Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality). It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.
However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious. Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless. Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.” This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.
Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”? I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.
Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.
 See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).
 See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
You know, they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve even heard it said that it’s the “hap-happiest season of all”!
But, can I take a poll real quick?
Please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a disappointing Christmas.
I mean a Christmas that didn’t live up to your expectations. You wanted it to be filled with love, happiness, and peace, and instead all you got was stress, anxiety, and loneliness.
In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.
American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.
My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.
Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.
Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.
I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”
And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”
World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.
The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!
Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.
And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.
I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.
And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…
From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation. Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s). The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.” This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.
However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s). For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.” Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.” Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.
“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann
We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross. We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.
How can these things be?
How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?
Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.
Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “What Do I Believe?”
The Church’s regard for this day as a feast day is quite early, going back to at least the fifth century. In the fourth century, Chromatius described these babies as the first martyrs of Christ – the first counted worthy to die on Christ’s behalf. Around the same time, St. Augustine claimed that these nameless victims, “whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom are justly hailed as the infant martyr flowers, the first buds of the church killed by the frost of persecution. They died not only for Christ but in his stead.”
What if we knew the names of the victims of Herod’s infamous, paranoid rage?
What if the cries of Bethlehem took place today in Birmingham?
…For [REDACTED (NAMES OF BOYS IN CHURCH AGED TWO AND UNDER)]
May it never, ever be.
But what if such a tragedy took place inside our community?
Bright young lives, cut short by darkness.A deafening silence replaces the cries of the young.The tears of the parents a lingering reminder of the tears of their lost children.
May it never, ever be.
But it has been… and it frequently is… true.The small and the young are slaughtered by the big and supposedly powerful:
The Hebrew babies, by Pharaoh.
Bethlehem’s young, by Herod.
Babies not yet born, by their parents.
Babies already born, by their parents.
Sandy Hook Elementary students, by Adam Lanza.
Students in Peshawar, by the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani children, by U.S. drone strikes.
Central American children, by gangs and drug lords…
May it never, ever be?
Lord , have mercy! Lord Jesus, come quickly!For these things so often ARE.
You do not have to look far to spot evil.You do not have to look much further to spot violence that victimizes children.
This is not an ancient Egyptian or Judean issue,it is an issue for today — an issue for eternity.If it is not happening today in our community,it IS happening right now in some community.
Consider this, today, as we commemorate the “Holy Innocents” of Bethlehem– nameless to us,but called by name by both their parents and their God.
Consider this, today, as we contemplate how the Incarnation unveils both the source of and the desperate need for hope…the brilliant light of Christ against the dark backdrop of intense evil and incomprehensible suffering.
Let us pray…
O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths: Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The structure of this passage is easy enough to ascertain.
It begins, in vv. 13-15, by depicting the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus from Bethlehem to Egypt – concluding in v. 15 with a quotation from Hosea 11:1.
Then, in vv. 16-18, we witness the grisly scene at Bethlehem, which is then linked by Matthew to a quotation from Jeremiah 31:15.
Although this sermon will only address these 6 verses, vv.19-23 complete the symmetry of these events by depicting the return of the family from Egypt to Nazareth in Galilee.
I. IN TELLING OF THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT,VV. 13-15 PORTRAY JESUS AS THE NEW MOSES, THE TRUE ISRAEL,AND THE SOURCE OF HOPE.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,
“Out of Egypt I called my son.”
A. THE FLIGHT
Verse 13 begins by referring to the departure of the wise men, after offering their now-famous gifts. And just as they were warned in a dream to take an alternate route home to avoid Herod, so Joseph is commanded in a dream by a messenger of the Lord to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod.
Herod the Great’s attempts to destroy the Christ-child here echo the much earlier attempts of Pharaoh to kill Moses in the book of Exodus – first, generally and unwittingly, by ordering all Hebrew baby boys to be cast into the Nile (Exod. 1:22); and then, even more specifically, when Pharaoh tried to kill Moses after Moses’ had murdered a nameless Egyptian (Exod. 2:15). In this way, Matthew links Herod with Pharaoh, and Jesus with Moses.
Therefore , although Egypt was, in the immediate sense, a natural destination to escape Herod’s jurisdiction, Matthew is drawing deeper connections. Egypt was the house of slavery from which the nation of Israel was redeemed. It is significant, then, that the Son of God goes there as a refugee before returning to the land of Israel to redeem the world.
The urgency of the angel’s command matches the urgency with which it was obeyed. The family made the approximately 90 mile journey, beginning under cover of darkness. And they obediently remained there u
ntil receiving further instructions – until Herod would later die, allowing them to return and to journey to Nazareth in Galilee.
B. THE FULFILLMENT
And then Matthew says that these things happened in order that that which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet – in this case, the prophet Hosea – might be fulfilled: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” As I have mentioned, this comes from Hosea 11, from a beautiful prophetic passage which begins by speaking of Israel and the Exodus – the formative event in the birth of the young nation, the young “son” of God.
This way of speaking about Israel as God’s son comes from the book of Exodus itself, when Moses is told to tell Pharaoh “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son,and I say to you ‘Let my son go that he may serve me” (4:22-23a).
