Morning Prayer Homily: James 2.1-13

James 2.1-13 (ESV):

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The verse immediately preceding this morning’s lesson, James 1:27, says this:

religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

So, purity from the world on one hand, social justice for the oppressed on the other. And yet, in a world which is stained by rampant injustice, these are not two different pursuits, but different facets of the same agenda. Just as we must not allow the manifold sins of the world to stain our souls, we must take care to not allow the deathly and selfish perspectives of the world to stain our vision!

The world says that this [slaps Bible] is just a book. We disagree, and see much more.

The world says that this [slaps altar] is just a table. Just bread. Just wine. We disagree, and see much more.

This [gestures to room] is more than mere meditation. Our God is more than a divinized delusion.

We have wiped the world’s mud out of our eyes, to see more clearly.

Very good!

The world says that a poor, homeless, drug-addled woman is a broken human being. We agree.

The world says that a rich, well-dressed, influential man is a less-broken human being, or at least broken in a more comfortable way.

We agree. Or at least we’re constantly tempted to in the everyday moments of our lives! Sure, theoretically, in the midst of a homily perhaps, we’d give the right answer. But practically, brothers and sisters, we’re partial. Our vision is still stained.

We’ve been wooed by the world’s wisdom.

We allow the stratified contents and contours of the world around us to dictate the distinctions among us.

We make evil judgments – very subtle, to be sure, but just so, that much more evil judgments! – based on the way things are.

We are naïve newcomers to the law of liberty – to the law which gives freedom from the way things are, from the way things have been as long as we can remember, and freedom for the way things once were, in a garden unstained by Sin and Death. A freedom for the way things ought to be, and will be in a city illuminated by Christ himself.

Christ himself, the One of whom Isaiah spoke thus:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

“And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (Isaiah 11:1-5).

Friends, the rich are not inherently evil because of their possessions. We know this. They, we, have their own pains and problems, which we will need to address thoughtfully as a church providentially located in one of the world’s most affluent communities – and this is no easy task.

But it would be easy for us to allow the stratified realities around us to stain our vision, to keep us short-sighted, to keep us complacent that it would be just as unusual for the homeless and shabbily-clothed to join our community (really join us, not just visit), as it would be for the rich and well-dressed to have joined the earliest Christians, or many of our impoverished brothers and sisters around the world today.

Let us fight hard against this subtle temptation.

Let us consider how we should best love and welcome those the world calls, and treats, and sees as “the least.”

Let us disagree! And see much more!

Let us treat them as “the loved.”

Amen.

Jesus is Not Just “One of Us”

NOTE: The audio of the following sermon, preached on July 05, 2015 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, can be found here. (I began with a bit of a mic issue. Ignore the garbled first 10 seconds or so!)

Introduction

The “hometown,” “home court” advantage is a very real occurrence in many areas of life. Familiar fans and supportive surroundings help us humans to perform better at many tasks, from singing to sports.

But not in sermons.

There is very seldom a home court advantage in preaching!

Family and close friends may inspire us to make the game-winning shot, or hit the highest note, but when it comes to the intimate affair of preaching God’s Word — of transcending the divide between there & then and here & now, making it clear how the words of Scripture should enlighten, encourage, confront, and challenge us — when it comes to preaching to family and friends, it’s hard.

Granted, it might be easier to impress, to invigorate, to lay on the rhetorical relish with grandiose gestures, dazzling diction, and absolutely awesome alliteration.

But that’s not preaching. That’s a show.

Preaching takes guts… It takes bravery to do the necessary hard work at the intersection between the stuff of God and the stuff of life.

Because, if what we Christians believe is TRUE, everything changes, and a preacher’s job is to make that clear.

However, when it comes to family and friends, it’s difficult to preach repentance to those who changed your diapers, calmed your tantrums, kept your secrets.

But every stressed out seminarian, every nervous young pastor preparing to preach to the home crowd, can take heart that the very One we preach, Jesus the Messiah, faced a similar challenge during his earthly preaching ministry.

Mark 1-5

Please turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, beginning on page 836 of your pew Bibles.

To understand today’s Gospel text from Mark 6, we first need a bit of context from Mark chapters 1 through 5. Please follow along with me in your Bibles, glancing at the pages as I summarize these chapters.

The biggest thing I’d like us to note is that Jesus is on a roll.

Mark’s Gospel takes off quickly into the narrative of Jesus, who, after he is baptized by his forerunner John, is affirmed of his identity by the very voice of God. He is then driven yet sustained by the Spirit through the wilderness testings of Satan.

Jesus then returns from the wilderness and begins his preaching ministry in Galilee — boldly:

“proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” (1:15)

He then calls his first disciples, who join him in his whirlwind ministry of preaching and teaching with authority, healing the sick, and casting out demons. So much for chapter 1!

