the third culture will require the patient and unyielding demonstration of human flourishing, the kind that comes only from embedding our personal freedoms in Christian commitments (60).

“As If Nothing Had Happened”

President Trump
I [will] endeavour to carry on theology, and only theology,
now as previously, and as if nothing had happened
(Karl Barth, Theological Existence Today, 9).

On June 24, 1933 Adolf Hitler intervened directly in the German Protestant churches to bring them under the control of the new National Socialist government. Many German Christians celebrated the ascendancy of Hitler, believing the Führer to be chosen and sent by God to aid Germany in her troubles. They willingly accepted the assimilation of the church into the Nazi programme. That evening Karl Barth sat down and wrote a missive entitled Theological Existence Today. He sent a copy to Hitler, and by the time the regime banned the treatise a year later, tens of thousands of copies had been distributed.

Barth’s famous—infamous—response has sometimes been read as a statement of withdrawal from the public sphere, of the isolation of theology from the great events of the day. Barth, however, was no political or ethical quietist. Barth was not advocating a focus on esoteric theological questions disconnected from the affairs of everyday life, nor yet pietistic escapism from the horrors and difficulties of the world. His stance was an act of theological rebellion, a refusal to violate the first commandment by giving any allegiance or comfort to a false god. His response to the crisis confronting the church is that the church return to its primary vocation, simply, to be the church—the church of the cross. Barth diagnosed the crisis as a theological and spiritual rather than political crisis, and so the church’s response to the crisis must be theological and spiritual.

When Barth speaks of theological existence, it can legitimately be interpreted as Christian existence, for all Christian existence is theological existence. When Barth spoke of practising theology and only theology he meant the proclamation of the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ, the reality of the kingdom of God, the rule of divine love, the promise and claim of the one God.

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death
(Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1).

Our situation today bears some similarities to that faced by Barth, though, one hopes, not nearly so sinister. This is not a time for Christians to wring hands in despair, to assail those too blind to see what they think they can see; let alone the time for Christians to place their hope in messiahs who cannot possibly lead them to the Promised Land. Rather, it is a time for Christians to be the church of the Word, the church under the cross.

It is the time for those who pray to continue to pray “as if nothing had happened.” For those who preach, to continue to preach “as if nothing had happened.” For those who serve in the name of Jesus Christ, who care for the poor, who seek justice, who make disciples, who practise love of neighbour, who reach out a helping hand, who act in the public square, who live virtuously, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who bend their ear and their heart to hear the Word of God—for those who do all this and more besides in the name of Jesus, to continue to do so “as if nothing had happened.”

The really momentous things happening in our world are not those things which consume the eyes and ears of the media and social media. Rather, when Christians bow in prayer, reach out in love, attend to Holy Scripture, hold forth the Word of Life—the kingdom of heaven is among you.

Scripture on Sunday: James 2:2-3

James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)
James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)

James 2:2-3
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet…’

James has introduced his primary point in verse one: Christian faith is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. Verses two and three form the first part of a conditional clause, a twofold protasis (the if statement), with verse four supplying the apodosis (the then statement). Together these verses provide an illustration of James’s point.

Verse two, then, presents an image of two men, one obviously rich and the other obviously poor (note that James explicitly refers to the second man as “poor” (ptōchos)). This judgement is made on the basis of their contrasting appearance: the rich man is dressed in fine clothes, wearing gold rings, while the poor is dressed in shabby clothes and has no corresponding emblems of wealth. Although the descriptions are generic, so that we cannot identify either man as either Roman or Jewish, Christian or non-Christian, Moo suggests that the description of the wealthy person might identify one belonging to the Roman “equestrian” class (81). The “fine clothes” (esthēti lampra) of the rich person suggests fabrics that are “bright” or “shining,” and so speak of luxury, elegance or even flamboyance. In contrast, the poor man’s clothing is rhypara—shabby, dirty or filthy (cf. 1:21).

Both men have come to the “assembly” (synagōgēn), a term used to denote a Jewish place of assembly for the purposes of worship and instruction. That James uses the word without the article may signal that he is referring to the people assembled rather than the building itself (Vlachos, 69). The word does highlight the Jewish character of James’s listeners, although it is likely he is referring to a Jewish Christian assembly, a position McKnight favours, noting also that James refers to your (hymin) assembly (183). Peter Davids, however, is not so sure. Davids notes that apart from this instance, synagōgēn is never used in the New Testament as a description of a Christian meeting, and so argues that in fact, the occasion envisaged by James is not a Christian meeting of worship, but a church-court, an assembly in which the two men are the litigants in the process (109). It seems most commentators are content to see this as a more generic description of visitors to a Christian worship service.

The third verse now adds another layer to the conditional clause by introducing a third party: “you,” that is, the assembly to whom James writes. Just as there are two visitors entering the assembly, so there are two responses on the part of the others present. They pay special attention (epiblepsēte) to the one dressed in fine clothing, and offer him as it were, the “best seat in the house” (hōde kalōs – “here, in this good place”). They also address the poor man, but dismissively, telling him he can “stand over there” or “sit here at my feet,” or literally, “under my footstool” (stēthi ekei ē kathou hypo to hypopodion mou). In contrast to the favoured treatment and position afforded the rich man, the poor man is humiliated and marginalised.

The scene is now set for James’s application to be delivered in verse four. Before moving to that verse, however, it is helpful to address two important issues. First, is this simply a hypothetical illustration with no basis in reality? The structure of the sentence as a conditional clause suggests a hypothetical case, but the blunt accusation of verse six (“but you have dishonoured the poor man”) also points in the direction that this, if not an actual case, is representative of the kind of behaviour that has actually occurred in the assembly. Further, Vlachos notes that the plurals used in verse three indicate that the attitude is that of the group, and not simply of the leaders or other individuals involved (70).