This is a metaphorical use of the word “son” to refer to the relationship between Yahweh and his people. However, as the Exodus passage continues, if Pharaoh refused to let Yahweh’s metaphorical firstborn son go, Yahweh would kill Pharaoh’s literal firstborn son.
Literal and metaphorical sonship collide in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God who fully shares the divine nature of his Father, and he is also the Son of God who fulfills the calling and the destiny of the nation of Israel.Here his sojourn in Egypt fulfills the Exodus. Later, in Matthew 4, his wilderness temptation fulfills the Old Testament wilderness wanderings.Jesus is not just the New Moses. He is the True Israel.
Only when divine sonship is seen as an important biblical theme does this Hosea quotation make sense. Matthew is not proof-texting here, because in the Hosea passage, the “son” immediately turns away from Yahweh to idolatry in the very next verse!Instead , Matthew is claiming that the link Hosea made between the people of Israel and God’s “son” finds its fullest meaning – it is fulfilled and completed – in the person of Jesus.
Already , early in Matthew’s Gospel, we get the sense that Christ is going to change things, He’s going to complete God’s mission of setting the world right again.
I wish I could end there. However,
II. IN TELLING OF THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS,VV. 16-18 REVEAL THE DESPERATE NEED FOR HOPE.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
A. THE MASSACRE
According to estimates, the number of baby boys killed in the region of Bethlehem would have been between 10 and 30.In the course of the Church’s commemoration of this event, the number has grown drastically – to 14,000; 64,000; or even 144,000.
Of course , some have gone to the opposite extreme and claimed that this event never actually happened.Matthew must have been making this story up to draw the connections between Jesus and Moses. He had the Old Testament texts and made a story to match.
That’s one way around this difficult text,but I think it’s a cop-out.
Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 and therefore creates a link in reverse to the Old Testament passage. However, in a certain sense, this link only works in one direction. That is, if one only had Jeremiah 31:15, it is obviously not a straightforward prophecy of a bloodthirsty ruler killing babies.
Matthew is using the Old Testament to make some sense of this senseless slaughter, not to create it.
Furthermore , this massacre at Bethlehem fits quite well with the historical portrait we have of Herod – especially in his later years. Herod was crazy. If he thought you were a threat to his power, goodbye! The man even killed three of his own sons.
It is therefore not altogether surprising that, as terrible as it was, the deaths of a dozen or so babies in the hill town of Bethlehem would not have made it into the secular history books of that violent period.
I still think it happened.
Does that make you feel any better?
Perhaps a victory for the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts, but at what cost?
We’re still left with bereaved mothers and bloodstained cribs.
I don’t feel any better.
Although I’m sure I’ll find this passage even more poignant when, Lord-willing, I am a parent myself someday,some of its true weight hit me for the first time when, after reading the passage together, my wife (a pediatric nurse) started to tear-up and, after a long silence, said: “I don’t understand why those children had to die for Jesus to come… If I’m honest, it makes me angry.”
She has a point, right? If God could save Jesus from bloodthirsty Herod, why not the Bethlehem babies? Didn’t the angel of the Lord have enough free time to show up in the dreams of the other Bethlehem parents? Doesn’t this event, like all the others I mentioned in my introduction, rightly prompt the question, perhaps asked with a tone of weeping and loud lamentation: “Why, God? Why?!”?
B. THE FULFILLMENT
This passage sticks with me partially because my wife’s name is Rachel. She has wept, as a nurse, over the often senseless suffering of her patients. And she is not alone. Matthew draws our attention to Jeremiah 31:15, depicting Rachel – the wife of Jacob, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin – as weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are no more. “Why, God? Why?!”
The original context of this passage is the Babylonian invasion and exile of the people of Judah. Ramah, just 5 miles north of Jerusalem, was where the exiles were assembled in 586 B.C. for the journey into Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah witnessed Jerusalem destroyed and its inhabitants terrorized. He poetically depicts Rachel, the Old Testament’s paradigmatic and idealized mother of the people of Israel, as weeping for her children as they go into exile.
Imagine Eve, the mother of the living, weeping as she looks forward from the past to see all the horrible effects of the exile from Eden, and you’ll get a similar idea.
Although some think Matthew used this verse due to the geographical proximity of Rachel’s grave to Bethlehem, it’s mo
re likely that the connection is theological.
The connection is HOPE.
Jeremiah 31:15, although tragic, occurs in a hopeful section of the book. In fact, the chapter of Jeremiah 31 is best known for its depiction in vv.31-40 of the New Covenant! The quoted verse about Rachel weeping is followed by these two verses:
Thus says the Lord:
“ Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.”
Rachel was weeping over the exile.And she is promised that it will one day end.The exiles will return – as they began to do,48 years later, in 538 BC.
It is important to realize that this “prophecy” did not somehow cause the tragedy at Bethlehem.As John Calvin notes in his Gospel commentary, because Jeremiah’s oracle had its own fulfillment regarding the exile to Babylon and the subsequent return, “Matthew does not mean that it foretold what Herod would do, but that the coming of Christ occasioned a renewal of that mourning, which had been experienced, many centuries before,” by the people of Israel.