In chapter 2, he challenges Jewish conceptions about the forgiveness of sins, fasting, and keeping Sabbath.

In chapter 3, we witness the first hints of outright opposition to Jesus on account of his unorthodox Sabbath practices, yet this is immediately followed by a description of Jesus’ growing crowd of followers.

Unfazed, Jesus calls and appoints the twelve apostles. He challenges the experts in Jewish Law, and scandalously stretches the boundaries of family.

In chapter 4, he teaches in parables, before commanding and calming the wind and the sea.

In chapter 5, he upsets an entire region by casting out a legion of demons. And before we get to chapter 6, he reverses death itself for the sake of a synagogue official, and reverses disease for the sake of a woman with a discharge of blood.

In the face of FAITH,Jesus tells the dead to get up. He calls the physically, financially, and relationally destitute one “daughter.”

Jesus is on a roll.

Jesus is up to something BIG, something NEW. He is bringing in the very kingdom of God, unexpectedly centered around HIMSELF, and NOTHING, NO ONE –

  • not winds,
  • not waves,
  • not Pharisees,
  • not scribes,
  • not disease,
  • not destitution,
  • not demons,
  • not even DEATH – can stand in his way.

Well, maybe one thing can.

Our Text: Mark 6:1-13

We’re now on page 841, Mark chapter 6 begins this way:

“He [Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown [Nazareth], and his disciples followed him.

And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

And they took offense at him.”

Now, before I get to two negative aspects of the Nazarenes’ reaction, let’s consider two positives:

First, in verse 2, they are asking the right questions.

They recognize that Jesus has wisdom, mighty works, mighty hands – things which should have reminded them of God himself:

The God who, according to Jeremiah (51:15),

“made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.”

The God who, according to Deuteronomy (4:34 and 7:19), rescued Israel from the house of slavery with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new.

The Creator was re-creating. The Redeemer was rescuing and restoring — like Jesus had just done with Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman in chapter 5.

Second, in verse 3, everything the hometown crowd says is factually correct!

  • Jesus was in fact a carpenter by family trade.
  • And although it’s perhaps a slur, or a reference to Joseph’s prior death, Jesus is in fact the “Son of Mary.”
  • He did in fact have siblings.
  • He was in fact from Nazareth.

So, what’s wrong with the hometown reaction? Let me focus on two things:

First, their reaction shows us that you can ask the right questions with the wrong attitude.

Sure, Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new – and that they might have to change their lives because of it.

But instead, they ask their questions with incredulous skepticism:

Just who does Jesus think he is?

What right has he to say these things? To act this way?

We know who he really is. We watched him grow up!

He’s just one of us, a normal Nazarene.

Second, then, their reaction shows us that you can know the facts and miss the point.

In fact, sometimes, you can use the facts in order to miss the point!

You can miss Truth with a capital “T” by focusing on the lowercase.

That’s what they’re doing here. The scandalized hometown crowd is bringing up the familiar, comfortable aspects of Jesus’ existence to give themselves a way out from underneath Jesus’ powerful claims on them and their future.

After all, they don’t have to repent in light of the coming Kingdom of God if this “King Jesus,” what with his preaching and working wonders like some kind of prophet, is really just the homeboy handyman who’s out of his mind, right?

So, Jesus responds:

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.

Citing a familiar proverb of the day — something close to “familiarity breeds contempt” – Jesus steps into a long tradition of rejected prophets — those sent by Yahweh to diagnose the sins of his people and point them back to covenant loyalty, but repeatedly rejected because of their intensely unpopular proclamations.

Hear the haunting words of 2 Chronicles 36(:15-16). Commenting upon the faithlessness of Judah, it says:

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.

But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

(…speaking there of the Babylon exile)

Friends, Jesus is the remedy! He is Yahweh’s true Prophet! He brings us back from exile. He is the King in the Kingdom of God, with dominion over demons, disease, and death! 

And yet, in the face of stubborn unbelief at Nazareth, Mark is willing to say that Jesus was UNABLE to so a mighty work there.

Sure, he healed a few sick people, but whereas elsewhere in the Gospels it is the crowds who marvel at the mighty words and works of Jesus, here he himself is STUNNED by their unbelief! 

Conclusion:

Sisters, brothers: You can know the facts, and miss the point. Because FACTS aren’t FAITH. 

FAITH is not merely intellectual assent to true propositions about Jesus. Look back at Mark 5, to Jairus and the bleeding woman!

Faith is about entrusting yourself, your entire life, to Jesus as your King – your only Hope, your only Lord.

When you hear “faith,” think “faithfulness.” Think “trust.” Think “loyalty.”

Faith is something absolutely necessary for a relationship to exist. This is true with humans, and it’s true with God.

