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Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion

Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality).[1] It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.

However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious.[2] Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless.[3] Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.”[4] This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.[5]

Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”?  I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.

Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.

[[To continue reading, download the PDF: To Be or Not To Be Religious.]]

—Notes—

[1] See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[2] See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.

[3] CD IV/1, 483.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 361–67.

[5] Ibid., 429.

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A Disappointing Christmas Homily

Good morning! And Merry Christmas!

Together, let us pray:

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

You know, they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve even heard it said that it’s the “hap-happiest season of all”!

But, can I take a poll real quick?

Please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a disappointing Christmas.

I mean a Christmas that didn’t live up to your expectations. You wanted it to be filled with love, happiness, and peace, and instead all you got was stress, anxiety, and loneliness.

Have you ever had a disappointing Christmas?

I have. Continue reading “A Disappointing Christmas Homily”

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Christians and Wealth

(The following post originally appeared on May 08, 2011.)

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth”

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Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

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Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches

INTRODUCTION: ACCEPTING, BLOCKING, AND STATUS

From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation.[1] Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[2] The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.”[3] This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.[4]

However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[5] For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.”[6] Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.”[7] Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.[8]

QUESTIONING GIVENS

Continue reading “Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches”

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What Do I Believe?

“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “What Do I Believe?”

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The Hope of the Holy Innocents

(PDF: The Hope of the Holy Innocents)

Today is December 28 (2014) – 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 backdrop of intense evil and incomprehensible suffering.

Let us pray…

O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths: Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.

This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,

“Out of Egypt I called my son.”

A. THE FLIGHT

Verse 13 begins by referring to the departure of the wise men, after offering their now-famous gifts. And just as they were warned in a dream to take an alternate route home to avoid Herod, so Joseph is commanded in a dream by a messenger of the Lord to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod.

Herod the Great’s attempts to destroy the Christ-child here echo the much earlier attempts of Pharaoh to kill Moses in the book of Exodus – first, generally and unwittingly, by ordering all Hebrew baby boys to be cast into the Nile (Exod. 1:22); and then, even more specifically, when Pharaoh tried to kill Moses after Moses’ had murdered a nameless Egyptian (Exod. 2:15). In this way, Matthew links Herod with Pharaoh, and Jesus with Moses.

Therefore , although Egypt was, in the immediate sense, a natural destination to escape Herod’s jurisdiction, Matthew is drawing deeper connections. Egypt was the house of slavery from which the nation of Israel was redeemed. It is significant, then, that the Son of God goes there as a refugee before returning to the land of Israel to redeem the world.

The urgency of the angel’s command matches the urgency with which it was obeyed. The family made the approximately 90 mile journey, beginning under cover of darkness. And they obediently remained there u
ntil receiving further instructions – until Herod would later die, allowing them to return and to journey to Nazareth in Galilee.

B. THE FULFILLMENT

And then Matthew says that these things happened in order that that which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet – in this case, the prophet Hosea – might be fulfilled: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” As I have mentioned, this comes from Hosea 11, from a beautiful prophetic passage which begins by speaking of Israel and the Exodus – the formative event in the birth of the young nation, the young “son” of God.

This way of speaking about Israel as God’s son comes from the book of Exodus itself, when Moses is told to tell Pharaoh “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son,and I say to you ‘Let my son go that he may serve me” (4:22-23a).

This is a metaphorical use of the word “son” to refer to the relationship between Yahweh and his people. However, as the Exodus passage continues, if Pharaoh refused to let Yahweh’s metaphorical firstborn son go, Yahweh would kill Pharaoh’s literal firstborn son.

Literal and metaphorical sonship collide in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God who fully shares the divine nature of his Father, and he is also the Son of God who fulfills the calling and the destiny of the nation of Israel.Here his sojourn in Egypt fulfills the Exodus. Later, in Matthew 4, his wilderness temptation fulfills the Old Testament wilderness wanderings.Jesus is not just the New Moses. He is the True Israel.

Only when divine sonship is seen as an important biblical theme does this Hosea quotation make sense. Matthew is not proof-texting here, because in the Hosea passage, the “son” immediately turns away from Yahweh to idolatry in the very next verse!Instead , Matthew is claiming that the link Hosea made between the people of Israel and God’s “son” finds its fullest meaning – it is fulfilled and completed – in the person of Jesus.

Already , early in Matthew’s Gospel, we get the sense that Christ is going to change things, He’s going to complete God’s mission of setting the world right again.

I wish I could end there. However,

II. IN TELLING OF THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS,VV. 16-18 REVEAL THE DESPERATE NEED FOR HOPE.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

A. THE MASSACRE

According to estimates, the number of baby boys killed in the region of Bethlehem would have been between 10 and 30.In the course of the Church’s commemoration of this event, the number has grown drastically – to 14,000; 64,000; or even 144,000.

Of course , some have gone to the opposite extreme and claimed that this event never actually happened.Matthew must have been making this story up to draw the connections between Jesus and Moses. He had the Old Testament texts and made a story to match.

That’s one way around this difficult text,but I think it’s a cop-out.

Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 and therefore creates a link in reverse to the Old Testament passage. However, in a certain sense, this link only works in one direction. That is, if one only had Jeremiah 31:15, it is obviously not a straightforward prophecy of a bloodthirsty ruler killing babies.

