And Now for Something Completely Different (plus a sermon)

My last post on here, which was just a quote, was from May 14. A lot has changed in my life since then. While I don’t often post about my life on this blog (in fact, I don’t recall ever doing so), I thought that the number changes of the last month and a half are deserving of a post of their own.

This spring I successfully defended my master’s thesis, “For the Sake of the World: The Ecclesiology of Karl Barth in Critical Conversation with Jürgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas.” Writing a thesis was a very rewarding venture. I learned a lot about the process of writing a sustained argument. Writing a thesis for my degree was not required. Many students choose not to write one, opting to take an extra course and compile a portfolio instead. While I found writing a thesis much more difficult than taking a course (even more difficult than taking two courses), I am so very glad that I did it. Having professors engage with my own sustained theological writing will prove invaluable as I begin doctoral studies.

I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree with an academic concentration in Christian Theology from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. I absolutely loved my time there. While I wasn’t sure how much I would benefit from seminary studies (since I studied Bible and ministry in my undergraduate studies), I can now say with confidence that seminary was an amazing experience and a good choice for me.

I was ordained into Christian ministry by the elders of Hopwood Christian Church. Spending the last five years at this church as an attendee, member, intern and eventually as a staff member, was deeply formative for me. While living life among this congregation, I saw the gospel of Jesus take on flesh and blood. It is one of the greatest privileges of my life to be ordained by this church. I have thought about ordination for many years (and have even written about it on here). As I discerned that I was called (at least for a time) toward academic theological endeavors, I choose to pursue ordination so that my study would always be an exercise of my vocation as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have accepted an generous offer of admission into Saint Louis University’s doctoral program in historical theology. My concentration will be in modern theology, which covers theology since 1500. In my dissertation I hope to focus upon the doctrine of the church in the theologies of Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. I will begin my coursework this August. The program will take five years to complete. Saint Louis University is an excellent school and I am very excited to begin studies there.

I have joined the Lotus House, an intentional Christian community in the north city of St. Louis. This is a community that formed in 2008. We live in a single three-story house. There are daily times of common prayer and shared meals. The community is committed to service to the church and neighborhood and practices hospitality in a number of ways. I just moved in yesterday and am looking forward to living life together here.

On June 2 I was privileged to preach to Hopwood one final time before my departure. After struggling with the lectionary texts all week, I decided to focus in on the question, “what is the gospel?” It seemed appropriate given the epistle reading. Here is the audio from that sermon. Below is the text.

I was enjoying a nice relaxing family vacation in the picturesque mountains of western North Carolina about a week and a half ago. My parents, my siblings and their spouses, and my eight nieces and nephews enjoyed a few days in a spacious mountain lodge. At dinnertime one evening I sat down next to my five year old niece Isabelle, who was puzzling over a deep theological problem her father (my brother) encouraged her to ask me about. She looks at me suspiciously, as though she’s about to set a trap that she knows there is no way out of. She asks, “If God made everyone and everything, then who made God?” An understandable question; predictable even. I try to give her the basic answer, that no one made God; that God has always been and always will be. She doesn’t buy it. I try to tell her that God is unlike any person or thing that we know or experience in creation. I remind her that everything she can think of has had a beginning and will have an ending, and then I tell her that God is different than all of those things, for God has no beginning or ending. I see in her eyes that she believes I am hopelessly trapped by her astute question. In my growing exasperation contemplate referencing the poet John Berryman’s description of God when he wrote that God is “Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs.”

But I managed to restrain myself.

Having just a few days prior received my Master of Divinity, having just been ordained into Christian ministry, I found myself humbled by a five year old’s honest question about God. I ended up giving her a half-hearted answer about not having to understand God in order to know and love God. As she ran off to play I couldn’t help but remember the admonition of a wise philosopher that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

There are a lot of words that we use in church, words that we find in the Scriptures, that are like this. They seem straightforward at first brush, but when we look a little deeper, when we stop and ask a few questions, they slip through our fingers. Words that buck against clean and tidy definitions. When we stop and ask the questions hidden in the words “God” “Spirit” “salvation” and “church” we are left stammering for the right way to speak about something bigger than human speech. We end up in silence. Theologian Rowan Williams says that this silence is “not an absolute, unbroken inarticulacy, but the discipline of letting go our own easy chattering about the gospel so that our words may come again with a new and different depth or force from something beyond our fantasies.”