Knowing the right things, having the Creed memorized backwards and front, is not the same as life-changing loyalty to Jesus Christ.

And, to be sure, faith cannot merely be produced by sheer force of will. We would be nothing but faithless were it not for God’s grace.

But faith does involve our wills, our entire selves. It is something we commit to. It is something that, by God’s grace, we participate in.

And it is something that can be rejected.

Now, there are some in the world who would be perfectly comfortable to come right out say “I reject and refuse Jesus as Lord.” Unbelief can take the form of outright opposition to Jesus. In the Gospels, we see this in those who want Jesus dead.

But that’s not the rejection Jesus receives here at Nazareth. And, my guess is, that’s not the refusal he receives from me, from you, either.

Because, see, we’re prone to the subtler (and therefore greater) rejection of Jesus by making him to “just one of us.” 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesus was and is fully human. He doesn’t save us from a distance. He dove from heaven’s heights into the muck and mire of our sin-stained existence to bring us back to God.

But this salvation involves repentance. It requires turning away from our faithless pursuit of Sin and Death. And it requires the faithfulness of turning toward our faithful God.

Salvation does not require us getting back to God on our own efforts or merit, but it does entail complete and utter dependence on and allegiance to Jesus as King.

But, as we’ve seen, we can escape total allegiance to King Jesus if he’s “just one of us Nazarenes.”

Friends, King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

He has his own agenda of cosmic redemption. He has his own approach, which often appears upside-down to us, because it involves repentance and self-sacrifice, because it includes suffering on a bloodstained Cross before the triumph of the Empty Tomb.

King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

So the uncomfortable question stands: Are we loyal to King Jesus above all else? Or are we loyal to a “Jesus” we’ve made in our own image?

King Jesus is not “middle-to-upper-class-American-Jesus.”

Don’t get me wrong, he cares about the welfare of those around the world and those in this country more than we do. His agenda surely has implications for life here in the United States of America, and it very well might require the hard work of being faithful with many resources and possessions.

But, hear me:

King Jesus doesn’t just want to add a pearly gate to our picket fences. He doesn’t just want to stamp a Jesus-approved ticket to heaven on our pre-existent American Dream.

He wants us to crucify the American Dream!

He calls us to abandon our self-centered agendas of upward mobility, and instead to take up our crosses! To adopt his others-focused agenda of self-sacrificial love!

And just like it was for Jesus’ hometown crowd back then, our easiest way out of this required repentance now is to make Jesus’ message a little less demanding and his mission a little bit more like our ownuntil finally, faithlessly – though we may worship Jesus with our lips – in our hearts, we worship only ourselves.

Briefly notice with me that, in Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he himself had been doing: preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick.

King Jesus’ followers carry forward his mission. Do we?

Will we, in faith, entrust our entire lives in allegiance to him? No matter the changes? No matter the costs?

Will we refuse to make Jesus into “just one of us”?

King Jesus has dominion over disease, demons, and death. Does he have dominion over our dreams and desires?

By God’s grace — given to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord — By God’s amazing grace, may these things be so, may we follow him faithfully.

Amen.

Pentecost: Songs and Scripture

Listening to the first episode of the excellent new podcast, LectioCast, helped to orient my thoughts toward tomorrow’s readings for Pentecost Sunday. I’ve reproduced the first lesson, psalm, second lesson, and Gospel reading below, but I’d also like to call your attention to three powerful songs.

Song #1: “Dry Bones” by Gungor

The first song is “Dry Bones” by Gungor. Read the Ezekiel passage and psalm below, and give it a listen.

First Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NET Bible)

The Valley of Dry Bones

Continue reading Pentecost: Songs and Scripture

What does it mean to be human?

INTRODUCTION

 

What does it mean to be human? A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence. As Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2 But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God? On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.

 

DIVIDED DESIRES

 

What do I see when I look at myself? One driven by desire. Based upon human behavior, Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3 However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Continue reading What does it mean to be human?

Disunity in the Church? Absurd!

One last time, here is the final version of the paper I presented at Southeast ETS.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY:A BARTHIAN ANALOGY

Joshua P. Steele
INTRODUCTION
Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church1 and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. Two excerpts from the Barthian corpus legitimize this connection. First, in his prepared remarks to the 1937 Second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, Karl Barth maintained that

we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others’, to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it. We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it.2

