Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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The Mystery of the Unrecognised Christ

 

Everything begins with forgiveness. Authentic life begins the minute we are able to forgive and receive forgiveness. Until then, all is theory and talk. The key moment on the Cross was when Jesus looked out at the soldiers and crowd and spoke the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Our salvation was sealed at that moment. Everything that comes after that, including 2,000 years of church history, is just footnote to those words Jesus spoke on the Cross.

But most of us don’t know that we are forgiven, and we go through life lurching from day to day, bouncing back and forth from one professional help to another, from one religious expert to another.

So I like to describe Lent this year as our voyage of discovery, the discovery that we are forgiven. But also the discovery of what we do with our forgiveness. How does it affect our lives, our attitudes and actions? This is what I want to explore in this series of Lenten sermons that I’m calling Emmaus Walk. Many years ago I was doing a 15 or 20-minute teaching every Sunday morning between the end of Matins and the beginning of Liturgy. I called it Emmaus Walk, a preparation for encountering the risen Christ at the Liturgy.

The series of sermons I’m now calling Emmaus Walk will take us to Easter. But along the way I want to discover together with you the Christ who is walking with us every step of the way.

Do you remember the Emmaus story in the Gospel of Luke? Here is the first half of the story as Luke tells it (chapter 24, beginning at verse 13):

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma′us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cle′opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

The scene describes where most of us are most of the time. We have heard about Jesus Christ. We have listened to many Gospel readings in the Liturgy. We hear some of our friends and relatives talking with great conviction about Jesus, how their faith in him has transformed their lives. We go to church regularly, we follow some traditions handed down by our mothers or grandmothers. But we don’t quite know how to put it all together. We don’t know quite what to make of this Jesus Christ and all the talk about him. We don’t know why we follow certain traditions or how to pass them on to our children or grandchildren who have a different approach to life and who don’t worry about the same things we worry about. We begin to have doubts ourselves. Maybe it is all a myth after all. 

That’s where Cleopas and his unnamed companion were on that Sunday afternoon long ago. (And by the way, why does the second, unnamed disciple have to be another man? Why couldn’t it have been a woman, as the beautiful but very unusual – very “un-Orthodox” – icon on the right imagines?) They had seen Jesus die on the Cross, they were deeply troubled by how things ended, they are confused and sad. They saw all their hopes disappear on the Cross. But now they hear that some women had found the tomb empty. They keep walking, not knowing what to make of it all.

Only one person can explain it to them – Jesus himself. He joins them in their walk, but they don’t recognise him. Perhaps his appearance was different after the resurrection? What happens after he joins them we’ll explore in the next few sermons.

Only Jesus can satisfy our questions, our doubts. And he does come to us. We don’t recognise him, because he comes to us as one of the least of his brothers and sisters as we heard last week in our Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46). Very often the answers we need at a particular moment come from the most unexpected persons. This is the mystery of the unrecognised Jesus.

The mystery of the unrecognised Christ is all around us. We just need to open our minds and hearts to see it and hear it. Christ is with us – usually in the least expected places and persons. We might see him in the person we forgive or who forgives us. We might hear his wisdom from the mouth of a child. We might understand his Cross in a tragedy such as the one in Florida this past week. Everything is a mystery of his presence, his unrecognised presence.

 


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An Ash Wednesday of Sin and Horror

Among the most poignant scenes from yesterday’s carnage in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday were grieving and anxious parents with ashes on their forehead. Yesterday, of course, was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. This is how the website bibleinfo.com summarizes the meaning of Ash Wednesday: Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19 KJV). Besides showing sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add an additional meaning; the need to prepare for a holy death.

Yesterday was indeed a day of huge sin and a horrible encounter with death. So many young lives, full of promise and energy, cut down by the bullets of one angry, hate-filled youth! The images of parents with ashes on their foreheads were a blunt reminder that we are very much a human race that is still sunk in sin, despite the salvation and grace that God poured upon us through the death and resurrection of his Son. Lent is the time in which we prepare to confront the death and resurrection of Christ every year. But Christ told us last Sunday that he is in every one of the least of his brothers and sisters, and what we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do unto him. It was Christ who was murdered yesterday in those 17 lives. Not just a liturgical commemoration of his death this time; but an actual, dark reminder that we live in a death-culture society. Yes, I’m sorry if that strikes some of you as an exaggeration or unnecessarily pessimistic, but there is no other word for it that I can think of. We are a death-culture society!