I want to talk about one of these words today; one of these words that we can’t talk about, that can’t be captured by our language. It’s a word that crops up six times in our short reading from Galatians. Gospel. What is the Gospel? What do we mean when we say that we believe and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or, conversely, as is the case in the church in Galatia whom Paul is addressing, what would it mean to abandon the Gospel?

Well the simple answer, the first brush answer, is that the Gospel is good news. The Greek word that the earliest Christians adopted, the word euangelion, (which we translate as “Gospel”) simply means an announcement of some great goodness. People might use the word to describe a victory in a major battle or perhaps the Empire would use the word to describe the ascension of a new Emperor to the throne in Rome. Euangelion simply means that something very good and very significant has happened.

You can see why the earliest Christians used this word. They believed and preached that through a specific set of historical events, the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that the very best thing that could ever happened has in fact happened. That the Word became flesh and walked upon earth. That through Jesus, God has defeated death and sin. The Gospel is indeed good news, a welcome announcement of staggeringly good events happening in the midst of this world.

And yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more than those events only. It’s more than an isolated historical occurrence in the first century. Paul accuses the Galatian church of abandoning the Gospel, and if we read the whole letter we aren’t left with the impression that they were somehow discounting the veracity of any of the events of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. It’s not as if they decided to pick some other historical event and ascribe to it the same status as Jesus’s resurrection. No, what they were doing that prompts Paul’s harsh condemnation is requiring believers in the Gospel who came from non-Jewish background to abide by certain Jewish practices in order to enter into the Christian community. That’s it. And for that Paul accuses them of abandoning the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel is good news about events, that’s true. But it has to be more than that. In order for the Gospel to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ it cannot simply rest satisfied in affirming that a certain set of events happened in a particular place two mallenea ago. No, the Gospel requires that these events continue to be worked out in a particular community called the church. While the Gospel is always about pointing to Jesus, from its inception the church has affirmed that in its own life Jesus is made present—that in some important sense the gathering of believers animated by the Spirit of God is the very Body of Jesus Christ. This means that the church, the Christian life that is visible in the people sitting around you, is in some sense the Gospel. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has this point in mind when he writes, that “There is no way, if we are to be faithful to God’s gift at Pentecost, that the church can avoid calling attention to itself. To be sure, like Israel, the church has a story to tell in which God is the main character. But the church cannot tell that story without becoming part of the tale.”

So, as I reflect upon what the Gospel is, about the good tidings it holds, about what it requires of us, I am pulled in two directions. On the one hand, I see in your lives, in the past five years that I’ve spent among this congregation, the good news of Jesus Christ. I see your faithful witness and your steadfast perseverance and I admit that I am drawn into that New Age that dawned on that first Easter morning. On the other hand, I am pulled into affirming that the Gospel is bigger than us too, that it draws us out of this congregation. That the Gospel is not simply what we think it is or would like it to be. It can not be mastered or domesticated. That is, the Gospel is cannot be wholly reduced to any human experience or action. As Paul says, the Gospel does not have a human origin or a human source.

And so, I want to offer some reflections for today on both of these directions. I want to recount the ways that I’ve seen the Gospel in this congregation and I want to suggest ways in which the Gospel pushes us into new and unexpected places.