Matthew is using the Old Testament to make some sense of this senseless slaughter, not to create it.

Furthermore , this massacre at Bethlehem fits quite well with the historical portrait we have of Herod – especially in his later years. Herod was crazy. If he thought you were a threat to his power, goodbye! The man even killed three of his own sons.

It is therefore not altogether surprising that, as terrible as it was, the deaths of a dozen or so babies in the hill town of Bethlehem would not have made it into the secular history books of that violent period.

I still think it happened.

Does that make you feel any better?

Perhaps a victory for the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts, but at what cost?

We’re still left with bereaved mothers and bloodstained cribs.

I don’t feel any better.

Although I’m sure I’ll find this passage even more poignant when, Lord-willing, I am a parent myself someday,some of its true weight hit me for the first time when, after reading the passage together, my wife (a pediatric nurse) started to tear-up and, after a long silence, said: “I don’t understand why those children had to die for Jesus to come… If I’m honest, it makes me angry.”

She has a point, right? If God could save Jesus from bloodthirsty Herod, why not the Bethlehem babies? Didn’t the angel of the Lord have enough free time to show up in the dreams of the other Bethlehem parents? Doesn’t this event, like all the others I mentioned in my introduction, rightly prompt the question, perhaps asked with a tone of weeping and loud lamentation: “Why, God? Why?!”?

B. THE FULFILLMENT

This passage sticks with me partially because my wife’s name is Rachel. She has wept, as a nurse, over the often senseless suffering of her patients. And she is not alone. Matthew draws our attention to Jeremiah 31:15, depicting Rachel – the wife of Jacob, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin – as weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are no more. “Why, God? Why?!”

The original context of this passage is the Babylonian invasion and exile of the people of Judah. Ramah, just 5 miles north of Jerusalem, was where the exiles were assembled in 586 B.C. for the journey into Babylon.

The prophet Jeremiah witnessed Jerusalem destroyed and its inhabitants terrorized. He poetically depicts Rachel, the Old Testament’s paradigmatic and idealized mother of the people of Israel, as weeping for her children as they go into exile.

Imagine Eve, the mother of the living, weeping as she looks forward from the past to see all the horrible effects of the exile from Eden, and you’ll get a similar idea.

“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 mo
re likely that the connection is theological.

The connection is HOPE.

Jeremiah 31:15, although tragic, occurs in a hopeful section of the book. In fact, the chapter of Jeremiah 31 is best known for its depiction in vv.31-40 of the New Covenant! The quoted verse about Rachel weeping is followed by these two verses:

Thus says the Lord:

“ Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.

There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.”

Rachel was weeping over the exile.And she is promised that it will one day end.The exiles will return – as they began to do,48 years later, in 538 BC.

It is important to realize that this “prophecy” did not somehow cause the tragedy at Bethlehem.As John Calvin notes in his Gospel commentary, because Jeremiah’s oracle had its own fulfillment regarding the exile to Babylon and the subsequent return, “Matthew does not mean that it foretold what Herod would do, but that the coming of Christ occasioned a renewal of that mourning, which had been experienced, many centuries before,” by the people of Israel.

Because , you’ll notice, the people of Israel were still in exile. Sure, five centuries had passed since they had physically returned, but they still lived under a foreign ruler, not a son of David, who could enter the city of David at will and have the baby boys slaughtered.

We have an encounter between two kings in this passage. The first, a crazed old man, is the illegitimate king of the Jews – deathly afraid of pretenders to his throne. The second, a vulnerable human baby, is the legitimate king of the Jews and of the world.

When faced with the latter, the former should have bowed the knee – as did the wise men (who, you’ll notice, came from the exile-lands of Babylon and Persia). Instead, Herod draws the sword, and the Son of God goes into exile, a refugee in the ancient land of slavery from which his people were bought and delivered by Yahweh.

With the mothers of Bethlehem, Rachel was still weeping.

Her children were not yet home.

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 with us, and we will be his people, and God himself will be with us as our God.

He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, 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.

 

It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – An Ascension Sermon

GOODBYES SUCK

You know, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s goodbyes. Anyone else here hate goodbyes?

Yeah, and the fact that I hate them so much means I’m not really very good at goodbyes.

Sometimes I get awkward and silent. Sometimes I get awkward and really chatty! Heck, sometimes I get awkward and I make poor choices, like the one time when I was getting ready to say goodbye to my family when they dropped me off at college.

They were looking forward to a final dinner with me, in the school cafeteria, before they left. But I was worried about the awkwardness of saying a tearful goodbye between packed tables and chairs, so I suggested that they just leave.

Let’s just say that my family wasn’t very happy. And me? Neither was I. I ate my first college meal all alone.

Goodbyes suck. And I often suck at goodbyes.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, for one thing, this is my “goodbye” sermon here at St. Peter’s, and I wanted to give an excuse for this sermon, if it sucks!

In all seriousness, I do want to thank this congregation for being such a good place for Rachel and me to serve and grow alongside you. Thank you for loving Rachel and me as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will miss you all very much as we move to Illinois this week.

Anyways, I don’t want this goodbye to get TOO awkward, so I’d better keep on preaching!

