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

The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones - Gustave Dore
The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones – Gustave Dore

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. He made me walk all around among them. I realized there were a great many bones in the valley and they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said to him, “Sovereign Lord, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and tell them: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. This is what the sovereign Lord says to these bones: Look, I am about to infuse breath into you and you will live. I will put tendons on you and muscles over you and will cover you with skin; I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. There was a sound when I prophesied—I heard a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone. As I watched, I saw tendons on them, then muscles appeared, and skin covered over them from above, but there was no breath in them.

He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath,—prophesy, son of man—and say to the breath: ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army.

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. 13 Then you will know that I am theLord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. 14 I will place my breath in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord—I have spoken and I will act, declares the Lord.’”

Psalm: 104:24-34 (NET Bible)

24 How many living things you have made, O Lord!
You have exhibited great skill in making all of them;
the earth is full of the living things you have made.
25 Over here is the deep, wide sea,
which teems with innumerable swimming creatures,
living things both small and large.
26 The ships travel there,
and over here swims the whale you made to play in it.
27 All of your creatures wait for you
to provide them with food on a regular basis.
28 You give food to them and they receive it;
you open your hand and they are filled with food.
29 When you ignore them, they panic.
When you take away their life’s breath, they die
and return to dust.
30 When you send your life-giving breath, they are created,
and you replenish the surface of the ground.
31 May the splendor of the Lord endure!
May the Lord find pleasure in the living things he has made!
32 He looks down on the earth and it shakes;
he touches the mountains and they start to smolder.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I exist!
34 May my thoughts be pleasing to him!
I will rejoice in the Lord.

Praise the Lord, O my soul!
Praise the Lord!

Song #2: “Tongues of Fire” by John Mark McMillan

Read the Acts passage below and give this song a listen:

Second Lesson: Acts 2:1-21 (NET Bible)

The Holy Spirit and the Day of Pentecost 

File:Jean II Restout - Pentecôte.jpg
Pentecôte by Jean II Restout

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” 12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!”

Peter’s Address on the Day of Pentecost

14 But Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and addressed them: “You men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, know this and listen carefully to what I say. 15 In spite of what you think, these men are not drunk, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel:

17 And in the last days it will be,God says,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all people,
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
and your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
19 And I will perform wonders in the sky above
and miraculous signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and clouds of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes.
21 And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Song #3: “Holy Ghost” by John Mark McMillan

The third song is “Holy Ghost” by John Mark McMillan. Give it a listen, read the remaining reading, and have a blessed Pentecost!

Gospel: John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 (NET Bible)

26 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me, 27 and you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

But I have told you these things so that when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them.

“I did not tell you these things from the beginning because I was with you.But now I am going to the one who sent me, and not one of you is asking me, ‘Where are you going?’ Instead your hearts are filled with sadness because I have said these things to you. But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.

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.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the ineluctable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5 The former is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What do I see when I look at others? Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires. On one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents. However, as Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us. Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9 When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What do I see when I look at God? If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths. Why bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance! As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.” 11 And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What does it mean to be human? To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires. Barth best describes the failures of self-definition: “the enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13 My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.

DIVINE DISCOURSE

Who am I? What do I see when I look at God? To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former. As Barth rightly inveighs, 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.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15 And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse. As Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16 I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. 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.”18 In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20 Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23 And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself."24 Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human. This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26 Because he provides the telos by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27 I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Luther concluded, “as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28 This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

CONCLUSION

What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question. In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death. Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.

————————-

1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.

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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.”
————————-

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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The Hope of the Holy Innocents


The Hope of the Holy Innocents

[Matthew 2:13-18]


("Le Massacre des Innocents"; Pierre Paul Rubens, c.1610-1612)

(Audio Available Here)


Today is December 28 – just the third day since Christmas – a commemoration of what is often called “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” the killing of the baby boys of Bethlehem by King Herod.

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)]

…For [REDACTED]

…For [REDACTED]

…For [REDACTED]

…For [REDACTED]

…For [REDACTED]

…For [REDACTED]

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 backdropof 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.

(BCP, 1928).

I’ve said that the Incarnation unveils both the source of and the desperate need for hope.Let us consider both together as we turn to today’s Gospel text, Matthew 2:13-18.

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.

First, then:

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.

13Now 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.”

14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15and 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 until 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.

16Then 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.

17Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18“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.