What is the Gospel? It is the way this congregation mourns with those who mourn. It is the way that we help bury one another. Every year we gather early on a spring Sunday and walk to the graveyard together. Every year, we read the words of resurrection hope from the gospels. And year after year I have seen you embody that resurrection life as you have mourned with hope our brothers and sisters who have died. Faithful witnesses like Billy Polly, Harmon Gouge, Ray Giles, Julie Newby, and Melissa Dahlman. I have seen you entrust these saints to God with the steadfast faith in the God who gives life. And while we still weep for these friends, just as Jesus wept for his friend Lazeraus, we do not weep without hope. That is the Gospel. That is the visible manifestation of Jesus’s destruction of death. That is what it means when the author of Hebrews writes that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

What is the Gospel? It is being patient with one another. It is recognizing that those who are different than us are not obstacles to be overcome but brothers and sisters within whom the Spirit dwells. I have seen this congregation embody this kind of stubborn patience with one another. I have seen you patiently listen to Ben Lee’s constant quoting of T. S. Eliot. If you’ve been part of this body very long you are probably aware that there are real differences among this congregation. Differences of opinion in politics and philosophy, for sure, but also differences in our understanding of important theological points regarding Christian ethics, baptism, and worship. These differences are not swept under the rug here for the sake of the status quo. Nor are they affirmed as an ideal. Rather, they are set within a larger story, the story of God’s work among us, a work that requires a diversity within a larger unity of spirit in the bond of peace. That is the Gospel. In a world where ideological and theological differences fuel violence and isolation, the patience of this congregation with one another is a manifestation of Jesus’s preaching of peace to those who are far off and to those who are near.

What is the Gospel? It is this shared Table. Around this table we gather as broken, sinful beggars and our eyes our opened and Jesus is recognized among us. What seems at times to be simply a happy thought actually becomes the first course of the marriage supper of the Lamb. I have seen this congregation welcome Christ to this Table by practicing hospitality to the stranger and the homeless. I have seen this congregation manifest the Gospel by being a place where Christians from divided denominations and traditions can gather to pray for and practice the unity figured in this one bread and one cup. That is the Gospel. The fellowship that welcomes all to God’s abundance given in Jesus Christ.

It is clear to me that this congregation is a congregation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In these ways and in countless others the people who gather hear have allowed themselves to become Good News for a world in need. And yet, the Gospel is not bound by this congregation. It is not exhausted in what we do here. No, the Gospel is like a never-failing stream of fresh water. (Wendell Berry) “We did not make it. Though we drink till we burst we cannot have it all, or want it all. In its abundance it survives our thirst.”

The Gospel is not only in this place. We believe that the Good News of Jesus creates a crack throughout this world in which another world can be seen advancing. We believe that the Kingdom is coming in those cracks. We believe that what happened in a garden tomb outside of Jerusalem 2000 years ago put a crack in everything, for all times and in all places and called into question the world “as it is.” Let us find these Gospel cracks, which appear in surprising places [like a Roman Centurion with greater faith than the Jews]. Let us find these places where light is advancing in darkness. Let us be Gospel people by working for the Kingdom where the Spirit moves.

The Gospel is not a fixed tradition or people. It is not bound by any time, by any place, by language or by any people, even by the church. The Gospel is constantly moving and drawing us outside of ourselves, outside of our congregations, outside of even our ministries, in order to awake us anew to God’s powerful work in the world. Let us not rest content by saying that the Gospel has already been figured out and all we need to do is affirm that something happened long ago and far away—that people long dead have already figured out everything that the Gospel is and we simply need to bend a knee to that. No, we need to resist traditionalism, and awaken to a living tradition—one animated by the Spirit of God that constantly questions and pushes our boundaries.

The Gospel is both very complicated and very simple. You know it when you see it and yet it can still surprise you and show up in unsuspected places. It is clouded in mystery and it clears that which is clouded. It can be perfectly understood by children  just as it can bewilder the trained scholar.

Theologian Karl Barth wrote that “By the Gospel the whole concrete world is [both] dissolved and established.” (REPEAT). He writes that “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather it sets a question mark against all other truths. [It] is not the door but the hinge. … The Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.”