I think that goodbyes are bad because they so often leave our stories unfinished.

And we humans tend to hate unfinished business. It’s so much better when the story has an end! Sometimes, even a bad ending is better than no ending at all!

Think about it, if you’re watching an important game on TV – say, Alabama vs. Auburn – would you rather see the ending, even if your team loses, or have the power go out and completely miss the final minutes?

Stories without endings are frustrating. And that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.

That’s why Death – the ultimate goodbye, if you will – is so horrible.

It’s not really an ending, not for those of us who go on living, anyways. Instead, Death leaves our stories hanging, with words left unsaid and promises left unfulfilled.

I think here of parents in Manchester this week who were forced to say goodbye to their children all too soon, thanks to the suicide bombing. Or the Coptic Christians in Egypt forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon, thanks to the bus attack.

Goodbyes suck, because they leave our stories unfinished.

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION?

Is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, then, just another awful goodbye?

I mean, think about the emotional rollercoaster Christ’s followers must have ridden in those days. Rising hopes of God’s coming kingdom dashed to the ground at the Crucifixion – only to rise once more at the Resurrection!

“Jesus, you’re alive! Surely, surely now’s the time when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel, right?!

“I mean, you had us worried there for a minute, what with the whole executed like a common criminal thing… but SURELY now’s the time!

“Seize the day! Take the throne! Kill these Romans, won’t you?! Won’t you?!”

… Now, I’m sure that the Ascension was glorious. After all, Luke tells us that the disciples worshiped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

But the Ascension was still a goodbye.

And I’m sure that, eventually, the glory faded as the disciples gazed into heaven. And they needed the angels’ reminder:

“Men of Galilee, who do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11].

OK, so maybe it’s fairer to say that the Ascension was a “see-you-later.”

Fine.

But doesn’t the Ascension still leave things hanging?

Doesn’t it still leave our story – and the story of the Gospel – unfinished?

Well, yes…and no.

If I might paraphrase the angels’ message in Acts 1 as the title of my sermon, here it is:

“It’s finished! So, get to work!”

And here’s my main point:

The Ascension completes the Gospel and compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPLETE THE GOSPEL?

How does the Ascension complete the Gospel?

Well, that requires knowing what the Gospel is, so here goes:

THE GOSPEL

In the beginning, God created the entire universe to be his temple, his kingdom – the place where he would dwell and rule.

And he created human beings – his image-bearers, his ambassadors, his “middle-management” – to extend his rule and reign throughout creation.

Instead of doing this, however, human beings rebelled against God.

Instead of bowing the knee to the King, they tried to steal his throne.

And this rebellion brought Sin and Death into the kingdom – breaking the relationships

  • between God and humanity,
  • between humanity and itself,
  • and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Where once there was perfect fellowship and communion, there was now distance and Exile.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, God was not going to let Sin, Death, and Exile have the final word! No!

He would pursue his people, he would buy them back from their slavery to Sin and Death, he would cleanse them from the inside out, and he would – one day – bring them back home.

The story of God’s rescue mission, then, is the Good News – it’s the Gospel.

In the Old Testament, the story of Israel is the beginning of this rescue mission.

In the Old Testament, God draws a people back into covenant relationship with himself.

And yet, the story of the Old Testament is left hanging on a tragic note.

Despite God’s continuing goodness, faithfulness, and salvation, his people prove stubbornly faithless.

And, even though they technically dwell in the geographical Promised Land, they are still in Exile.

They are still ruled, in the halls of power, by their political enemies. And they are still ruled, in their hearts, by Sin and Death.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, in the New Testament, God HIMSELF goes into Exile INSTEAD OF his people, in order to bring them back home.

I’d like you to picture this as a capital letter “V”.

Up here, you’ve got the eternal Son of God – fully divine.

Down here, is us. Drowning, as it were, in a cesspool of Sin and Death.

And instead of abandoning us…

(Heck, even instead of somehow saving us at an arm’s distance, after we start to clean up and get our act together.)

…Christ dives headfirst into the muck – into the cesspool of sin-stained human existence.

We call this the Incarnation.

So, great! God’s with us! In..this…cesspool! …Great?

At the Crucifixion, Jesus goes all the way to the very bottom point of that capital V.

He goes all the way into the furthest, farthest Exile – Death.

So, great! God’s dead.

How is this good news?!

Well, the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, he went into the farthest Exile, so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he didn’t stay in the grave. No no no!

There’s another side to the capital V!

We can’t forget the Resurrection!

Jesus arose from the grave – he walked out of that tomb on Easter morning AAAAANNNNND…..

Well, we don’t know.

He appeared to some people. And then, well, we’re not really sure what happened to him.

We’re not really sure what it all meant.

The story would have ended there, left hanging between tragedy and triumph, were it not for the Ascension.

HOW THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL

Brothers and sisters, we can’t forget the Ascension!

The Ascension COMPLETES the Gospel!

The Ascension is the final step in Christ’s return from Exile.

And, if we are united with Christ as a part of his body, the Church, the Ascension is the completion of OUR return from Exile as well!

The Ascension demonstrates that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were the final victory over Sin and Death.