Death has become a constant in our society: Gun deaths, terrorist deaths, drug-induced deaths, poverty-driven deaths, refugee deaths, unborn deaths, environmental death and deaths…and the death of morality, of civic responsibility, of communication, of accountable political leadership…Need I go on? Flags at half mast. Have you noticed how many times flags are at half mast every year? Yes, half mast. It doesn’t cost anything to fly flags at half mast. A sign of national humility? Perhaps. But the arrogance comes right back up a few days later. And the forgetfulness. We shrug our shoulders and move on – until the next round of bullets at a school or at a concert or a party or a troubled home. Nothing changes, except the statistics which become more brutal every year. Second Amendment they say. I can assure you that the Founding Fathers of this nation never envisaged a future such as ours or weapons such as ours in the hands of teenagers and people with mental problems.

Talk about gun deaths in this country and you’ll be criticised for now getting “political”. “Political” – a nice label people resort to when they don’t want to confront reality. I weep with those parents with ashes – and the many others without ashes – in Parkland, Florida. I wish the Orthodox Church had an Ash Wednesday to start Lent. Every year, it’s becoming more and more clear that there are forces that aim to foreshorten human life and to return us to dust and ashes prematurely. Let’s make this Lent a time not for self-improvement and weight loss, but a time for reaching out to this death culture to transform it in any small way we can. Make this Lent a time to reach out to anyone who is troubled, to someone who is alone and needs the human touch, a kind word, a positive vision of life. Although I’m pessimistic about the death culture around us, I’m very optimistic about our power to transform it. Let’s make this Lent a time of resurrection power in the midst of sin and death.

Agape and Shalom to you today.


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The “God is with us” Judgment

 

I’ve always been puzzled and somewhat amused by the choice of readings on this Meatfare Sunday. And by the way, that is a terrible English version of the Greek name for this Sunday: Κυριακή της Απόκρεω. Apokreo means “from meat”; in other words, leave-taking of meat, saying goodbye to meat! “Meatfare Sunday” almost sounds like a Sunday dedicated to celebrating meat!

The Epistle reading for this Sunday was presumably chosen by monks because of Paul’s line about not eating meat. But Paul’s statement has nothing to do with Lenten fasting! As always, it’s the context that we fail to recognize. It was customary in Corinth at that time to sell meat in the marketplace that had been offered in the pagan temples. So many Christians in Corinth were offended to see a fellow Christian eating such meat. Paul had no qualms about eating such meat, but if it meant that weak Christians would be offended (scandalized), he would give up meat. “Therefore, if food would cause my brother or sister to fall, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother or sister to fall.” Paul’s concern is for the other, for the brother or sister, and this text is the opposite of the usual Lenten focus on my own spiritual condition. The Epistle and Gospel today tell us that the focus is the other, the brother and sister. And that is the real meaning of Lent. The message is the exact opposite of the self-righteous, self-absorbed, finger-pointing Christianity that comes so easily to us.

Matthew’s Gospel is the “God with us” Gospel… Emmanuel

Michelangelo’s famous rendition of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. (click to enlarge)

If God is with us, how can life go on as usual? This is Matthew’s overall message. God is with us and nothing can be the same again. And yet Jesus near the end of his earthly ministry told his disciples, “the poor you will always have with you.” The poor will always be among us as a challenge, as the fulcrum for judgment. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is the “God is with us” judgment.

Poverty is unacceptable to God. It is unacceptable because God created everything to be good. God created a world, a universe, that is abundant in all the necessities of life. I believe that before long, life will be discovered in other parts of the universe. I believe I will live to see proof that there is other life in the universe. And that will only show yet again that God is the God of abundance – not only here on our earth, but throughout the universe.

God’s purpose for us is to have life and have it abundantly. Those were Jesus’ words. So when people, God’s children, are denied the necessities of life, it is tragedy and sin beyond measure.

The parable about the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, is Jesus’ final teaching! It was his final parable. The very next words Matthew wrote after this parable are these:

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matthew 26:1-5)

The parable was indeed the beginning of the end for Jesus. But did you notice the beginning of the parable?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…..