Let us continue to be people of the Gospel in this place. Let us continue to follow the Spirit into new places and discover there new life-giving waters. Let us remember when God has given us good news through the people around us and let us be prepared to be surprised for good news to appear in new places. May we be constantly awakened to the story of cross and resurrection which is the very foundation of the universe.

Waiting for the Church

As I prepare to be ordained into Christian ministry (at Hopwood Christian Church this Sunday, Pentecost, at 6pm), this quote is on my mind. I thought I would share it here.

“As the church that is founded on the apostolic word, the church is never a given factor. It has to be repeatedly found anew by an apostolic word. It can exist only in the event of the speaking and hearing of this apostolic word as God’s Word. Thus the church is an institution only as an invitation, as a waiting for the church. In the church we are always on the way to the event of the church. Thus the ministry as a stepping forth of individuals is an act which must repeatedly become a reality by the calling of God. Ordination is a canonical act, but its significance is as a pointer to God’s calling to the extent that in ordination the ordained come to hear the Word of God, which, however, they must constantly hear afresh.”

Karl Barth, Homiletics, 70

Diaspora Church

“The diaspora situation of the Church is thus, when seen from the perspective of the gospel, the normal one; whereas the medieval appearance of a ‘Christendom’ closed in on itself, whose opponents—as pagans and Moslems—are located beyond her borders and can be defended against with weapons of power and even pushed back, corresponded to a direct, unmediated insertion of the Old into the New Testament.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. 4: Spirit and Institution, 67.

The Destruction of Ethics

Is Jesus only the consoler and the helper of the individual in a world that forces people to do evil? Does he, against the background of personal forgiveness of sin, merely sanctify an ethics based on this old world, letting the old world ultimately be as it is? Or does the totality of human life rather meet the totality of divine conditions for life in Jesus? … Is Jesus indeed such a totally new world that fundamentally all our ethics, still built on the basis of the old world, is destroyed in encounter with him?

Karl Barth, Letter to Martin Rade, summer of 1915.

The Kiss of Peace

I haven’t written much blog-appropriate material lately, so here is something I wrote a while back that might be of interest. Last semester one of my students in my course on the history of Christian worship asked me about the practice of the kiss of peace. Here is what I cobbled together.

The so-called kiss of peace, or holy kiss, is mentioned several places in the New Testament (Rom 16:16, 1 Pet 5:14, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12). It clearly has to do with the fellowship and mutual love shared by Christians. It seems to have been an act specific to the worship gathering of Christians and not simply a general Christian practice of daily life (like, for example, prayer). In support of this, we read in the second-century testimony of Justin Martyr that there is a kiss present within the worship of the early Christians:

“Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine…” (First Apology, 65)

First, let’s deal with why there is a kiss of peace. 

1) To demonstrate and create interpersonal reconciliation and Christian unity in the worship service.

In the liturgies of the church, it is interesting to note that the kiss of peace moves around a bit.

In several liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox traditions, the kiss of peace is practiced in near proximity to the offering (“offering” not here referring to the collection of monies, but to the prayers offering to God the gifts of bread and wine for consecration). The kiss seems to have been placed there because of Jesus’ words in Matt 5:23ff regarding the reconciliation when you remember that you have something against a brother or sister while offering a gift on the altar. In the Western Rite (Roman Catholic and Anglican churches), the kiss of peace is placed directly before everyone participates in communion. Probably to underscore the importance of harmony and unity in the body before partaking in the one bread.

2) To show reverence to the image of Christ in others.

The kiss as an expression of reverence has ancient origins. The custom of kissing hands of sacred people (priests, bishops) and those with sacred authority (kings, emperors) is widespread among ancient cultures, including non-Christian cultures. Christians have kissed sacred obects and people during the worship service for centuries. In Orthodox services, people often kiss icons as an act of worship. In many churches (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) that are more “high church” in their worship they kiss the Eucharistic table, the gospel book, and other objects during the service.

These practices are meant to demonstate reverance to Christ who is represented in the images of Table and Gospel.