Because , you’ll notice, the people of Israel were still in exile. Sure, five centuries had passed since they had physically returned, but they still lived under a foreign ruler, not a son of David, who could enter the city of David at will and have the baby boys slaughtered.
We have an encounter between two kings in this passage. The first, a crazed old man, is the illegitimate king of the Jews – deathly afraid of pretenders to his throne. The second, a vulnerable human baby, is the legitimate king of the Jews and of the world.
When faced with the latter, the former should have bowed the knee – as did the wise men (who, you’ll notice, came from the exile-lands of Babylon and Persia). Instead, Herod draws the sword, and the Son of God goes into exile, a refugee in the ancient land of slavery from which his people were bought and delivered by Yahweh.
With the mothers of Bethlehem, Rachel was still weeping.
Her children were not yet home.
What do we make of this?
Although the Jeremiah quotation points in the direction of hope, you’ll notice that Matthew leaves it hanging on a note of lamentation.
Might I suggest that the yearly Feast of the Holy Innocents is our liturgical antidote to a merely superficial and sentimental Christmas season?
The realities of Bethlehem, of the Christian faith, and of our lives, often have more blood, sweat, and tears in them than we care to admit – more pain than our idyllic notions can contain.
The Incarnation is glorious, but it’s also messy. Because we are messy! The human race – this very room! – is filled with Herods. We may not all kill babies out of fear, but our fear does drive us toward death. Think of it.
What do our fears – of rejection, of failure, of powerlessness – drive us to do to rupture our relationships with God and with our fellow humans?
What do our fears – of intimacy, of scarcity, of being taken advantage of – prevent us from doing to foster those same relationships?
Sisters and brothers, we Christians cannot afford an escapist religion of mere sentimentality which is out of touch with this broken and twisted world.
Wecannot afford an escapist religion because we do not worship an escapist God!
Now , remember: evil is incomprehensible. It is the impossible possibility – a headlong dive, away from the source of Life and Light, into the arms of nothingness and darkness. Itmakes no sense!
Therefore , some neat and tidy “answers” to the problem of evil can themselves be evil – by trying to explain that which cannot be explained!
Don’t offer or seek such “answers.” It’s better to remain silent, or to cry out “Why, God? Why?!” Job did. Jesus did.
JESUS DID…on the Cross!
Evil cannot and should not be explained. But it can, has been, and will be defeated!
Although it does not lessen the tragedy, King Jesus, the commander of heaven’s armies, did not abandon these baby boys, his very first standard-bearers, as Peter Chrysologus noted. Instead, he sent them on ahead of himself into victory.
Although it does not lessen the tragedies we face, our God does not escape evil and suffering at our expense.
Sure , he escaped Herod once…in order to make it to the Cross,where he took Sin and Death to their bitter end in our stead.
He went into the furthest and fullest exile – the grave –in order to bring us back from our exile.
This return will look a bit different from the return in 538 BC, for it will be full and final.
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The impetus for this study was a discussion question in Dr. Malysz’s Spring 2015 20th Century History and Doctrine course. On March 24, our third class period on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our second question for discussion read as follows:
“What is religion for Bonhoeffer? What are its anthropological manifestations (in Bonhoeffer’s day)? In what ways is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religion similar to, and different from, that of Barth?”
Having taken Malysz’s Fall 2014 seminar on Karl Barth, I was intrigued by the question. We only spent a few minutes on the topic in class, focusing on how Bonhoeffer’s definition of religion focuses on a “necessary God of the gaps,” but I wrote down the following questions for further consideration:
Is there a tension in how Barth and Bonhoeffer describe “religion,” or an underlying harmony?
Barth speaks of boundary, Bonhoeffer of finding God at the center. Are they getting at the same thing?
What is the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s God as “stopgap”?
It has been over a year since that class discussion, but these questions are still on my mind. I’m convinced that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion can provide resources for the Church today.
After graduating from Beeson in December, I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in historical/systematic theology. If all goes well, I’d like to expand my Barth/Bonhoeffer project this semester into a doctoral project – perhaps focusing on the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s “God-as-stopgap,” or on the relationship between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological interpretation[s] of Scripture and their theological critiques of religion.
BONHOEFFER, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Translated by Isabel Best, Lisa E. Dahill, Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens. Edited by John W. de Gruchy. DBWE Vol. 8. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
—. “7. Inaugural Lecture: The Anthropological Question in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology.” In Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, translated by Douglas W. Stott, edited by Clifford J. Green, 389-408. DBWE Vol. 10. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.
James & John: Fishermen No More?
You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.
James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!
But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.
And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:
Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.
Princes? Or Fishermen?
Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”
And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:
“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!
No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”
You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old profession – transformed!
James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.
And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.
No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.
Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.
Or is it?
Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.
The Death of St. James the Apostle
Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
And they said to him, “We are able.”
And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.
Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.
Was it worth it?
Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?
Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?
Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?
Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?
By God’s grace, I hope so.
By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.