Assailing The Church With The Gospel
People naturally do not shout it out, and least of all into the ears of us ministers. But let us not be deceived by their silence. Blood and tears, deepest despair and highest hope, a passionate longing to lay hold of that which, or rather of him who, overcomes the world because he is its Creator and Redeemer, its beginning and ending and Lord, a passionate longing to have the word spoken, the word which promises grace in judgment, life in death, and the beyond in the here and now, God’s word – this it is which animates our church-goers, however lazy, bourgeois, or commonplace may be the manner in which they express their want in so-called real life. – Karl Barth, “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching”, in The Word Of God And The Word Of Man, p.109
The only source for the real, the immediate, revelation of God is death. Christ unlocked its gates. He brought life to light out of death.
Out of death! The word cannot be spoken significantly enough. The meaning of God, the power of God, begins to shine upon the [people] of the Bible at the boundary of mortality, . . .
The human correlate to the divine aliveness is neither virtue, nor inspiration, nor love, but the fear of the Lord, mortal fear, the last, absolute, perfect fear. – Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” in The Word Of God And The Word Of Man, p.77
A proper theology makes no compromises. That is what distinguishes it from church administration and leadership. And to the extent that it makes no compromises, theology performs a critical function in church leadership. As a theologian, Karl Barth performed this function in many ways. The whole of the Church Dogmatics is to be read as a textbook of church leadership. It is therefore an eminently critical text, for it measure the reality of the church against the criterion of evangelical truth, namely, the person of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is thus an aggressive science, but not in the sense of a fractious, querulous, pseudoacademic, or obscurantist attachment to the status quo. The Church Dogmatics assalt the church (and not only the church) with the gospel. That is what makes it of service to the church. Barth’s theology is a deliberate assault with the gospel. Hence it is not only an uncompromising theology, but also an uncompromising theology. – Eberhard Jungel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, p.127.
Yesterday, our daughter had to undergo a long procedure to correct a dangerous arrhythmia. It was a very long day, and to keep myself from going completely crazy, I took along a book to read. For some reason, my wife thought I was a bit odd taking the collection of some of Barth’s early lectures (pre- and concurrent with The Epistle To The Romans), entitled The Word Of God And The Word Of Man. I haven’t read these in decades; approaching them was like reading them for the first time. It was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, like reading something so familiar, my own words from another’s mouth, written almost a hundred years ago in another language in another time against a backdrop of a very different krisis for the Church.
People find it difficult to fathom that, from beginning to end, Barth was a theologian first and foremost dedicated to the business of the local church preacher in the pulpit. Coming as he did from the Reformed tradition, the sermon was understood as the heart of our Sunday worship; the preacher in the pulpit occupies a point that separates those longing people in the congregation of which Barth writes above and the Bible open on the pulpit. For Barth, this moment more than any other made true or false the call of the minister of God. Barth’s love for the Church was always tempered by an absolute commitment to the Gospel, a message that not only offered Good News and hope, but also offered judgment, a judgment of death, upon our all too human, all too preposterous presumption to do this task with anything more than inadequacy. Success for Barth was not the number of faces looking up from the congregation; in one lecture, given in Germany in 1922, Barth notes that many churches may have just one or two “old ladies” that are the congregation, a situation not too far from our own reality today. For Barth, success was how willing the preacher was, in and at that impossible moment, to be open to the Spirit to make those human words in to The Word of God.
There is much rending of clothing over the place of doctrine within the United Methodist Church. I’ve been a part of that discussion. I think it is important to remember that doctrine is a servant, not a master; it is a teaching, not a revelation; it is our identity at any given time, but always changing precisely because it is time-bound. While I certainly can’t agree with everything Barth says, I have always admired his militancy regarding the centrality of the Christ event; that this event is not only a reality “in time”, but a reality for us, here and now, our job being to declare it; and that this reality, always present with us, stands over and against any and all human attempts to capture it, tame it, domesticate it, and have a final word about it. It is humbling to remember that the life of faith is just that – a life. We – most especially me! – have a lifetime to be faced with the ever-present revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and along with declaring it trying as best we can to understand it. This is what we are called to do; this is what we will never accomplish with any satisfaction. The reality of the Gospel assails all our all-too-human attempts at clarity and profundity, reminding us just how far we always have to go.
This morning, I had what I consider a fruitful and important exchange with someone with whom I have disagreed, yet celebrate as someone on this same journey of faith as so many of us. I admire, and share, the desire to get it right. Our biggest difference is that, each day, I remind myself that I don’t completely agree with some things I may have said yesterday or last month or ten years ago. Not because I was wrong, but because time and place and circumstances have changed. I have changed. The one thing I do believe, however, is that God’s grace is with me in the midst of all this. That I feel compelled to speak and write of the salvation offered the world in Christ does not permit me ever to believe I have found a place of quiet rest in the midst of it all. Rather, the Gospel, the ever-present reality of the revelation of God in the Incarnation, is there telling me just how wrong I have been. We should always allow ourselves to be assaulted by the Gospel in order to leave ourselves enough room to do this impossible possibility without ever thinking we have found some key to the Kingdom. The Kingdom, you see, is there around us. We stand within the midst of it. It lies before us, our hope, our goal.
And always always always that which stands in judgment over our sinful belief to have it right.