Second, almost two decades later, Barth described as “impossible” that which he had earlier declared “unthinkable”3 – that certain Christian communities should “stand in relation to other groups of equally Christian communities in an attitude more or less of exclusion,” by claiming that “their confession and preaching and theology are mutually contradictory” (CD IV/1, 676).4 It is furthermore impossible “that the adherents of the one should be able to work together with those of the other in every possible secular cause, but not to pray together, not to preach and hear the Word of God together, not to keep the Lord’s Supper together” (CD IV/1, 676). Barth insists that, “in view of the being of the community as the body of Christ [, the disunity of the church] is – ontologically, we can say – quite impossible; it is possible only as sin is possible” (CD IV/1, 677; emphasis added).
In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I will then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts.
SIN AS ONTOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY
In considering human sin, we must begin with what it means to be human. Although various attempts have been made to define humanity in the spheres of natural science, idealist ethics, existentialist philosophy, and theistic anthropology, Barth claims that these are merely descriptions of the phenomena, and not the essence, of humanity (CD III/2, 71-132). Against these provisional anthropologies, Barth insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place, the encounter between God and man, and not in the reaches or intricacies of human emotion, intellect, or will. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return” (CD II/1, 284). This is because God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him” (CD II/1, 285). Most importantly, “the One, the person, whom we really know as a human person, is the person of Jesus Christ, and even this is in fact the person of God the Son, in which humanity, without being or having itself a person, is caught up into fellowship with the personality of God” (CD II/1, 286). Christology determines anthropology, and not the other way around (CD I/1, 131).
Christological Anthropology
Although Barth grounds the definition of humanity in Christology, he is always careful to preserve a qualitative distinction between Christ’s humanity and humanity in general:

Christology is not anthropology. We cannot expect, therefore, to find directly in others the humanity of Jesus, and therefore His fellow-humanity, His being for man, and therefore that final and supreme determination, the image of God. Jesus is man for His fellows, and therefore the image of God, in a way which others cannot even approach, just as they cannot be for God in the sense that He is. He alone is the Son of God, and therefore His humanity alone can be described as the being of an I which is wholly from and to the fellow-human Thou, and therefore a genuine I. (CD III/2, 222)

Instead of framing this distinction between Christ and other humans in terms of a vague moral perfection, Barth portrays Christ as distinctly more human than humans in general – existing both for God and for other humans in a way which is unparalleled. Christ’s existence for other humans is “the direct correlative of His being for God,” and this reveals a correspondence between the existence and love of God ad intra – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the existence and love of God ad extrato humanity (CD III/2, 220).
Humanity only exists within this Christological correspondence, this analogia relationis (CD III/2, 218-20, 225-6). Specifically, Barth grounds the humanity of individual humans in the notion of a shared sphere with Christ: “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus” (CD III/2, 132). Therefore, “to be a man is to be with God,” for no matter what else each individual is, “he is on the basis of the fact that he is with Jesus and therefore with God” (CD III/2, 135). Because the incarnation is the fullest expression of the Creator’s summons to the creature into relationship, it is the ground of the human creature’s being and personality – distinguishing humanity from the other non-human spheres which Christ did not inhabit (CD III/2, 137).
Sin is the Impossible Possibility
However, the incarnation is also the source of sin’s absurdity. Because humanity “is not without God, but with God,” true “Godlessness, is not, therefore, a possibility, but an ontological impossibility for man” (CD III/2, 136). When it comes to sin, Barth simultaneously removes it from the definition of what it means to be human, and emphasizes its absurdity as part of human existence – for, although sin undeniably exists, “our being does not include but excludes sin. To be in sin, in godlessness, is a mode of being contrary to our humanity” (CD III/2, 136).
Nevertheless, to make some provisional sense of sin’s existence, Barth claims that the distinction between Creator and creation necessarily entails the possibility of creaturely conflict with God. As opposed to the inherent impossibility of a conflict between God and himself ad intra ,5 “it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction” (CD II/1, 503). Positively, this reinforces the creature’s identity as simply that: a creature, owing its existence to God. In fact, “creature freed from the possibility of falling away would not really be living as a creature. It could only be a second God – and as no second God exists, it could only be God Himself” (CD II/1, 503). This distinction does not necessitate actual sin, however, for “sin is when the creature avails itself of this impossible possibility in opposition to God and to the meaning of its own existence” (CD II/1, 503; emphasis added). And, given the Christological and theological basis of human existence, it makes no sense for a human to actualize this possibility, for “if he denies God, he denies himself” and “chooses his own impossibility” (CD III/2, 136). In Barth’s evaluation, this one absurd decision underlies all actions which are usually considered sins, for “every offence in which godlessness can express itself, e.g., unbelief and idolatry, doubt and indifference to God, is as such, both in its theoretical and practical forms, and offence with which man burdens, obscures, and corrupts himself” (CD III/2, 136).
For Barth, therefore, sin is not merely moral – it is both ontological and incomprehensible: the inherent contradiction of a nothingness which opposes God as the very ground of all existence and reality (CD II/1, 532; III/3, 351). The value of this definition is its absurdity. Responding to the challenge (from Berkouwer) that defining sin as “nothingness,” an “impossible possibility,” or an “ontological impossibility” seems “to suggest or imply a denial of the reality of evil,” Barth maintains that “it is of a piece with the nature of evil that if we could explain how it may have reality it would not be evil. Nor are we really thinking of evil if we think we can explain this” (CD IV/3, 177). His subsequent clarification is especially instructive for this discussion:

When I speak of nothingness, I cannot mean that evil is nothing, that it does not exist, or that it has no reality. I mean that it exists only in the negativity proper to it in its relationship to God and decisively in God’s relationship of repudiation to it. It does not exist as God does, nor as His creatures, amongst which it is not to be numbered. It has no basis for its being. It has no right to the existence which to our sorrow we cannot deny to it. Its existence, significance and reality are not distinguished by any value nor positive strength. The nature underlying its existence and activity is perversion. Its right to be and to express itself is simply that of wrong. In this sense it is nothingness. (CD IV/3, 178)

Similarly, the phrase “impossible possibility” is designed to reflect “the absurd possibility of the absurd,” and “ontological impossibility” to state that “the nature of evil as the negation negated by God disqualifies its being, and therefore its undeniable existence, as impossible, meaningless, illegitimate, valueless and without foundation” (CD IV/3, 178). Easily understood definitions of evil are perhaps evil themselves, obfuscating sin’s inherent incomprehensibility.
Given the definition of humanity and the absurdity of sin, there is a tension between humanity’s Christological being/essence and its sinful act/form. As Barth puts it, “perhaps the fundamental mistake in all erroneous thinking of man about himself is that he tries to equate himself with God and therefore to proceed on the assumption that he can regard himself as the presupposition of his own being” (CD III/2, 151). However, if there is one presupposition allowed in Barth’s epistemological non-foundationalism, it is the anthropological presupposition of God and his Word as the ground of human being – divine election as the frontier beyond which we cannot look for a human being “not yet summoned” (CD III/2, 151). Just as there is no God behind God, there is no humanity beyond the divine summons, beyond existence in the same sphere inhabited by Christ. It is therefore unthinkable that humanity should try to be the source of its own existence, and yet this is precisely that which occurs.
For Barth, this absurdity takes on the character of improper judgment: “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge” (CD IV/1, 220). Although “not all men commit all sins,” everyone commits “this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins” (CD IV/1, 220). Self-justification and the damnation of the others characterize sin as “the arrogance in which man wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge,” wanting “to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty” (CD IV/1, 231). Sinful humanity tries to ground its own existence by carving-out its own improper position as judge.
Atonement’s Intensification of Sin’s Absurdity
Yet sin becomes an even further absurdity in light of the atonement. In fact, the tension between humanity’s Christological essence and its sinful form is a driving force in the doctrine of reconciliation, for “the incompatibility of the existence of Jesus Christ with us and us with Him, the impossibility of the co-existence of His divine-human actuality and action and our sinfully human being and activity” must be addressed before we can rest assured “that Jesus Christ belongs to us and we belong to Him, that His cause is our cause and our cause is His” (CD IV/1, 348). As an answer to this predicament, “the event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position [of improper human judgment], but destroys it” (CD IV/1, 232).
This displacement of humanity by Christ is the source of both its abasement and liberation, the former because, although self-justification always results in a verdict of my own innocence, “He who has acted there as Judge will also judge me, and He and not I will judge others” (CD IV/1, 233). However, it is also the source of freedom from the wearisome and “intolerable nuisance to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right” (CD IV/1, 233). With relevance to our subsequent ecclesiological discussion, Barth adds that it is similarly

an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. (CD IV/1, 233-4)

