Tag Archives: Preaching

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).

Willimon: On Preaching

Perhaps you would have to be a preacher to know why Barth’s being a resolute theologian is his greatest gift to contemporary preaching. It’s not only that much contemporary theology languishes in the realm of theologies-of-this-and-that, but also that much of contemporary theology appears to have forgotten both the proper subject and the vital agent of Christian preaching.

Forgive me for having this so prominently on my mind, but I have just finished listening to the sermons of sixty of the preachers who are under my care. Many of the sermons were lively and engaging and most congregations would hear them gladly on a Sunday morning. Yet in a depressing majority of them there was little indication that the content of the sermon or the engine driving the proclamation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other than that, most were fine sermons…. (Willimon, in Johanson (ed), The Word in this World, 11).

Ouch! Willimon continues:

One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Juses putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesus’ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things to do. We were told that we needed to resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of God’s word. We should all strive to “increase in wisdom and in stature.” We ought to spend more time with our families. 

Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic list of all the things that we need to do if we (in the absence of a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world…

Barth’s robust view of an active, unfailingly surprising, living God puts Barth at some distance from lots of the sermons that I hear and many that I preach. God too often enters the sermon as some sort of vague mystery about whom little is to be said. So we must quickly abandon the text and sail by the seat of our pants, offering exclusively human advice derived from limited human experience. There is a modern sort of modesty that refuses to claim too much for God. Presuming to be intellectual integrity, this reticence to do theology is in most cases the simple fear that to speak decisively about who God is and who God isn’t would endanger our godlike aspirations to run the world as we damn well please. Thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons (11-12, 18).

Reading Karl Barth: The “Titanic” Sermon

This sermon was delivered by Barth on April 21, 1912 to his congregation in Safenwil where he had been pastor for just over a year. The First World War was still two years away and Europe had not yet lost its modern sense of triumphal optimism. The newly minted pastor was just twenty-five years of age when he delivered this sermon.

In this sermon we see Barth the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. Although he does use a biblical text at the head of his sermon, he does not exposit the text or discuss its meaning. Rather he uses it for an idea that he then applies to the subject matter at hand. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them.

For I believe that, just as we may not approach events such as this one out of curiosity and a thirst for sensation, nor may we disregard them in silence and indifference, however much daily newspaper reports might cause us to do so. Rather, they should speak to us. For through them God addresses us with a power and urgency that we only rarely perceive: concerning the greatness and nothingness of human beings who are so like God, and yet so unlike him, concerning the wrath and mercy of the eternal God, who reigns in and over our destinies, sometimes close at hand and tangibly, but sometimes infinitely far away and mysteriously. God speaks in this way even through a tragedy like the one which has shocked the entire civilised world this week, and we cannot fail to hear, nor may we (cited in Johanson (ed.), The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 31-32).

Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36).

We see also the young socialist pastor at work:

Yesterday in the “Freier Aargauer” newspaper the sinking of the Titanic was referred to as a crime of capitalism. After everything that I have now read about it I can only agree. Indeed, this catastrophe is a crude but all-the-more clear example to us of the essential characteristics and effects of capitalism, which consists in a few individuals competing with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits (40).

Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)! The system of capitalism is the real cause of the disaster, the competitive practice based on self-interest at the expense of others. This system must be replaced by a common communal system of labour.

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. He describes in some detail the magnificence of the ship with respect to the feat of its engineering and the luxury of its appointments. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered.

As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress.

Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down only two years later with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology. The anthropological orientation and natural theology will give way to a more thorough-going theocentric orientation and theology of revelation. More significantly, in his search for a new theological starting point, Barth will discover the “new world in the Bible.”

The Hard Work of Preaching

On Sunday I included the following quote in a post on Anthony Thiselton’s hermeneutics of the cross. The quote is so good I want to reproduce it here as a reminder of the importance of careful exegetical and theological work in the communicative task of Christian teaching and preaching.

The fact that a later age may find it hard to understand traditional ideas is not sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation, and thus keep their meaning alive. The problems that people have with ideas like expiation and representation (or substitution) in our secularized age rest less on any lack of forcefulness in the traditional terms than on the fact that those who are competent to interpret them do not explain their context with sufficient forcefulness or clarity (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 2:422; cited (with emphasis) in Thiselton,  The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, 312).

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.