The second question concerns whether the men involved in this little story are Christians. While we cannot know for sure, we must note that James does not refer to the well-dressed man as “rich,” a term he often uses when referring to those who are not Christians (see, for example, 2:6; 5:1-6; see also my comments on 1:9-11). Thus it may be that James has in mind a rich Christian who is a member in the assembly. But it could also refer to a rich fellow Jew or rich gentile visiting the assembly, though one who not yet a Christian. It probably does not affect the interpretation of our passage: the members of the assembly are courting the favour of this rich person simply based on his appearance and evident wealth, and conversely, they disparage the poor man on the grounds of his appearance. In view of his principle in verse 1, for James, such behaviour is inappropriate and unconscionable.

“The Humanity of God”

God-and-AdamThis lecture, delivered by Karl Barth on September 25, 1956 at a Swiss Reformed Ministers Association meeting, is the second lecture in a little collection of three lectures bearing the same name. Barth begins the lecture with an opening statement that defines what he means by this intriguing and provocative title:

The humanity of God! Rightly understood that is bound to mean God’s relation to and turning toward man. It signifies the God who speaks with man in promise and command. It represents God’s existence, intercession, and activity for man, the intercourse God holds with him, and the free grace in which He wills to be and is nothing other than the God of man (Barth, The Humanity of God, 37).

That is, Barth’s ascription of humanity to God is a metaphor intended to emphasise the utter grace of God in God’s relation towards humanity. Barth is not saying that God is actually “human,” as though he were humanity writ large, or as though he were actually human with no remainder.

The introduction and first section of the lecture function as a kind of “retraction,” or more accurately, a correction. Barth recalls the fundamental shift, the 180o change of theological direction whereby forty years earlier he and his companions repudiated the major features of nineteenth-century theology and struck out on a new course. What they sought was a mighty reaffirmation of God’s deity, the “godness” of God over against what they understood as the anthropocentric theology of their forebears. Now Barth confesses, “We were wrong exactly where we were right” (44). It is not that Barth wants to lose this emphasis on divine sovereignty—far from it! But in and of itself, it is insufficient for it does not convey with necessary precision the full truth of who God is:

See the moon in yonder sky?
’Tis only half that meets the eye.

The fulsome emphasis on God’s transcendent deity meant that God’s “humanity” was left undeveloped. Barth still wants to assert the godness of God, though now with an emphasis also on God’s humanity.

The second section of the lecture then insists that the humanity of God is seen and known only in the place where God—in his deity—has given himself to be known; that is, in Jesus Christ. There is no abstract God just as there is no abstract humanity: here, in Christ, both true deity and true humanity are revealed. Nevertheless, Barth resolutely maintains the ordering of God’s deity vis-à-vis his humanity, but just as resolutely insists on his real, actual and genuine humanity. All this comes together in what I call a “purple passage”:

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in his one person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus he comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus he attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude.  Thus he establishes in his person the justice of God vis-à-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus he is in his person the covenant in its fullness, the Kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom he is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both. We do not need to engage in a free-ranging investigation to seek out and construct who and what God truly is, and who and what man truly is, but only to read the truth about both where it resides, namely, in the fullness of their togetherness, their covenant which proclaims itself in Jesus Christ. …

Beyond doubt God’s deity is the first and fundamental fact that strikes us when we look at the existence of Jesus Christ as attested in the Holy Scripture. … In the existence of Jesus Christ, the fact that God speaks, gives, orders, comes absolutely first—that man hears, receives, obeys, can and must only follow this first act. In Jesus Christ man’s freedom is wholly enclosed in the freedom of God (46-48).

God does not exist in majestic isolation in and for himself, utterly free from all that is not God. God’s freedom is freedom to love (48). God is free not only to be God, mighty, majestic and exalted but also lowly, a servant, human. The mystery of God includes God’s determination not to be without humanity, but with them; not to be against humanity, but for them. God determines to love us, to be our God, our Lord, our Preserver and Saviour, and as such, God is human (50-51). “His free affirmation of man, his free concern for him, his free substitution for him—this is God’s humanity” (51).

The final section of the lecture develops some implications of the humanity of God, including:

  1. A real distinction is bestowed on every human person, entirely on the basis of grace. Every person is loved of God who is their father. Their humanity is God’s gift, and so must issue in the practical acknowledgement of every person’s human rights and dignity (53).
  2. Theology finds its focus and message in the humanity of God, for theology is determined by its object. Theology is not about God in himself, nor human existence in and of itself, but about the “history, dialogue and communion” of God with humanity and humanity with God—and in this order.
  3. Because the covenant is “history, dialogue and communion” theology also finds its character and form: that is, theology exists as prayer and proclamation, as responsive address to God, and as the address of the great news of God’s love to all others.
  4. The message of the church is the joyful, positive announcement of God’s affirmation of humanity. Certainly God’s No is inevitable, but it has been borne by Jesus Christ. Barth refuses to deny or confirm the idea of universalism, but trenchantly insists that “this much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ” (62).
  5. Finally, God’s turn toward humanity calls forth and awakens a company of people who respond to God in worship, praise and service—the church.

We should be ashamed of Jesus Christ himself, were we willing to be ashamed of the church. What Jesus Christ is for God and for us, on earth and in time, he is as Lord of this community, as King of this people, as Head of this body and of all its members. … We believe the church as the place where the crown of humanity, namely, man’s fellow-humanity, may become visible in Christocratic brotherhood. Moreover, we believe it as the place where God’s glory wills to dwell upon earth, that is, where humanity—the humanity of God—wills to assume tangible form in time and here upon earth. Here we recognize the humanity of God. Here we delight in it. Here we celebrate and witness to it. Here we glory in the Immanuel… (64-65).