Christ liberates us from the tiresome task we were never meant to complete.
Furthermore, in taking our improper place as judge, he also takes away from us the just sentence we merited by taking up that position in the first place. Christ “takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and burdening himself with it,” and “it [therefore] ceases to be our sin” (CD IV/1, 236). Due to this exchange, he “is the unrighteous amongst those who can no longer be so because He was and is for them” (CD IV/1, 237), because he has delivered “sinful man and sin in His own person to the non-being which was properly theirs” (CD IV/1, 253). Christ destroys human faithlessness by taking it to its absurd conclusion: annihilation.
Because of this, humans “have no other ground to do evil now that the ground has been cut out from under our feet” (CD IV/1, 243). Considering Christ’s work both for us and in us, Barth maintains that “unfaithfulness to God is a disallowed possibility which can no longer be actualised. It is seen to be the wholly impossible possibility on which we can no longer count, which we see to be eliminated and taken from us by God’s omnipotent contradiction set up in us” (CD IV/4, 22). In light of the doctrine of reconciliation, repentance from sin is the only viable human response. Only by ignoring Christ and his accomplished atonement, only by denying the source of our own existence can we presume to have the freedom to sin, to reject God, and to be our own judges.
DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY
Humanity’s Christological definition results in sin as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. The church’s Christological definition similarly results in disunity as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. As we began with what it means to be human, so we begin with what it means to be the church.
Just as Barth resists an anthropology that is based upon the mere phenomena of humanity, he resists an ecclesiology that is based upon the mere phenomena of the church. Although the church is “a phenomenon of world history which can be grasped in historical and psychological and sociological terms like any other” (CD IV/1, 652), what the church actually is, “the character, the truth of its existence in time and space, is not a matter of a general but a very special visibility” (CD IV/1, 654). And just as grasping the Christological essence of humanity allows for a true appreciation of humanity’s historical form,6 understanding the Christological essence of the church allows the community to “act confidently on the level of its phenomenal being” (CD IV/1, 660). This includes ecumenical pursuits.
Christological Ecclesiology
For Barth, Christology determines both anthropology and ecclesiology, and there is therefore no “abandonment of the sphere of the [Apostles’] creed” when the transition is made from the second to the third article.7 He offers a conceptual map at this juncture:

The Christology is like a vertical line meeting a horizontal. The doctrine of the sin of man is the horizontal line as such. The doctrine of justification is the intersection of the horizontal line by the vertical. The remaining doctrine, that of the Church and of faith, is again the horizontal line, but this time seen as intersected by the vertical. The vertical line is the atoning work of God in Jesus Christ. The horizontal is the object of that work; man and humanity. (CD IV/1, 643)

There is therefore a Chalcedonian pattern, 8 not only to Christ’s person, but also to his work. This unavoidably includes the Holy Spirit’s work, awakening and forming the church, which is itself the subjective realization of the eternal election of Jesus Christ (CD IV/1, 667).9 In Barth’s terms: “the one reality of the atonement has both an objective and a subjective side in so far as – we cannot separate but we must not confuse the two – it is both a divine act and offer and also an active human participation in it” (CD IV/1, 643; emphasis added).
For this reason, “the history which we consider when we speak of the Christian community and Christian faith is enclosed and exemplified in the history of Jesus Christ” (CD IV/1, 644). Barth takes seriously the New Testament language of the church as Christ’s “body,” and claims that “the community is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus Christ himself” (CD IV/1, 661). As Christ is the head of his body, the church, he is the ground of its particular existence. Just as the incarnation grounds human existence, it determines ecclesiological existence. And because Christology and ecclesiology are inseparably intertwined, the Chalcedonian pattern which unites the church with the person of Christ also applies to the relationship between the church’s being and its act – between its invisible essence and its visible form.
Disunity is the Impossible Possibility
This union, however, parallels the aforementioned tension between humanity’s essence and its form, given its Christological definition and the absurdity of sin. As Bender notes, “Barth’s dialectical understanding of the church as both an invisible and visible reality, an event of the Holy Spirit and a historical entity, leads naturally to his dialectical understanding of the marks of the church: the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”10 Within the context of the first mark, there is a tension between the church’s being/essence as one, and its act/form as many.


Credo unam ecclesiam(I believe one church) entails that there is “only one Church. This means that it belongs to the being of the community to be a unity in the plurality of its members, i.e., of the individual believers assembled in it, and to be a simple unity, not having a second or third unity of the same kind side by side with it” (CD IV/1, 668). This follows not just a Christological pattern, but a Trinitarian one as well, for

In all the riches of His divine being the God who reconciled the world with Himself in Jesus Christ is One. Jesus Christ, elected the Head of all men and as such their Representative who includes them all in Himself in His risen and crucified body is One. The Holy Spirit in the fulness and diversity of His gifts is One. In the same way His community as the gathering of the men who know and confess Him can only be one. (CD IV/1, 668)

