Early on in his storied career as a pastor, bishop, ecumenist, and missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin gave a series of lectures entitled, “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress.” In the first lecture, he makes the following observation:
The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.
Any Christian view of the state should always be heavily chastened by the doctrine of sin, which should keep our faith in progress (which, in modern democracies, often trumps faith in God) in proper check. Newbigin invites us to something more nuanced than much contemporary political discourse: a view that is neither triumphalist nor fatalist, but one which recognizes that even within the brightest moments of human achievement, seeds of real evil can be planted.
One would think that the goddess Progress might have been slain after two World Wars and countless atrocities, but methinks she is a hard deity to bury.
From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 16.
Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known. He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming Divine Right of rule. He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great. In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain. When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral. He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France. He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him. The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect. Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch. As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)
We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.” Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus. Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world. His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming. We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.
We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades. It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be. We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials. Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague. I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!
Where do we put our real trust and hope? Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center. Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God. How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates? If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year. If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.
The Bible has some different thoughts about this. I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there. Trust God. Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order. Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all. Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.
And love is in short supply these days. We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions. John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2) As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love. We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.
Today, like many of you, I voted. Before I voted, I went to the bank. As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.” The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office. As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth. Jesus is Lord. To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master. It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget. Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.” Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross. Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.” Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power. Jesus is Lord. Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.
I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:
“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)
I greatly miss Chappelle’s Show. It was one of the funniest shows on television before the eponymous comedian, concerned with the direction of his program, walked off the show and took a sabbatical halfway through the 3rd season (leaving behind a multimillion dollar contract). One of his friends, Neal Brennan, was also a writer on the show. In looking into the demise of the show, I came across this great nugget from an interview with Brennan, himself a standup comic:
Brennan met President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011 and says he seemed like a cool, personable guy. “I just wish he was better.” Brennan’s dissatisfaction with the president is more reflective of his views of politics in general. “I thought a black president would make a difference,” Brennan says. “Maybe what I’ve come to realize is that politicians are like rice. Whether it’s brown rice or white rice, it’s empty calories either way.”
Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church. I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.
As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding. I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election. I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:
As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)
To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless. At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful. At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.
But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church. I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists. Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.
Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault. We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people. If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained. Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service. Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.
P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.
As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2. From my slight exposure, I love Barth. I dig his project. I dig the postliberals that follow his lead. I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously). But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.
I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology. But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians. I identify with both camps. In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right). And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true). I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper. I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.
But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head. Election is now, in his words, an election of grace. In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical. But my oh my, is he convincing. Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be. But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God. Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox). But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself. In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation. Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us! We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).
I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong. I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides. But it’s a work in progress.
Now, a little of why I love Barth:
Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for his sake.(Dogmatics II.2, 94)
I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality. In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.
At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me. Or you. Thanks be to God!