Furthermore, the fact that Christ is not only crucified, and not only risen, but also ascended, and glorified, and seated on his heavenly throne means that he is the LORD.

Jesus Christ, though still fully human, though still fully acquainted with our many griefs, is not your buddy.

He’s not your pal that you can ignore at your convenience.

No, the Ascension reminds us that Christ is our King.

He is our Lord. And he is to be obeyed.

But, hey, since the capital V is finished, and Christ is on the throne, that means that we can all just sit around and do nothing, right?!

As long as we’re not doing something horrible?

I mean, the story’s OVER! I thought that’s what you just said, Josh.

No, not quite!

The Ascension does complete the Gospel – as its goal and culmination.

We will all one day be with Christ at the Father’s right hand in glory.

But the story’s not over, because the Ascension also compels the Church.

The Ascension completes the Gospel, and it also compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPEL THE CHURCH?

How does the Ascension compel the Church?

Well, the Ascension gives the Church

  • its global mission,
  • its enduring hope,
  • and its enabling power.

Everyone with me so far?

We’ve talked about the Ascension’s theological significance, how the Ascension completes the Gospel.

Now let’s talk about the Ascension’s application to our lives – how the Ascension should both challenge us and encourage us.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS GLOBAL MISSION

Here’s the challenge of the Ascension: it gives the Church its global mission.

As Luke told us twice today – in the book of Acts and the Gospel which bears his name – Jesus commissioned his followers as witnesses who were to proclaim the Good News across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

“to all nations” – that word, “nations,” ethnoi, more properly refers to people groups, to cultural and ethnic groups of people, than to modern nation states.

That is, there are plenty of ethnoi represented right here in the United States – including those that haven’t yet heard the gospel!

You remember what I said a minute ago about Jesus not being our buddy?

He’s our King! He’s to be obeyed!

And he wants us to proclaim the gospel to the entire world.

Which, let’s be honest, is easier said than done.

Why?

Because God’s global gospel runs counter to the nationalistic, tribalistic, and individualistic “gospels” of this earth.

The Good News of God’s global kingdom – won not through self-promotion or military conquest but through self-sacrifice and loving one’s enemies – this gospel runs counter to the false gospels of this world, including the false gospel of the American Dream.

And that cuts right across the grain of the entire political landscape – red state and blue state.

Now to be sure, hear me!, there is a difference between globalism and God’s global gospel.

But there is also a stark difference between the United States of America and the Kingdom of God – between American culture and Kingdom culture.

Let us, then, take heed, lest we American Christians make assimilation to American culture an unofficial prerequisite for the nations of the world.

There is no prerequisite.

There is no response of the world that gives the Church an excuse to abandon its global mission.

In light of the Ascension, the Church’s global mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ across all cultural and ethnic boundaries – obeying its Ascended Lord, who once said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Matt. 5:43-44].

OK, so this transcultural, enemy-loving gospel stuff sounds great hypothetically, but

  • what about when people blow themselves up to kill children at a concert in Manchester?
  • What about when people open fire on a bus full of Coptic Christians on their way to pray?
  • What about when they go on shooting sprees in shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, and churches?
  • Or what about when people are just so different, so unfamiliar, so awkward, that we just don’t know what to say?

What then?

Do we throw up our hands in despair?

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENDURING HOPE

Here’s the encouragement of the Ascension: it gives the Church its enduring hope.

Without the Ascension, we are left wondering whether the good news of Christ’s resurrection will extend to us.

We are left wondering whether the chaos in the world around us will ever cease.

How long, O Lord? How long before you stay the hand of the wicked?

How long before you destroy the earthly powers and dominions and authorities that divide us and destroy us?

Friends, we can still ask these questions today, but it makes all the difference in the world that Christ has ascended.

It makes all the difference in the world that Christ has been enthroned over all earthly powers and dominions and authorities.

Why?

Because the Ascension shows that Christ has triumphed over his enemies.

The way of the Cross has won out over the sinful ways of this world.

And the Ascension also anticipates the second coming of Christ.

Just like Jesus did not stay in the grave, he will not stay at a distance upon his heavenly throne – present in the Church only sacramentally.

No!

And just like he did not let Sin and Death have the final word, he will not let the servants of Sin and Death have the final word, either.

Instead, he will one day stay the hand of the wicked.

He will one day disarm and destroy those who have decided to persist in rebellion against him.

Christ is enthroned over all earthly powers! This is our enduring hope!

There’s no reason for us to hedge our bets, as it were, by bending the knee to any earthly power – friend or foe.

Instead, the Church can freely exist for the sake of the world, because we know that the world is in the hands of our ascended King.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENABLING POWER: THE HOLY SPIRIT

So, you know, just get out there and try harder to love people and let them know about Jesus, no matter how different they are!

Right?!

Wrong.

We’re not fooling anyone. We can’t do this on our own.

Sure, we’ve got a global mission. And sure, we’ve got an enduring hope.

But we still need enabling power.

And the Ascension gives the Church its enabling power: the Holy Spirit.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:53].

And, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus

“ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” [Acts 1:4-5].

A few verses later, Jesus says:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8].

Now, I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

After all, it’s still a week until Pentecost!

But, brothers and sisters, we can’t make it, not even for a week, without the Holy Spirit!