("Mary Consoles Eve";Crayon and pencil by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO.Copyright 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey)

Although some think Matthew used this verse due to the geographical proximity of Rachel’s grave to Bethlehem, it’s more 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.

CONCLUSION

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. We cannot 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. It makes 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.

As our second lesson today describes it:


Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.

He will dwell withus,andwewill be his people,

and God himself will be withusasourGod.

He will wipe away every tear fromoureyes,

from the eyes of Bethlehem’s mothers

and from the eyes of Bethlehem’s babies.

And death shall be no more,

neither shall there be mourning,

nor crying, nor pain anymore,

for the former things have passed away.”

God, the Alpha and the Omega,

whose justice and mercy far outstrip our own,

will make all things new.


God will be our God.

And because of His Son –

who joined us in our distant depths,

and went into exile in our stead to bring us home –

We will be God’s daughters and sons.

Amen.

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The Brokenhearted God

Not to take away from the undeniably biblical teaching that God is almighty, but sometimes I think we lose sight of God's love for his image-bearers when we emphasize certain "strong" portraits of God at the expense of (instead of alongside of) other "weak" portraits found in Scripture. (I put "strong" and "weak" in quotes because perhaps our definitions of strength and weakness therefore need to change!)

It might make some of us uncomfortable to read about God portrayed as a jilted lover or a frustrated mother, but those portraits just might be desperately needed in a time when so many people turn away from God because they can't understand how he can possibly be the good Lord of a world so broken and dying.

Let's not let our emphasis on God as King make him seem like a distant despot, or something dangerously close to the author of evil. We worship a God who is immanent in his transcendence, and we don't all need to become process theologians to recognize this. Perhaps we just need to read the prophets! Consider the following two examples:


When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the further they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,

and they burned incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;

I took them up in my arms,

but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them

with bands of human kindness,

with cords of love.

I treated them like those

who lift infants to their cheeks;

I bent down to them and fed them.

I won’t act on the heat of my anger;

I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and not a human being,

the holy one in your midst;

I won’t come in harsh judgment.

They will walk after theLord,

who roars like a lion.

When he roars,

his children will come trembling from the west.

They will come trembling like a bird,

and like a dove from the land of Assyria;

and I will return them to their homes, says theLord. (Hosea 11:1-4; 9-11, CEB)

As for your birth, on the day you were born your umbilical cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water; you were certainly not rubbed down with salt, nor wrapped with blankets.No eye took pity on you to do even one of these things for you to spare you; you were thrown out into the open field because you were detested on the day you were born.

“‘I passed by you and saw you kicking around helplessly in your blood. I said to you as you lay there in your blood, “Live!” I said to you as you lay there in your blood, “Live!”I made you plentiful like sprouts in a field; you grew tall and came of age so that you could wear jewelry. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, but you were still naked and bare.

“‘Then I passed by you and watched you, noticing that you had reached the age for love. I spread my cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I swore a solemn oath to you and entered into a marriage covenant with you, declares the sovereignLord, and you became mine.

“‘Then I bathed you in water, washed the blood off you, and anointed you with fragrant oil.I dressed you in embroidered clothing and put fine leather sandals on your feet. I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk.I adorned you with jewelry. I put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck.I put a ring in your nose, earrings on your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head.You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery. You ate the finest flour, honey, and olive oil. You became extremely beautiful and attained the position of royalty.Your fame spread among the nations because of your beauty; your beauty was perfect because of the splendor which I bestowed on you, declares the sovereignLord. (Ezekiel 16:4-14, NET)

Notice that God's immanence, his willingness to suffer alongside us (and in our stead, through Christ), doesn't negate his hatred for sin. Instead, I'd argue that God's immanence intensifies his negative reaction to Sin and Death as his cosmic enemies! Emmanuel, God with us, sees our sickness for what it truly is. It's not something to be trifled with, and it doesn't just upset God because it "breaks his list of rules." No, sin breaks God's good creation. It is a cancer which kills from within, even dragging his precious image bearers down to the grave…blinding them to the horrible reality of their downfall, and enticing them, enticing US with phantoms of fleeting pleasure.

This rambling post was inspired by the following two songs, which capture the above ideas beautifully. The first is "Ezekiel," by Gungor, based on the text of Ezekiel 16. The second is "Not Your Type" by Noah James. Give both a listen if you have the time!

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