This is the source of the church’s unity, in the midst of legitimate plurality, between the visible and invisible church and between the ecclesia militans and the ecclesia triumphans (CD IV/1, 669).11 The only other legitimate church plurality is the existence of “geographically separated and therefore different congregations.” (CD IV/1, 671). If the church is to exist “in essential accordance with its commission it has to take place in many localities,” then this necessarily entails a differentiation which corresponds to “its environment and history and language and customs and ways of life and thought as conditioned by the different localities, and also to its personal composition” (CD IV/1, 671). Because it is grounded in God’s Triune unity, the church’s unity does not necessitate homogeneity, and Barth grants that each local congregation should exist within the particularities of its own context.
However, this cannot entail any sort of basic or essential difference between one local congregation and another, for “each in its own place can only be the one community beside which there are no others. Each in and for itself and with its local characteristics can only be the whole, as others are in their own locality” (CD IV/1, 672). No other legitimate plurality within the church exists, for “any other plurality means the co-existence of Churches which are genuinely divided” – churches that, at best will kindly “tolerate one another as believing differently, and at worst they will fight against one another, mutually excluding each other with some definiteness and force” (CD IV/1, 675).
And yet this is exactly the scandalous reality of the church. Although there are myriad reasons for ecclesiological divisions throughout the ages, Barth’s distillation of myriad human sins to improper judgment as “the essence and root of all other sins ” helps to make sense of the scandal of the fragmented church. Just as humans demonstrate the sinful tension between their essence and form by improperly justifying themselves and damning others, the church demonstrates the sinful tension between its unified being and its divided act when individual Christian communities justify their own existence over against the existence of other Christian communities. Because this is the case, Barth is even willing to claim that the church’s formal division has essential implications: “in its visible and also in its invisible being, in its form and also in its essence, the one community of Jesus Christ is not one” (CD IV/1, 679). While it is expected that every Christian community would claim an individual encounter with its Lord which justifies its own existence, this can quickly become a perverse insistence that the “Yes” of Christ has been exclusively spoken to them. This “claim to be identical with the one Church in contrast to the others, and in this sense to be the only Church” entails a delegitimation, whether implicit or explicit, of every other community’s claim to stand under the “Yes” of Christ (CD IV/1, 683-4). The local congregation, instead of existing in harmony with and as a manifestation of the one church, becomes a ghetto by restricting the cosmic boundaries of Christ’s church to its own four walls.
While there may be legitimate human explanations for such divisions, there are no acceptable theological ones, Barth claims, for a “plurality of Churches in this sense means a plurality of lords, a plurality of spirits, a plurality of gods” – a practical denial of the church’s theoretical confession of the singular unity of the Triune God (CD IV/1, 675). Just as it is absurd for humans to oppose God as the very ground of their existence, it is equally absurd for the church to divide in denial of the unity of God.
Atonement’s Intensification of Disunity’s Absurdity
Just as the atonement intensifies the anthropological absurdity of sin, it intensifies the ecclesiological absurdity of disunity. As Barth puts it, the previously-described exclusive claim of a Christian community to be the only church “has been dashed out of hand by the One who is the unity of the Church” (CD IV/1, 684). In making an end of the nothingness of human sin, Christ has also delivered up disunity to destruction, for “in Him it was all humanity in its corruption and lostness, its earthly-historical existence under the determination of the fall, which was judged and executed and destroyed, and in that way liberated for a new determination, for its being as a new humanity” (CD IV/1, 663). The unity which is necessarily implied in Barth’s Christological description of election is realized in the church. Members of the community “were one in God’s election (Eph 1:4), were and are one in the fulfilment of it on Golgotha, are one in the power of His resurrection, one in Jesus Christ…His body together in their unity and totality” (CD IV/1, 664). Most succinctly, “there is only one Christ, and therefore there is only one body of Christ” (CD IV/1, 666). Disunity in the church is therefore absurd, because it denies the definition of the church as Christ’s body, and the reality of reconciliation as Christ’s work.
CONCLUSION: TOWARD A BARTHIAN ECUMENISM
I have endeavored to demonstrate the significance of Karl Barth’s remark that disunity in the church “is only possible as sin is possible,” by showing the structural parallels between his anthropological claim that sin is ontological impossibility and the claim that disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. Yet the value of this correlation for ecumenism is not readily apparent until it is situated within Barth’s own ecumenical vision.
For Karl Barth, the Chalcedonian pattern of both Christology and ecclesiology applies when addressing the tension between the church’s essence and form.12 On one hand, the solution to ecclesiological disunity must not entail a docetic escapism which unifies the church at the expense of its earthly-historical form. No matter how frustrated ecumenists become, they must not abandon their ecclesiological traditions to create a formless Christianity whose only members are themselves. Because the church’s external divisions result from essential, inward fractures, “neither individuals nor the whole Church can overcome it by a flight to the invisible, but only by a healing of both its visible and its invisible hurt” (CD IV/1, 678). On the other hand, because “what is demanded is the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, not the externally satisfying co-existence and co-operation of different religious societies,” Barth is suspicious of ebionitic approaches to church unity which approach the unification of the church as the unification of any other human communities, looking for the least common denominators upon which to build pragmatic associations (CD IV/1, 678).