We are only gathered here this morning, some two thousand years since the Ascension, on the other side of the world, because the Holy Spirit has empowered the Church to fulfill its global mission.

And, even though we live in a divided, divisive, and terrifying world, the Holy Spirit can empower the Church today.

So, thanks be to God that the Ascension and Pentecost go hand in hand!

THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL AND COMPELS THE CHURCH TO FULFILL ITS GLOBAL MISSION, CLINGING TO ITS ENDURING HOPE, EMPOWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

So, Father, we thank you for your persistence and patience to rescue us from Sin and Death.

Jesus, we bow the knee and worship you, our Ascended Lord. And we ask you to come again soon and make all things new.

And Holy Spirit, we ask you come. Give us the strength to love our neighbors and our enemies by proclaiming and living the gospel.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday Sermon: The Lasting Supper – Luke 22:14-30

There is something special about last meals, isn’t there?

I’d like to show you a series of photographs. These photographs, except for the last one – which I added, are from a piece called “No Seconds,” and they were put together by Henry Hargreaves.

I don’t want to belabor the artwork with my commentary, so I’ll give you a few seconds to take each slide in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now, I don’t know about you, but those pictures affect me deeply. The whole idea of a criminal’s last meal affects me deeply. Why?

I think it’s because these last meals combine the familiar with the unfamiliar. They combine the expected and the unexpected. I mean, on one hand, you’ve got comfort food. On the other hand, heinous crimes. The stuff of life right next to life’s untimely end.

While Jesus of Nazareth was no common criminal, his so-called “Last Supper” with his disciples was a poignant combination of the expected and the unexpected. And when you take a look at the Last Supper, focusing on its unexpected elements, you find out that it’s really a Lasting Supper.

That is, the Last Supper is not just a one-time event, some two-thousand years ago. Instead, Holy Communion, the Lasting Supper, is an ongoing meal, with profound implications for our past, our future, and our present.

The Meal

First, let’s look at the original meal itself, the “Last Supper,” as described in our Gospel lesson (Luke 22:14-20).

Passover: An Interpretive Celebration

Now, as expected, the Passover was an interpretive celebration, because it looked back to the Exodus event – when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt – in order to explain what salvation looked like.

That is, if you asked any respectable Hebrew what it meant to “be saved,” you would much more likely hear “it’s like when God saved us from Egypt” than “you get to go to heaven after you die.”

Although Passover originated with Exodus 12’s instructions for a hasty meal, eaten while standing a fully dressed, by Jesus’ time the meal had evolved into an elaborate affair.

As best we can tell, in Jesus’ day the meal was structured around four cups of wine. According to New Testament scholar Joel Green, the meal had the following outline:

  • The head of the family would pronounce a blessing over the first cup of wine, which was then shared.
  • Before the second cup, the youngest son would ask the father questions about what made this night special.
  • The father would reply by telling the Exodus story, focusing on the summary given in Deut. 26:5-11.
  • The dinner party would then sing Psalm 113, and then drink the second cup of wine.
  • The father would then bless, break, and distribute the unleavened bread, followed by the main meal.
  • Finally, they would consume two more cups of wine, before singing Psalms 114-118.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we need to realize that the Passover was no ordinary meal.

Instead, it was an interpretive meal. Words went right along with the food, in order to situate the dinner party in the midst of God’s ongoing Story of Salvation.

Especially given the combination of the Exodus story with the prayers and praises found in Psalms 113-118, the Passover was

  • a remembrance of God’s past deliverance,
  • a celebration of God’s present faithfulness,
  • and an anticipation of God’s future deliverance.

The past, the present, and the future came together in one meal.

Here’s the framework, or the timeline, if you will:

  • The original Passover meal (Exod. 12)
  • The Exodus from Egypt
  • The establishment of the Covenant
  • Yearly remembrance of the Passover
  • In hope of future, final redemption

Got that?

Passover, Exodus, Covenant, Remembrance, Hope.

OK, so this is really important: Israel didn’t merely remember the Passover each year to know something but in order to change.

In other words, Passover was supposed to be a transformative remembrance.

Remembering God’s faithfulness was supposed to transform them into God’s faithful followers. Remembering God’s faithfulness was supposed to transform them into God’s faithful covenant partners.

So much for the expected aspects of the Last Supper: it was an interpretive Passover.

An Unexpected Paradigm Shift

What is unexpected about this meal is how Jesus shifts the paradigm! He takes the whole “Passover, Exodus, Covenant, Remembrance, Hope” timeline and makes himself the center of it!

As the “head of the household,” it’s not strange that Jesus would be the chief speaker during this Passover Meal. However, in vv. 15-16, things start to get weird. Jesus frames the meal as his last meal, prophetically looking forward to his suffering and death.

And yet, perhaps it’s better to say his “second-to-last meal,” because in verses 16 – 18, he predicts that death will not have the final word. Instead, he will partake of the full and final Passover again in the coming kingdom of God!

Remember, we’re expecting Jesus to give an explanation and interpretation of the Exodus story. When Jesus takes the bread and the wine, we expect him to say: “do this in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt…do this in remembrance of the Covenant.”

Instead, he says: “do this in remembrance of ME!”