The parable is aimed at nations, entire societies. In chapter 16 of Ezekiel, God accuses Israel of “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but [you] did not aid the poor and needy.”

Does that mean we are not judged individually? No, we are judged as individuals, but also as members of a nation, a society. What are the nation’s priorities? How do our personal priorities fit in? Is it hard to clothe the naked, to welcome a stranger, a homeless person into your home? Is it hard to visit a prison? And by the way, all English translations say “stranger” in this parable. But the Greek word is ξένος, which more accurately means foreigner, alien. All the things Jesus lists in this parable are difficult for most of us. But are they too difficult for a society, a nation? God says, No – there is no excuse for a nation to neglect the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the foreigner! No excuse.

But wait, what about the church? We are a society. Jesus placed the church in the world not to massage our egos, but to enable us as a group, as a community, to do what we can’t do as individuals or as a nation. Can’t we as a church do the things Jesus speaks in this parable? Can’t we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and the prisoner?

Why are we not more involved in soup kitchens? Why are we not out there advocating for the homeless and the refugees? Why do we call the poor lazy? Surely we can find ways to fulfill Jesus’ commands? Surely he is not asking us to do the impossible. Take something like ministry to prisoners. While it may be much harder to visit prisoners now than it was centuries, or perhaps even decades, ago, a ministry to prisoners is within the ability of every church. I remember many years ago Eula Chrissikos, despite her severe physical disability, used to visit regularly a prisoner at the state penitentiary, a man who was serving a life sentence for murder. I went along with her on one or two of her visits.

The church is capable of many things, but not so that we leave a calling card behind everything we do, so we receive thanks. Not to us, Lord, not to us the glory or the thanks. When, Lord, when did we see you naked or in prison? This is not a parable to depress us, but to challenge us to new faith. Every year we read this a week before Lent begins to remind us that Lent is not about our needs, but the needs of people around us. We are on a journey to Easter, but on this journey we encounter the other – whoever the other happens to be.

 


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The Truth About Repentance

 

I read an incredible story in the Washington Post.  A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.

It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance.  Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.

We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.

I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.

Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:

2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.

2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.

So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.

What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!

He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.

This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.


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Three Men in the Temple

The great danger of meditation and other techniques for the inner life: it often ends up as dialogue with oneself. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee entered the Temple of God and did nothing more than dialogue with himself. The Greek text says, πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο: the most direct translation is “to himself he thus prayed.” The RSV translation says, “with himself” – a slightly more moderate image, but the Greek text does say “to himself”! The tax collector entered not perhaps knowing what he was looking for. Perhaps like Zacchaeus last week; he had no agenda. Confronted with God’s holiness in the Temple he poured out his contrition. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” No long speech, no self-exaltation or self-justification! He entered the Temple of God and there found God, not his own ego. He too, was a son of Abraham!

It reminds me of one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 73, a psalm of Asaph. It is a psalm that tells of a severe life-crisis, a crisis of faith, a crisis that comes from looking at the way the world functions!

The psalm opens conventionally enough:

Truly God is good to the upright,
    to those who are pure in heart.

But immediately we are thrown into the speaker’s life crisis:

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
    my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant;
    I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

He confesses that he envied the way the arrogant and wicked lived. He goes on to describe the comfortable lives of the wicked:

For they have no pain;
    their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
    they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
    their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
    loftily they threaten oppression.

He could have been describing the Pharisee in the parable Jesus spoke. The psalmist is greatly confused.

All in vain I have kept my heart clean
    and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
    and am punished every morning.

He is brutally honest with God, and in a sense he is challenging his own faith. Is it in vain, after all? Should he have lived his life like the wicked after all? No, no, he couldn’t think this way. Why?

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
    I would have been untrue to the generation of your children.

This is a powerful statement by Asaph. He is tempted to turn away from his righteous living and become like the wicked. But he is not alone; he has a responsibility to the generations of God’s children. He is accountable! And that’s a universe away from the values of today’s society, where people owe nothing to anyone! They’re accountable only to themselves – if even that. We are self-absorbed; Asaph was absorbed in his concern for others and what his actions or decisions would do for the “generations of God’s children! Biblical morality is always about the “other” and the impact of our actions on the “other”.