Given the New Testament understanding of the Christian as a vessel of Christ (“Christ in you, the hope of glory”) and the understanding of the liturgical kiss as a “holy kiss,” we might argue that kissing one another in worship is a greeting of Christ, whom we believe is present in our brothers and sisters.

Now, let’s talk about how people have practiced the kiss of peace. 

In the ancient church, it most certainly was an actual kiss. It was not a sexual act in any way, but was an intimate, but common greeting among friends. This is still the case in many cultures (I can remember being kissed on both cheeks frequently when I was in Russia).

In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (third century), he comments on the practice of actually giving a kiss in the liturgy:

“After the catechumens have finished praying, they do not give the kiss of peace, for their kiss is not yet pure. But the faithful shall greet one another with a kiss, men with men, and women with women. Men must not greet women with a kiss.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “Originally an actual kiss, the form of the Peace has been modified in all rites. In the Western the traditional practice was for the person giving the Peace to place hands on the shoulders of the recipient, who in turn placed his hands on the elbows of the giver, each bowing their heads toward each other, but in recent years hand-shaking has become more common outside monastic houses.” (Third Revised edition, p. 937)

So, in contemporary churches of the Western Rite, they normally practice the Kiss of Peace, or simply “Pax” or “Peace,” by hugging or shaking hands (often while saying “the peace of Christ be with you” or some such variance).

We see something of this in the intermittent practice of “meet and greet” in Evangelical and Stone-Campbell churches. In general though, this practice seems to be more like a break in the worship of the church in order to talk to friends. The traditional Kiss of Peace, on the other hand, seems to be a more sober and specifically liturgical act in the service. That is, you probably shouldn’t start up a conversation about last night’s NFL game. In the traditions that practice it, it is supposed to be a holy greeting that both symbolizes and creates unity and reconciliation in the body of Christ.

take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.
I will show you the things that are not being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take heart, Make perfect your will.
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
There are hands and machines
And clay for new brick
And lime for new mortar
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of GOD,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

~T.S. Eliot

Ash Wednesday: A Homily

Ash Wednesday

I delivered the homily at our Ash Wednesday service this year. Here it is.

I hope you all have a blessed Lent.

Isaiah 58:1–12
2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2
Luke 4:1–14

In his play Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot tells the story of the martyrdom of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170. As agents from the king come to kill him, Becket preaches his final sermon in the cathedral on Christmas morning. He reflects in the sermon upon the paradox of celebrating Christ’s birth in the midst of a mass centered on Christ’s death. Joy and sorrow are not as far from one another as one would initially think. In his sermon, he turns to the topic of the martyrs. So to, with them. We rejoice that these departed brothers and sisters can be counted among the saints around the heavenly throne even while we mourn that they have been killed for their faith. Then, in an aside, Eliot has Becket note that, “saints are not made by accident.”

If the season of Lent had a tagline, that would be it. “Saints are not made by accident.” The stories of saints are not stories of people who waited until they had finished school, secured an income, created a stable family to follow radically after Jesus. No, the stories of saints are stories of what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction,” —the direction toward the cross. They are stories of intentionally following Jesus through the practice of everyday life. It is not extraordinary actions or miracles that make a saint, but ordinary faith, simple virtues, and unseen service.

Lent is a season of waking up to ourselves, of reminding ourselves that this faithfulness thing doesn’t happen by accident or when it’s convenient. That is why during this season before Easter we divest ourselves of distractions and luxuries, of habits and attitudes, so that we can intently look into the mirror and see the self that is really there and not the self we want to be there. Self-awareness, like sainthood, does not happen by accident.

And as we look at ourselves so that all our failings and imperfections are clearly visible, we take the difficult next step, confession. For Lent is not simply a season of increased self-awareness, but of growth in Christian virtue. So acknowledging our sin and skewed perspective must lead to clearing the way for growth. When we finally awake to the imperfect self in the mirror, we gather together to confess our sin and cultivate a penitential attitude in our lives. We begin, then, by drawing upon the Old Testament practice of mourning; we begin with ashes. After we come to our senses like the younger brother in Jesus’ story, we confess that we are not the selves that we thought we were. We confess that we are not the center of the universe, but simply a small part of God’s creation; we confess that we are, as the psalmist says, shoots of grass that spring up in the morning but by evening are dry and withered. We confess that we are not the servants of God that we want to be; and we even confess that we don’t always want to be God’s servants. We confess it all. Together. Here.

