Foolish to the Perishing

In the congregation where I grew up, we were not people of the cross, the minister said, we were people of the empty tomb. There was a cross in the sanctuary, but it was an empty cross. No dead Jesus for us; we were resurrection people. The congregation was not unique and as I look back on this I am struck mostly by what this says about our contemporary Christian culture. We  have so fully embraced the cross, that it has become a stepping stone on our way to the victorious Christian life.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings (Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-21, Mat. 5:1-12) help put this in perspective. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” is how Paul begins this week’s epistle reading. What Paul is getting at (as is Jesus when he begins the Sermon of the Mount with Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.) is familiar to us. The world’s values ought not be (in fact, they cannot be) our values. Jesus’ values are the sort of thing that, if you think about it logically, will get us into the poor house, give us diseases, and ultimately get us killed. This is no way to run a kingdom!

But we’ve heard that for 2,000 years, and after 2,000 years of repetition, the rough edges of the message have been smoothed away and, since we already know what’s coming, we give assent with a momentary horror at how utterly upside down and difficult this would be if we were to take it literally, and then we take that rough diamond of the gospel now smoothed and shaped into a lovely gem, a piece of jewelry, and go on with our life.

That’s why that minister could move so conveniently and quickly past the cross and on to the resurrection. It’s a difficult thing, but it’s a known difficulty. Yes we have to die, but after that victory!

Today, may we should simply stop after the first half of that sentence: Yes, we have to die.

The resurrection is not ours to do or not do, the cross is the part we must embrace, Once we get the hang of that, the resurrection will take care of itself. If we can actually come to a full stop and live in that manner, we are indeed blessed.

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God Is Not His Own Prisoner

I’ll continue quoting Barth in a second post. (See previous post for context.) Calvin isn’t named, and I suspect Barth is still critiquing the Lutherans of his day, but this bit gets to the heart of one of Calvin’s grave errors (that is, an abstract ideal of divine immutability) that led him inexorably to affirm absolute predestination in spite of what scripture says.

His immutability does not stand in the way of [the incarnation]. It must not be denied, but this possibility [that God’s absoluteness is modulated by the incarnation, that God, as a result of love, changes] is included in His unalterable being. He is absolute, infinite, exalted, active, impassible, transcendent, but in all this He is the One who loves in freedom, the One who is free in His love, and therefore not His own prisoner. He is all this as the Lord, and in such a way that He embraces the opposites of these concepts even while He is superior to them.

As the paragraph goes on, Barth highlights several of the divine attributes that Protestant theologians too often treat in the abstract.

Omnipresence

His particular, and highly particularised, presence in grace, in which the eternal Word descended to the lowest parts of the earth (Eph. 49) and tabernacled in the man Jesus (Jn. 114), dwelling in this one man in the fulness of His Godhead (Col. 29), is itself the demonstration and exercise of His omnipresence, i.e., of the perfection in which He has His own place including all other places.

Omnipotence

His omnipotence is that of a divine plenitude of power in the fact that (as opposed to any abstract omnipotence) it can assume the form of weakness and impotence and do so as omnipotence, triumphing in this form.

Eternity

The eternity in which He Himself is true time and the Creator of all time is revealed in the fact that, although our time is that of sin and death, He can enter it and Himself be [p 188] temporal in it, yet without ceasing to be eternal, able rather to be the Eternal in time.

Etc. And finally:

God does not have to dishonour Himself when He goes into the far country, and conceals His glory. For He is truly honoured in this concealment. This concealment, and therefore His condescension as such, is the image and reflection in which we see Him as He is. His glory is the freedom of the love which He exercises and reveals in all this. In this respect it differs from the unfree and loveless glory of all the gods of human imagining.

Note: Barth then offers a 3,400 word footnote or excursis in which he establishes all this in scripture. I chose not to include it, you’ll have to look that one up yourself. 🙂

Church Dogmatics, IV:1, pp. 187f)

Because Our Concept of God is Too Narrow … Far too Narrow

Ooh la la: Ice storm! Stayed home from work!! Reading Barth!!! Doesn’t get much better than that. Here’s today’s goody from the Church Dogmatics (IV:1, p. 186. 1956 ed., to be specific). Barth is critiquing the idea that the incarnation is “God against God,” an idea that was evidently quite popular among the German Lutherans of his day. What I find so moving is Barth’s emphasis on taking God at face value and being humble in the face of what we find.

We begin with the insight that God is “not a God of confusion, but of peace” (1 Cor. 1433). In Him there is no paradox, no antinomy, no division, no inconsistency, not even the possibility of it. He is the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness nor interplay of light and darkness (Jas. 117). What He is and does He is and does in full unity with Himself. It is in full unity with Himself that He is also—and especially and above all—in Christ, that He becomes a creature, human, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human—far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by Him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about Him within the framework of a false idea of God. It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to reconstitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be only the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, but the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ. We cannot make them the standard by which to measure what God can or cannot do, or the basis of the judgment that in doing this He brings Himself into self-contradiction. By doing this God proves to us that He can do it, that to do it is within His nature. And He shows Himself to be more great and rich and sovereign that we had ever imagined. And our ideas of His nature must be guided by this, and not vice versa.

We have to think something after the following fashion. As God was in Christ, far from being against Himself, or at disunity with Himself, [p 187] He has put into effect the freedom of His divine love, the love in which He is divinely free. He has therefore done and revealed that which corresponds to His divine nature.