Luther’s Pastoral Theology (Part 2)

luther-statueOnce more I find remarkable, the depth of theological reflection and pastoral wisdom Luther can pack into a short sermon. Multiple themes bristle in this short piece. Luther appeals seamlessly to penal and Christus Victor metaphors of the atonement. We see the very prominent focus on the conscience and so also on the individual before God. Of course, justification and faith are present in his discussion, as is his prominent focus on the pro me, pro nobis—for me, for us: “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (166).

This is obviously a message for Christians rather than non-believers, though non-believers also might benefit from it. We learn that we are sinners having come to Christ. It is from the cross that we learn that we are sinners, and from the cross and resurrection that we learn we are forgiven and loved. And learning that we are thus loved and forgiven is the basis—the only basis—for Christian life and sanctification.

I find of particular interest and comfort, Luther’s insistence that the first movement of this ‘correct’ meditation on the passion is not a religious work or something accomplished through our own (somewhat morbid) self-effort. There is no moral self-flagellation here:

Unless God inspires our heart, it is impossible for us of ourselves to meditate thoroughly on Christ’s passion. … You must first seek God’s grace and ask that it be accomplished by his grace and not by your own power. That is why the people we referred to above fail to view Christ’s passion aright. They do not seek God’s help for this, but look to their own ability to devise their own means of accomplishing this. They deal with the matter in a completely human but also unfruitful way (169).

This is good and necessary pastoral wisdom from Luther, which also went unheeded by some in the Puritan and Pietist traditions—and still today. Those who seek to uncover their own sinfulness, to convince themselves of their own moral filthiness, and dredge over sins and errors time and again, have “to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but [such activities] are of no value against fleshly self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:23—my comment, not Luther’s). Luther obviously understands true meditation on Christ’s passion to be a theological activity, interpreting his sufferings through the lenses of such Scripture passages as “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). We look only to Christ and not to ourselves. In him we see both our sin and its remedy, and in him the pattern and the source of strength for truly Christian life.

Although today we might shift some of the language and imagery, this is a fine example of preaching that is at once deeply theological and pastorally wise.

Hugh Latimer on Preaching

Hugh_LatimerOne of the martyrs of the English Reformation was Hugh Latimer, burned by Queen Mary for his Protestant convictions and activity. Formerly bishop of Worchester, Latimer “made considerable efforts to preach in a style that could appeal to ordinary people who were not expert theologians…He tried hard to offer them lively images to entertain and draw them with him, in a self-deprecatory manner” (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 435). He explains that he finds repetition helpful in teaching:

 I have a manner of teaching, which is very tedious to them that be learned. I am wont ever to repeat those things which I have said before, which repetitions are nothing pleasant to the learned: but it is no matter, I care not for them; I seek more the profit of those which be ignorant, than to please learned men. Therefore I oftentimes repeat such things which be needful for them to know; for I would speak so that they might be edified withal (in Evans, 436).

I remember a minister many years ago saying, “Good preaching is not in the pulpit, but in the pew.”

Preaching the Atonement: Learning from John Donne

John DonneWilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My Soul, this wholesome meditation.
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
the Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’r begonne)
Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,
Coheir to his glory, and Sabbath’s endless rest;
And, as a robbed man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again:
the Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom he had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

In last week’s class we were discussing theories of atonement and finished by looking at this classic sonnet (taken from McGrath’s The Christian Theology Reader 3rd edition, 368). After an extended discussion around patristic and medieval approaches, this was refreshing. Colin Gunton complains that Gregory of Nyssa moved from metaphor to mythology by treating the biblical idea of ransom in terms of speculation, God deceiving the devil, capturing him on the hook of Christ’s divinity hidden beneath his humanity (The Actuality of Atonement, 63).

Anselm’s satisfaction theory may well have been a very relevant explanation of the atonement in a feudal context, but it still loses something essential in terms of the gospel. Anselm’s feudal god is too aloof, too touchy, too offended, too demanding. It is true we have profaned God’s honour, but the gospel shows God taking that shame upon himself in order to restore fellowship with his people.

Many expositions of the atonement fixate on mechanics, trying to identify precisely how the atonement works, failing to recognise that the plurality of metaphors in the New Testament serve to illuminate the atonement precisely as they protect its mystery. It is here that Donne’s poem was refreshing. Donne celebrates the mystery and wonder of the atonement, situates it within the overarching story of the love of God, appeals to biblical metaphors, especially the idea of redemption, but steers clear of treating atonement in terms of mechanics. Thus some sense of transaction remains, but Donne does not allow detailed explanation and speculation to overshadow the wonder of divine grace.

This is a good model, I think, for preaching the atonement.