This shifts the timeline forward, from Israel’s transformative remembrance of the Passover to the Church’s transformative remembrance of the fulfillment of the Passover, the Lord’s Supper.

Passover points to the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.

New Exodus, New Covenant

What about the Exodus and the Covenant? Do they point to anything?

They do!

Both the Exodus and the Covenant are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, through the New Exodus and the New Covenant!

In the original Exodus, God saved his people, through Moses, from slavery in Egypt.

In the New Exodus, God saves his people, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to Sin and Death.

In the original Covenant, God gives his people the Law, through Moses, written upon tablets of stone.

In the New Covenant, God gives his people the Law, the Gospel! through Jesus Christ, and writes it upon their hearts.

We see this first in Jesus’ unexpected words about the bread, interpreted as Christ’s battered body.

Look at verse 19. Instead of the expected words about the Passover lamb at this point in the meal, Luke speaks only of Christ’s body, sacrificially “given” for the sake of his disciples.

Then, in verse 20, there are Jesus’ even more shocking words about the cup, which is interpreted as New Covenant blood!

Because the Jews were strictly prohibited from consuming blood (Deut. 12:16, 23-4), there were probably quite a few audible sputters when Christ declared: “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20)!

Jesus is claiming that, just as the Old Covenant was ratified by blood (see Exod. 24:8), his impending death will ratify the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The sacrifice will be God himself, upon the Cross!

And, according to Jeremiah 31, the New Covenant will bring

  • knowledge of God,
  • loyalty to God, and
  • forgiveness of sins.

Yahweh says:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).

Passover and Holy Communion: An Expanded Timeline

So, to review, the previous timeline was:

  • Original Passover
  • Original Exodus
  • Establishment of the Covenant
  • Israel’s Remembrance in Passover meals
  • Hope for future, final redemption

Now, the church’s timeline builds upon the previous one:

  • Original Last Supper
  • New Exodus (accomplished at Cross)
  • New Covenant (accomplished at Cross)
  • Church’s Remembrance in Holy Communion
  • Hope for future, final redemption

In Holy Communion, we Christians are called to the transformative remembrance of what Christ has accomplished at the Cross.

But we don’t just look back to the Cross. We also look forward to what Jesus will accomplish at the final redemption. You know, when he returns to judge the living and the dead, to right every wrong, and to wipe away every tear!

When we take Holy Communion, we await the heavenly banquet that will fully fulfill both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.

Everyone with me so far?

Just as Passover was designed to be a transformative remembrance, to shape the Israelites into faithful followers of God, so too Holy Communion is a transformative remembrance.

It’s meant to transform us into faithful followers of Jesus Christ, faithful members of Christ’s body, the Church!

What Does Transformative Remembrance Look Like?

But, what does that look like?

Sure, I’ve mentioned that the New Covenant is meant to result in

  • knowledge of God,
  • loyalty to god,
  • and the forgiveness of sins.

But seriously: What does that look like?

Let’s take a quick look at the rest of our passage, Luke 22:21-30.

Is anyone else confused by how quickly the scene seems to change?

I mean, one moment (v. 20), Jesus is saying the words of institution, and then the very next moment (v. 21-22) Jesus is predicting his betrayal!

In v. 23, the disciples are understandably confused. But then (v. 24) they immediately start bickering about who’s the greatest disciple!

So, Jesus has to remind them (vv. 25-30) that, in his kingdom, true greatness and authority come only through sacrificial service.

What in the world is going on here?

I think that these final scenes in our passage offer us a challenging reminder of how the Lord’s Lasting Supper should shape us.

They show us, albeit through the failure of Judas and the disciples, how the remembrance of Holy Communion should transform us into sacrificial servants of Jesus Christ and one another.

Servants? Or Traitors?

Let me put it to you this way:

When you come to the Lord’s Table, you either come as a servant or a traitor.

You either live a life of serving as you are served by Jesus, or you live a life of grabbing glory and honor and power for yourself.

In our New Testament lesson from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul said the following:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:27-28).

Now, you can ask yourself many different questions during this process of self-examination, but here’s one for your consideration: do my “table manners” match Jesus’ table manners?

Here are some of the last words of exhortation Jesus gives to his disciples:

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.

But not so with you.

Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves?

Is it not the one who reclines at table?

But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).

I’ve got good news, friends: Jesus is still among us today as the one who serves.

Like always, he gives us his very self, for the sake of our salvation.

Will we follow his example? Will we gratefully accept his service, and – in joyful response to his salvation – serve others in Jesus’ name? Or will we come in betrayal, seeking honor for only ourselves?

Foot Washing

Now, during our service of Holy Communion, we are going to have a service of Foot-Washing. During that time, I’d like you to remember that the same Lord who washed his disciples’ feet – the dirtiest parts of their bodies – now washes away even the dirtiest parts of our lives with his blood.

And I’d like you to ask yourself: are you living a life of Christ-like service?

Sure, maybe you don’t wash other people’s feet all the time, but are you willing to sacrificially serve others, as you yourself have been served by Jesus?

The answer, by the way, is NOT “try harder! Be better! Serve more!” No!