Lent is then a time of taking an inventory of our lives, of finally noticing all of the rubbish we’ve picked up along the way: cynical attitudes, addictions, distractions and unforgiveness. We confess it and we put it down. But it doesn’t stop there. Lent isn’t about becoming the best me I can be. We don’t just set down that which is weighing on us, we have to pick up something too.

In his fantastical vision of living creatures and dragons, of angels with trumpets and elders with crowns, John the Revelator has a curious phrase. As he is describing the people of God, the people who’ve been marked as God’s own, he says that “these follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4). The Lamb he speaks of, the one who was slain and now lives and rules holding the keys to death, is Jesus. If you want to know who the people of God are, then look who is following Jesus. During Lent we set our compass once again, and follow Jesus. That is the theme of our book of Lenten reflections—“Walking with Jesus.” As we walk with Jesus, we go to some strange places.

We go into the wilderness for forty days; we walk into synagogues, proclaiming jubilee, we sleep on boats and eat fish sandwiches on hillsides. We eat at the table of teachers of Israel, and with sinners and tax collectors. But if we follow Jesus long enough, we’ll eventually make it to Jerusalem. And as the palm branches that were so triumphal raised begin to turn brown and wither, we will make our way to a forsaken hill. And there we will die with Jesus. Walking with Jesus means journeying toward our deaths. It means carrying our own crosses.

Our mourning in ashes tonight is not only a mourning over our sin, it is also a mourning over our impending deaths—over the inevitable end of walking with Jesus. But because this death is a sharing in the death of Jesus, it is also a joy. For we know that God will raise us up, as he raised up Jesus.

In just a moment, we will invite you, if you so desire, to come forward to receive ashes, to mourn together. To set aside those things that are weighing us down. And then you will be given a cross as a reminder of what you are called to carry as we journey toward Easter together. This is not an easy journey, and it won’t happen by accident, but together we can inch toward Jerusalem, together we can follow Jesus. As we leave this sanctuary tonight, look around at the foreheads of friends and strangers. These are the ones who’ve been marked. These are the ones who follow the Lamb.

We leave as pilgrims and fellow travelers.

Amen.

The Religion of Capitalism

Circumstances alter from age to age, and the practical interpretation of moral principles must alter with them. Few who consider dispassionately the facts of social history will be disposed to deny that the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, organized for the purposes of economic gain, buttressed by imposing systems of law, and screened by decorous draperies of virtuous sentiment and resounding rhetoric, has been a permanent feature in the life of most communities that the world has yet seen. But the quality in modern societies which is most sharply opposed to the teaching ascribed to the Founder of the Christian Faith lies deeper that the exceptional failures and abnormal follies against which criticism is most commonly directed. It consists in the assumption, accepted by more reformers with hardly less naiveté than by the defenders of the established order, that the attainment of material riches is the supreme object of human endeavor and the final criterion of human success. Such a philosophy, plausible, militant, and not indisposed, when hard pressed, to silence criticism by persecution, may triumph or may decline. What is certain is that it is the negation of any system of thought or morals which can, except by a metaphor, be described as Christian. Compromise is as impossible between the Church of Christ and the idolatry of wealth, which is the practical religion of capitalist societies, as it was between the Church and the State idolatry of the Roman Empire.

R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1922), 234–5.

On Living in the Real World: A Sermon

For my first post of this new year, I thought that I would share a sermon I gave last night at the ecumenical Adoration service hosted by my church. Christians of every stripe gather on Tuesday nights for a liturgical service centered on Scripture and Table.