Instead, Barth maintains that the pursuit of church unity must be an indirect pursuit – not an end in itself, but an unavoidable consequence of each Christian community sincerely pursuing the call of its Lord, and each individual doing so from a sober and humble loyalty to one’s particular confession (CD IV/1, 679).13 Barth asserts that “if only each church will take itself seriously, ‘itself and Christ within it,’ then even if there be no talk of union movements in it, even if there be no change at all in its order and its way of worship, the one Church would be in that single church a present reality and visible.”14 Because Christ, not Christians, is the ground of the church’s unity, an individual community can exhibit the unity of the church, even within a fractured ecclesiological landscape, “if in its ordinances it is zealous for Christ.”15
And yet this is the most difficult ecumenism of all, for it entails rigorous self-examination within each community, which must be willing to ask itself constantly whether it has legitimate reasons to exist as a particular, differentiated Christian community, or whether it should redefine (or abandon) its boundaries for the sake of church unity (CD IV/1, 680-1). I believe the correlation between sin as ontological impossibility and disunity as ecclesiological impossibility is necessary precisely at this point in the ecumenical equation, for each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation. Just as sinful humanity denies the ground of its own existence, so also a divided and divisive church denies its identity as Christ’s body and the reality of the atonement. Unless the disunity of Christ’s body is seen as an unacceptable scandal, the schisms will remain, and each community’s confession, “credo unam ecclesiam,” will mean nothing more than “we believe ourselves.”
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NOTES:
1 As Bender notes, “the referent for Barth’s term [whether ‘community’ or ‘church’] must be determined by context,” whether it refers to the local congregation, the institution, or the universal body of Christ. See Kimlyn Bender, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (Hampshire/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005; repr. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 13. I have followed Bender’s approach in that, throughout this study, “church” is only capitalized in quotations, when Barth himself did so.
2 Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936; repr., 2005), 22-3. Emphasis added.
3 Note the similarities: “It is then unthinkable that to those multiplicities which are rooted in unity we should have to add that which tears it in pieces; unthinkable that great entire groups of communities should stand over against each other in such a way that their doctrines and confessions of faith are mutually contradictory…. that the adherents of the one should be at one with those of another in every conceivable point except that they are unable to pray together, to preach and hear God’s word together, and to join together in Holy Communion.” Barth, The Church and the Churches, 24.
4 The reference is to Vol. IV, pt. 1 of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. (eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; 5 vols in 14 parts; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). All references to the Church Dogmatics appear parenthetically in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”
5 “It is a mark of the divine nature as distinct from that of the creature that in it a conflict with Himself is not merely ruled out, but is inherently impossible. If this were not so, if there did not exist perfect, original and ultimate peace between the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit, God would not be God. Any God in conflict with Himself is bound to be a false God” CD II/1, 503.
6 Consider Barth’s positive, yet provisional, appraisal of the phenomena-based anthropologies: “In this way and in this sense, then, a knowledge of man which is non-theological but genuine is not only possible but basically justified and necessary even from the standpoint of theological anthropology…. It cannot, of course, lead us to the knowledge of real man. But it may proceed from or presuppose a knowledge of real man” CD III/2, 200-2.
7 “It is significant that at this point, the transition from the second to the third article, the word credo is specifically mentioned. It tells us that we can know the man who belongs to Jesus Christ only in faith.” CD IV/1, 644.
8 Bender credits George Hunsinger with identifying this theme, based upon Barth’s own description of the ecumenical councils’ doctrinal decisions as “guiding lines for an understanding of [Christ’s] existence and action, not to be used, as they have been used, as stones for the construction of an abstract doctrine of His ‘person’” (CD IV/1, 127). See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 3.
9 As Bender helpfully notes, “there is, then, not only a direct Christological analogy between Christ and the community, but an indirect Trinitarian and pneumatological one, in that, as the Spirit binds together the Father and the Son (in the Trinity); and as the Spirit binds together the Word and flesh of Christ (in the incarnation); so also the Holy Spirit binds together Christ and the community.” Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 205. However, in touching so lightly upon the work of the Holy Spirit in this paper, I share Barth’s exclamatory sentiment: “How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done!” (CD IV/1, 649). Furthermore, despite the brief mention of election, it is significant that Barth grounds the unity between Christology and ecclesiology, not in the event of Pentecost, preaching, or the sacraments, but in the election of Jesus Christ from all eternity. The church “became His body, they became its members, in the fulfillment of their eternal election in His death on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in His resurrection from the dead” (CD IV/1, 667).
10 Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 181.
11 It is also the source of the unity between Israel and the Church, which Barth describes as the “two forms and aspects (CD II, 2, § 34, 1) of the one inseparable community in which Jesus Christ has His earthly-historical form of existence, by which He is attested to the whole world, by which the whole world is summoned to faith in Him.” CD IV/1, 669-70.
12 I am indebted to Bender’s helpful description of Barth’s critical use of a docetic/ebionitic framework. See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 7.
13 See also Barth, The Church and the Churches, 51-2.
14 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 55.
15 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 56.
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