INSTEAD, it is to surrender your entire life to Jesus. Only when you’ve accepted his salvation and his lordship will you be able to serve others out of the overflow of Christ’s love in your life.

The Lord’s Table

And of course, in addition to the foot-washing, we will come to the Lord’s Table. And, during that time, I’d like you to remember that the same Messiah who so frequently ate with outcasts and sinners now welcomes us outcasts and sinners to come to his table and receive the saving benefits of his broken body and his shed blood.

Friends, do our table manners match Jesus’ table manners? Are we reaching out to outcasts and sinners and welcoming them to our tables at home? Are we letting the hurting, the lost, and the broken around us know where they can find food and drink that lead to true, everlasting life?

Remember: the Lasting Supper is an ongoing meal, with profound implications for our past, our future, and our present.

When you come to the Lord’s table, you either come as a traitor or a servant.

Thanks be to God, who invites us all to the table of our Lord Jesus Christ, where he is the gracious host and we are the rebellious traitors who are transformed into faithful servants.

Amen.

Is The Well-Equipped Christian Worth It?

Have you ever had a problem finding a reliable resource for recommendations?

I have.

Certain Google searches are a piece of cake, but the “best resources for ______” ones can be hit-or-miss.

And don’t even get me started on the decision fatigue.  As a serial over-thinker, I start to hate myself a little bit after reading through the upteenth list of “5 Best ____s.” It makes it so hard to make a decision! Then, when you pick something, you end up doubting your decision. Not fun.

I’m sure these dynamics apply to a bunch of different things in life. However, while serving as a Youth Minister in seminary, I realized that finding reliable Christian recommendations and resources can be very difficult.

Sure, it’s not for lack of content out there! When it comes to Christianity, everyone has an opinion – and usually an associated reading list!

But how do you know that the book or blog-post that you find isn’t from some crazy yahoo with nothing more than a computer and a Bible?

Furthermore, if you’re a Christian and your looking for recommendations and resources in some other area, how do you know that what you find is worthwhile?

I mean, sure, everything should be read with a critical eye. But is that latest book or blog-post about mindfulness, parenting, self-help, or productivity helpful and useful for Christians? Or will it require quite a bit of theological critique and analysis before it’s helpful without being potentially harmful?

Google is great, and getting better at many things. But – at least for right now – it’s a pretty crappy theologian!

Idea: The Well-Equipped Christian

With all this in mind, I have an idea: The Well-Equipped Christian (or a similar title) – a website that’s a one-stop shop for Christians looking for reliable recommendations and resources.

Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming to BE the well-equipped Christian! I am not the be-all-end-all source of reliable Christian information.

However, I am a Christian with a seminary education. I’m pursuing a PhD in theology, and I have a heart for the Church.

I want to devote my life and ministry to helping to produce as many “well-equipped Christians” as possible. And I absolutely love giving practical recommendations – specifically in the areas of Bible study, theology, productivity, and meta-learning.

There are a lot of great resources out there. Resources that Christians can benefit from to have healthy minds, bodies, and souls as they advance God’s Kingdom in their daily lives.

I want to connect you to those resources.

I Need Your Help

Are you wiling to help me figure out whether or not this is a good idea? If so, great! I’d love to hear your answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the biggest problem that you’ve faced in finding reliable recommendations and resources? Not just for specifically Christian resources (although that’s great if you want to focus on that), but also for resources in general.
  2. When you talk to your friends about finding reliable recommendations and resources, what kinds of things do you say? Any specific feelings or complaints?

Finally, please share this post with anyone you think would be willing to give me their input! Thank you so much!