Homily for Adoration 1/15/2013
(Texts from USCCB 1/13/2013, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord)
Isaiah 42:1–7
Psalm 29
Titus 2:11–14, 3:4–7
Luke 3:15–16, 21–22

In May of 2008, David DeVore Jr., only seven years old, underwent his first surgery. Since his mother could not be present, his father decided to document the experience to share with her later. After an outpatient oral surgery, David’s father buckled him in the backseat and began recording. The resulting video, depicting a seven year old’s reaction to anesthesia, was eventually posted on youtube and went viral, titled, “David After Dentist.” It’s easy to see why it was so popular. The hilarious two-minute video shows David wrestling with the medicine’s effects on his body. He clearly knows something is off, but he just can’t seem to put his finger on it. At one point in the video, he looks at his dad and asks, “Is this real life?” Despite his Dad’s assurances that yes, this is indeed real life, David appears to remain skeptical. This is not real life as he knows it.

Reading our texts for today, I am inclined to ask myself the same question. Isaiah testifies that the servant of the Lord, whom we know to be Jesus, will peaceably establish justice on the earth. But a quick look around, or a scan of recent headlines seems to be pretty convincing counter-evidence to that statement. In a world where children are sold into military and sexual slavery, where the rich are satisfied and the poor are starving, can we really believe that Jesus has already established justice on the earth? Isaiah tells us that the servant of the LORD will bring prisoners out of their confinement and open the eyes of the blind. If Jesus did that, why are there still so many prisoners? Why is there still so much blindness? I read Isaiah’s admittedly beautiful song and I have to ask myself, “Is this real life?”

I tell myself that maybe it is not. Maybe it is just what our life can be, or will be with God’s future action. Maybe because of Jesus, we can hope, with steadfast faith, that this will happen; that justice will be established and prisoners will be set free. Maybe this prophetic text is still anticipatory for God’s creation which wanders in darkness and groans in expectation.

But that move doesn’t do much good. Perhaps Isaiah is yet to be fulfilled, but Titus does not offer us that way out. Paul says in Titus that the grace of God has already appeared, saving all. Saving all? Really? Is this real life? I look at Titus and I think to myself, did the grace of God appear and save the young children in Newtown?

Paul says the the grace of God has appeared and is training us to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age. But, has it really? Don’t we in the church struggle just as much as those outside to live rightly in this world? Doesn’t sin still get a hold of us and drag us down? Are we sure that the Scriptures are talking about our world and not about some other world, far away from the pain and ambiguity that we all know?

The Scriptures paint a beautiful picture, there is no doubt about that. They quicken our imagination and spark our curiosity. But the question is not whether they are nice to think about, or whether give us a good feeling, the question is whether they are true. In light of what I see in the world, it is hard to say that they are. Maybe, you’re different than me. Maybe you don’t feel in your bones the loneliness, the suffering, and the pain of the world. But I do, and I have to ask myself if Marx was right. Is all that is in these Scriptures opium for the masses?

Then I think about the scene from our gospel. It must have been a fantastic sight to behold. The sky opens up, revealing the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and the very voice of God announcing the Jesus is his beloved Son. In the midst of the wilderness in an oppressed country, God breaks through and announces that he is changing real life. Something new is happening. That is our hope, right? That the world as we know it is transformed into the beautiful life promised by the scriptures, that as John the Revelator says, the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

At Jesus’ baptism, all can see this uniting of heaven and earth—this transformation of earth by heaven. No one who saw this awesome scene could possibly deny that this was indeed the real world that they knew.

And yet, we read later in Luke’s gospel that some who were present at this scene doubted the Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And these doubters weren’t just the people on the outskirts, the people who might have been to far away to have seen clearly the dove-like figure or made out what the thundering voice was saying. No, the doubter that we know of is John himself, the very one baptizing Jesus. The one with the front-row seat to this sight. After enough time had passed and Jesus had lost a little of the novelty of a prophet by teaching in parables and surrounding himself with a ragtag group of peasants, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus. Are you sure that you’re the one, or are we supposed to wait for another?