But this sense of accountability does not lessen his burden, it makes it worse:

But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task…

Until:

until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I perceived their end.

He went into the Temple and there he got the answer to his confusion. He saw “their end” – how God will deal with the wicked. He doesn’t tell us any more than that. I visualise him standing in the Temple and pouring out his confusion and spiritual turmoil to God. And somehow God reassured his faith. The experience transformed him.

Two men went into the Temple in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. One was full of himself, but he lost himself in the flood of egotistical and judgmental words that came from his mouth. The other man was in crisis; he was empty; he entered the Temple with no expectations and begged for mercy. He left a new man. Not only did he find himself, in the Temple he was found by God. Just as Zacchaeus was found by Christ.

We also come to the Temple every Sunday morning, and sometimes on other days as well. We come like Asaph, like the tax collector, perhaps even like the Pharisee. We have questions, we come looking for forgiveness; sometimes we even come to satisfy our egos. But if we come with open minds and hearts, we leave changed men and women.

P.S. I chose not to include the recording of this sermon as I was distracted a couple times during the sermon by activity in the congregation and it affected my delivery.


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The Difference is in the Joy!

 

What is the difference between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler who turned away from Jesus? The rich man came with an agenda. Zacchaeus had no agenda except to see Jesus. And that, dear friends, is often the thing that makes all the difference.

Do you know what’s wrong with people who think they’re saved? Or who come up to you and ask you if you’re saved? They have an agenda. And their agenda is more important than seeing Jesus.

The rich ruler went to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus dialogued with him, but when Jesus gave him the answer he did not want to hear, he turned away disappointed. And Jesus spoke those memorable words: “It is easier for a camel to go through the hole of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are startled. After all, rich people were held in awe, just as they are today. Then who can be saved? they ask him. What is impossible with men is possible with God, Jesus replies. Both Zacchaeus and the rich ruler were wealthy, but something else, not their riches, was the deciding factor.

The encounter with Zacchaeus is precisely an example of what is possible with God! Zacchaeus does not go to Jesus with any question about eternal life; he had no agenda. He only wants to see Jesus, and he climbs a tree to get a clear view. He doesn’t call Jesus; Jesus calls him down from the tree and tells him he’s going to be a guest at his house. The initiative is completely Jesus’. And what is Zacchaeus’ reaction? He hurries down and receives Jesus joyfully. That is the key word – joyfully. He received Jesus into his home joyfully.

The transformation in his heart and spirit began right away: He gives half of his goods to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone – that’s what tax collectors did in those days – he gave it back four times!

Do you see this as an image of salvation? His immediate response to Jesus entering his home was not to say, I’m going to build a church in your honor, a big beautiful church. Jesus touched his heart and he in turn touched Jesus’ heart by his decision to give to the poor.

That, dear friends, is what salvation is all about – a meeting of hearts, our hearts with Jesus’ heart. Don’t go to Jesus in order to be saved. Go to Jesus because you’re drawn to him, you love the sound of his words and his voice in the Gospels. Don’t go for miracles, go to him with a curious mind and heart. You want to know him and the Father who sent him. Go to him as a child. He said it: Unless we become as children we cannot enter the kingdom of God. That sounds just as serious as the saying about rich men. Am I going to be 5 years old again in order to enter eternal life? No, but I should go to him like a child, curious, wide-eyed, expecting a joyful experience.

“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” He seeks, he looks for us, he calls us. All he asks of us is an open mind and an eager curiosity like Zacchaeus. And then to respond to his presence, with joy and open hearts. And note what he said: He also is a son of Abraham. She also is a daughter of Abraham. How many of Abraham’s children today do we close the door to? Aren’t Muslims also sons and daughters of Abraham? They certainly consider Abraham their father in faith. Why do we hate them? And why do many of them hate us? What would Jesus say? I don’t have the answer; I’m just posing the question. It’s part of my curiosity coming to Jesus and hearing his voice.


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The church knows only one totality

In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.

Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.

For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)

Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”

The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.

But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)

I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.

The execution grounds at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer and others were executed on the morning of 9 April 1945

Memorial to those executed on 9 April 1945 (click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.

So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.

Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.

The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.