~Josh

30 Works on Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Are There Others?

  1. ABROMEIT, Hans-Jürgen. Das Geheimnis Christi: Dietrich Bonhoeffers erfahrungsbezogene Christologie. Neukirchener Beiträge zur systemaschen Theologie 8. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991.
  2. BEINTKER, Michael. “Kontingenz und Gegenständlichkeit: Zu Bonhoeffers Barth-Kritik in ‘Akt und Sein.’” In Krisis und Gnade: Gesammelte Studien zu Karl Barth, edited by Stefan Holtmann and Peter Zocher, 29–54. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.
  3. BENKTSON, Benkt-Erik. Christus Und Die Religion: Der Religionsbegriff Bei Barth, Bonhoeffer Und Tillich. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/9. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1967.
  4. BETHGE, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Edited by Victoria J. Barnett. Revised. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1967.
  5. BOOMGAARDEN, Jürgen. Das Verständnis der Wirklichkeit: Dietrich Bonhoeffers systematische Theologie und ihr philosophischer Hintergrund in “Akt und Sein.” Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1999.
  6. BURTNESS, James H. “As Though God Were Not Given: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Finitum Capax Infiniti.” Dialog 19, no. 4 (1980): 249–55.
  7. DEJONGE, Michael P. Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, and Protestant Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  8. EICHINGER, Franz. “Zwischen Transzendentalphilosophie und Ontologie: Zur kritisch-systematischen Standortbestimmung der Theologie beim frühen Bonhoeffer.” In Vernunftfähiger – vernunftbedürftiger Glaube: Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Johann Reikerstorfer-, edited by Kurt Appel, Wolfgang Treitler, and Peter Zeillinger, 65–86. Religion – Kultur – Recht 3. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005.
  9. FEIL, Ernst. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated by Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  10. GODSEY, John D. “Barth and Bonhoeffer: The Basic Difference.” Quarterly Review 7, no. 1 (1987): 9–27.
  11. ———. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960.
  12. GREEN, Clifford J. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  13. ———. “Trinity and Christology in Bonhoeffer and Barth.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 1–2 (2006): 1–22.
  14. GREGGS, Tom. Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  15. ———. “The Influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Karl Barth.” In Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence and Impact of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought, edited by Matthew Kirkpatrick. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.
  16. KAMPHUIS, Barend. Boven En Beneden: Het Uitgangspunt van de Christologie En de Problematiek van de Openbaring Nagegaan Aan de Hand van de Ontwikkelingen Bij Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer En Wolfhart Pannenberg. Kampen: Kok, 1999.
  17. KARTTUNEN, Tomi. Die Polyphonie Der Wirklichkeit: Erkenntnistheorie Und Ontologie in Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. University of Joensuu Publications in Theology 11. Joensuu: University of Joensuu, 2004.
  18. KRÖTKE, Wolf. Barmen – Barth – Bonhoeffer: Beiträge Zu Einer Zeitgemäßen Christozentrischen Theologie. Unio Und Confessio 26. Bielefeld: Luther-Verlag, 2009.
  19. LEHMANN, Paul L. “The Concreteness of Theology: Reflections on the Conversation between Barth and Bonhoeffer.” In Footnotes to a Theology: The Karl Barth Colloquium of 1972, edited by Martin Rumscheidt, 53–76. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1974.
  20. MARSH, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  21. MAYER, Rainer. Christuswirklichkeit: Grundlagen, Entwicklungen Und Konsequenzen Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/15. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1969.
  22. PANGRITZ, Andreas. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Within, Not Outside, the Barthian Movement.’” In Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, edited by Peter Frick, 29:245–82. Religion in Philosophy and Theology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
  23. ———. Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
  24. PUFFER, Matthew. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Theology of Karl Barth.” In Karl Barth in Conversation, edited by W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon, 46–62. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014.
  25. REUTER, Hans-Richard. “Editor’s Afterword to the German Edition.” In Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, 162–83. DBWE 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
  26. SHERMAN, Franklin. “Act and Being.” In The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought, edited by Martin E. Marty, 83–111. New York: Association Press, 1962.
  27. TIETZ-STEIDING, Christiane. Bonhoeffers Kritik Der Verkrümmten Vernunft: Eine Erkenntnistheoretische Untersuchung. Beiträge Zur Historischen Theologie 12. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.
  28. WITVLIET, J. Theo. “Bonhoeffer’s Dialoog Met Karl Barth.” Kerk En Theologie 16 (1965): 301–21.
  29. WOELFEL, James W. Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970.
  30. WÜSTENBERG, Ralf K. “Philosophical Influences on Bonhoeffer’s ‘Religionless Christianity.’” In Bonhoeffer and Continental Thought: Cruciform Philosophy, edited by Brian Gregor and Jens Zimmermann, 137–55. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Press, 2009.

Barth, Bonhoeffer, & The Theological Critique of Religion: My Reading List This Fall

This semester — my final one at Beeson Divinity School — I’m doing a directed study with Piotr Malysz on the topic of “Religion” in Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The impetus for this study was a discussion question in Dr. Malysz’s Spring 2015 20th Century History and Doctrine course. On March 24, our third class period on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our second question for discussion read as follows:

“What is religion for Bonhoeffer? What are its anthropological manifestations (in Bonhoeffer’s day)? In what ways is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religion similar to, and different from, that of Barth?”

Having taken Malysz’s Fall 2014 seminar on Karl Barth, I was intrigued by the question. We only spent a few minutes on the topic in class, focusing on how Bonhoeffer’s definition of religion focuses on a “necessary God of the gaps,” but I wrote down the following questions for further consideration:

  1. Is there a tension in how Barth and Bonhoeffer describe “religion,” or an underlying harmony?
  2. Barth speaks of boundary, Bonhoeffer of finding God at the center. Are they getting at the same thing?
  3. What is the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s God as “stopgap”?

It has been over a year since that class discussion, but these questions are still on my mind. I’m convinced that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion can provide resources for the Church today.

In addition to that class discussion question, Tom Greggs‘ Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth [affiliate links throughout] has been an enormous catalyst for this project.

After graduating from Beeson in December, I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in historical/systematic theology. If all goes well, I’d like to expand my Barth/Bonhoeffer project this semester into a doctoral project – perhaps focusing on the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s “God-as-stopgap,” or on the relationship between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological interpretation[s] of Scripture and their theological critiques of religion.

My Reading List

Anyway, with the help of Michael DeJonge, Clifford Green, Garrett Green, Tom Greggs, and Paul Dafydd Jones, I have developed the following reading list for this semester’s directed study:

Primary Sources: 

Secondary Sources:

If you’re interested in Barth and Bonhoeffer, I’m interested in starting up a conversation! Based on what I’ve written above, do you:

Have any suggestions on how to improve this reading list?

Have any suggestions on who might be interested in supervising doctoral work in this area?

If so, let me know in the comments!