 

The gospel message is not that because Jesus came, lived, died and was resurrected, that we now have the promise of a future negation of all of the pain and misery in the world. The gospel is not that Jesus came and therefore we can be assured that we can go to heaven when we die. No, the the gospel message is that in Christ God has already destroyed the wall of hostility, in Christ, God has already defeated death, in Christ, God has already brought about a new age.

The world full of suffering and death, of heartsickness and addiction that we all know and experience, that is not the real world. The real world is the world we read about in these Scriptures, that we celebrate at this table.

That is why we come together to worship. To divest ourselves of our worlds and histories and see again the glory of God’s real world. This is a cause of rejoicing, as theologian David Bentley Hart says. “We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

And this is not only some future reality that we hope for, but the world as it already really is, ruled presently by the lamb who was slain. We come here to train our eyes, to cultivate our alternative consciousness to maintain a sense of the reality that runs against the stream of the unquestionably accepted commonplaces of the age. We come hear to learn, as John Howard Yoder said, “to see history doxologically.” To open our eyes and see the whole cosmos as a theater of God’s action, and all sin, all death, as nothing.

Rowan Williams tells a story about nuns who made the decision to put up a sign that reads “private” on the front door of the convent. Itself, not that noteworthy of an action, until, that is, we learn of the direction of the sign. It was placed on the inside of the front door. It points to the fact that the outside world is a world full of sin and isolation (Adam, Where are you?), while inside the convent, through prayer and self-critical contemplation, a truly public life is being lived before God and one another. That is the real world. Everything outside and opposed to the grace, love, and justice of Jesus is non-being is unreality. So, we gather in worship to hear again the gospel, the Yes of God to his creation. As we approach this table, we are like Peter walking on the sea. We behold Jesus here and we confess, “Lord, we believe.” Then we turn to the world beyond these doors, the false world of sin and loneliness, like the waves threatening to overtake Peter, and pray, “help our unbelief.”
Amen.

A Christmas Letter

To a Prisoner in Germany

Basel, 20 December 1961

Dear N. N.,

Your letter of the thirteenth reached me yesterday and moved me greatly. Partly because you refer to my good friend Gertrud Staewen but above all because Christmas is upon us, I hasten to make at least a short reply.

Since you obviously want something from me, you cannot be serious in expecting me to judge you harshly. But can I give you any supporting counsel?

You say you plunge deeply into the Bible in vain. You say you also pray in vain. You are clearly thinking of a “final step” but you shrink back from it. Have I understood you correctly?

First regarding your prayers. How do you know they are in vain? God has His own time and He may well know the right moment to lift the double shadow that now lies over your life. Therefore, do not stop praying.

It could also be that He will answer you in a very different way from what you have in mind in your prayers. Hold unshakably fast to one thing. He loves you even now as the one you now are. …And listen closely: it might well be that He will not lift this shadow from you, possibly will never do so your whole life, just because from all eternity He has appointed you to be His friend as He is yours, just because He wants you as the man whose only option it is to love Him in return and give Him alone the glory there in the depths from which He will not raise you.

Get me right: I am not saying that this has to be so, that the shadows cannot disperse. But I see and know that there are shadows in the lives of all of us, not the same as those under which you sigh, but in their way oppressive ones too, which will not disperse, and which perhaps in God’s will must not disperse, so that we may be held in the place where, as those who are loved by God, we can only love Him back and praise Him.

Thus, even if this is His mind and will for you, in no case must you think of that final step. May your hope not be a tiny flame but a big and strong one, even then, I say, and perhaps precisely then; no, not perhaps but certainly, for what God chooses for us children of men is always the best.

Can you follow me? Perhaps you can if you read the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, not deeply but very simply, with the thought that every word there, and every word in the Twenty-Third Psalm too, is meant for you too, and especially for you.

With friendly greetings and all good wishes,

Yours,
Karl Barth

Karl Barth, Letters: 1961–1968, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 27–8.

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