God’s High Humility

So I’m reading this okay book on compassion and in one chapter the authors quote ch. XIV of Barth’s Dogmatics four times. Was kind of bored with the book so I pulled out that volume and began to read that chapter entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country.” I just ran across this nugget:

In the fact that God is gracious to man, all the limitations of man are God’s limitations, all his weaknesses, and more, all his perversities are His. … In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God. He does not shrink from him …

God shows himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this.

[Okay, here’s the good part!]

In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty he is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation (IV, 1), pp. 158f.

The Pointing Prophet

John-the-Baptist-Matthias-Grunewald-1024x908This Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 1:29-42 begins with John the Baptist saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s an affirmation that John repeats again when he sees Jesus the next day. This text is the subject of Matthias Grunewald’s famous picture of John the Baptist at the foot of the Cross pointing at Jesus, with the Lamb of God looking on, in the Isenheim Altarpiece.

It was through Karl Barth that I discovered the image, he refers to it several times in the Dogmatics and it is the featured front piece in his biography. In the Grunewald image Karl Barth famously saw the “hand of judgment and grace” in the pointing finger of John the Baptist.

But as I have contemplated the image over the years I see in it a message specifically for preachers. The text from John 1 is familiar and comfortable. The phrase “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is an integral part of the liturgy. The metaphor “lamb of God” has so many great preaching possibilities. It’s easy to get lost in the potential of John the Baptist as a character and the phrase as a literary springboard.

And this is always the temptation for the preacher. How many times have I heard that someone attends a church because the pastor is such a great preacher? (Actually, I heard it again yesterday afternoon smoking with some other pastors and priests at the local cigar lounge.) How seductive is it for the preacher to put all his energy into a great sermon because great preaching gets exactly that result?

But in the Isenheim Altarpiece we see a glimpse of authentic preaching. Truly great preaching operates on two levels. On the one hand it is “beautiful” in the sense that it is accessible, understandable, winsome, and attuned to the subject at hand. This is the spotless lamb at the prophet’s feet. But at the same time great preaching is terrifying (and here I have in mind the original meaning of “awesome” – full of awe) because our God is an awesome God. And if the message comes across in the treacly manner that the cloying praise chorus of the same name comes across, preaching has utterly missed its mark.

Reality is a point in life that is sometimes mystery, sometimes utter befuddlement, sometimes happy, sometimes terror, and often very ugly. Reality is a point where life actually lived encounters the true God who is seemingly inaccessible because he is encountered at that point of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness. Great preaching is pointing to that very spot of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness and showing that God-in-Christ is right there in the midst of it. This is the disfigured and pock-marked Jesus hanging on the cross, weighted down so heavily with our burdens that the cross-piece on which he is hanging bends toward the earth.

And the congregation? They don’t even seem to realize the pointing prophet exists. They are on the other side of that radix of reality looking upon Christ weeping (with horror? with sadness? with joy? No, all three!), because at this specific point where they find themselves, God-in-Christ truly dwells, as revealed in the truly great sermon.

Later (in John 3), John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is indeed what we see in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and precisely what truly great preaching embodies.

We Hear what We want to Hear

Peter’s speech in Acts 10:36:43 is pretty much the same way Peter and the other disciples have explained the Gospel all along. “Peace [comes] by Jesus Christ,” “He is the Lord of all,” Jesus was “anointed with power by the Holy Spirit,” he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” he died on the cross and was raised up, and the disciples were “commanded to preach to the people and testify that he is the one ordained by God.”

But while this sermon is all the same words, it’s completely different because Peter is talking to Gentiles who have never converted to Judaism. Until a few hours prior to this, Peter didn’t believe that was possible. But God gave him a dream to disturb his sleep, and Peter was man enough to recognize that he got it all wrong and he recognized that the Gospel was for everyone (as Paul would describe it later, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female). As a result he is minutes away from baptizing the first Gentiles who have not first converted to Judaism into the Christian church.

Thus, the first two verses (34-35) that I didn’t include above are the critical ones. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

And this is the point of these weeks following Epiphany. Epiphany (Jan 6) is the twelfth and last day of the Christmas feast, when the Western Church celebrates the revelation of Christ to the Magi. It is preceded by Jesus’ Name Day (Jan 1) wherein it is revealed that this baby is the promised Savior (the meaning of the name Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew). This is followed in quick succession by celebrations of his baptism by John in the Jordan and his first miracle at Cana. It concludes (in the Revised Common Lectionary readings) on the Sunday before Lent with Jesus’ Transfiguration

In short, this is a period when hopefully we have the ears to hear the Gospel all over again, and this time, like Peter, actually hear it. Peter listened to Jesus for three years but he always put the message into his familiar categories and thus he thought of the Gospel as an improved Judaism and not something shatteringly new.

And this is what we do also; it’s not Peter’s failure, it’s a human failure. We come to the Gospel with a set of assumptions about how the world is, what its problems are, and how to fix them. And when we hear the Gospel we tend to hear something that improves what we already “know” is right.

This is why Christianity in East Texas sounds suspiciously like a Republican precinct meeting, while Christianity in Boston sounds suspiciously like the Democratic convention and Christianity in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis sounds suspiciously like an NAACP rally. It’s why “Panos,” the YouTube character, is able to make such wicked fun of the Greeks and their weird marriage of culture and religion.

We hear what we want to hear.

Great preaching isn’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Spiritual retreats and Bible seminars aren’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Daily devotions aren’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Maybe we all need to … if we dare … pray for a shattering dream that troubles our sleep. Maybe we need to “un-know” a lot of what we “know” is right. Maybe then, we can finally, like Peter, hear the Gospel.

That, my friends, would truly be an Epiphany!