(all quotes are from CD I/2 unless otherwise noted)
Almighty God, the giver of all good things, without whose help all labour is ineffectual and without whose grace all wisdom is folly: grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others….in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
—A prayer of Samuel Johnson, cherished by my father
In the year 1962, Karl Barth came to the
Last month, before the present crisis about the immigrant children held hostage to a political cause, the New York Times published a report about the support for Donald Trump and his policies among so-called evangelicals. Indignant letters to the editor appeared in the paper a couple of days later. Two or three of them were from self-identified Christians expressing dismay in terms that I imagine most of us would agree with. However, there was a predictable problem. One of the well-meaning letters begins this way: “If Jesus were alive today…” Someone on Twitter responded that Jesus would be rolling over in his grave.
Will Willimon has said that the foundational problem with the Jesus seminar was that its members conducted all their deliberations out of the basic assumption that Jesus is dead. But the Jesus seminar is not the only place that we meet this assumption. We find it in the church all the time. I assume that most of you preach on a regular basis so you don’t get around the church and hear as many sermons as I do. I have heard many hundreds of sermons in the mainline churches in the past couple of decades and a great many of them seem to assume that Jesus is alive only insofar as we follow a particular version of his commandments. This leads to a fatal homiletical outcome: the congregation is reminded of the correct attitude concerning the presenting issues of the day and is then exhorted to get busy addressing them. Therein, it is implied, lies salvation. Therefore the living presence of the Lord is not felt in these sermons. I have come to believe over the years that the power of the living Christ is so little known in many of our congregations that they might not know it if they beheld it…which might indicate to the preacher that she should shake the dust of that church off her feet. That thought has occurred to me quite a few times in my travels around the churches.
You can see the Time magazine cover of Barth in the display in the library. His portrait is very stern and off-putting, but in the background there is a depiction of the empty tomb. Today, more than 55 years later, seeing that old-fashioned cover design still made an impact on me. The Lord whom Barth served is risen from the dead and powerfully at work among us. You’ll see also in the display cases several recent volumes (mostly edited by the prodigiously productive George Hunsinger) about Barth and radical politics—one of the areas of his thought that interests me most, though I know it mostly at second hand. Along the lines of radical politics I’d like to salute the fondly remembered journal called Katallagete, long defunct but, I’ve recently learned, not altogether dead. Phil Ziegler of the
It was in the process of negotiating my way among these claims that I met Barth for real, not in person but in print. A doctoral student whose name I don’t remember told me to read “The Strange New World of the Bible.” It was like the nameless little servant girl telling Naaman the leper to go to the prophet Elisha. Whoever it was saw me floundering about and directed me into the current that carried me into the river of life. That short early essay was the first thing of Barth’s that I actually read. If anyone here wants to introduce someone to Barth, “The Strange New World of the Bible” is a good place to start.
I discovered a long time ago that once you get to know the way Barth thinks, you can pick up his work just about anywhere and find something you can build upon. This is one of the remarkable aspects of living with Barth all of your life. Christopher Morse taught me this in my first year at
Of course there are some difficulties reading Barth in today’s climate. For one thing, speaking of identity politics, you have to get used to the constant use of the word “man” used in a generic sense—and it’s not so easy to solve this in translation. Accustoming oneself to his terms, however, is well worth the effort. For instance, further along in the same early essay collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man, I found a sentence that breaks several rules of contemporary communication, not only in form but in substance. Here it is in all its offensiveness: “Man condemns himself to death by the question about the good, because the only certain answer [to the question about the good] is that he, the human being, is notgood, and from the viewpoint of the good, is powerless” (167). How does that sound to the average reader? Wouldn’t you think that this line of reasoning would sever the nerve of action for once and for all? On the contrary, I’ve found, when you’ve met God, this gospel message frees you from the tyranny of the thought that everything depends on you. As Pascal wrote, “Be comforted: it is not from yourself that you must expect it, but on the contrary you must expect it by expecting nothing from yourself.”
Expecting by not expecting! This is very much like the paradox that Barth loved from II Peter 3:12—“waiting and hastening.” I’ve just finished putting together a new sermon collection for Advent, and I’ve noticed once again that the paradoxical themes of Advent are everywhere in the Church Dogmatics—the Now and the Not-Yet, the Whence and the Whither, the once and the future. None of it makes any sense if Jesus is dead. The radical gospel depends on the truth of the liturgical confession: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Otherwise we are thrown back on ourselves with only the memory of a dead Jesus and delusions of human grandeur to keep us going. I don’t always remember where I read stuff but just the other day I found something right on target—the writer complained that the church was always talking about building the kingdom, but it seemed to be a kingdom without a King.
If Jesus isn’t alive and coming again, then who is going to be the king of the kingdom? Ah, yes, that’s the nasty little secret. We harbor the notion that we ourselves are going to be the kings and queens of the kingdom through our own efforts. Here’s what Barth says about that: If the promise of Jesus that he will be with us always even to the end of the aeon is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but “a human community which is puffed up with the illusion” that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that “works its own revenge” upon the church (CD I/2, 544-5).
This illusion is dramatized with considerable effect at the conclusion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Many readers of the saga miss this point, because it comes afterthe great climax in the action, and it’s entirely absent from the movie. (By the way, if you’re thinking of buying just one of my books, I recommend my Lord of the Rings book.) In Tolkien’s private letters, he explains that, to the end, Frodo was profoundly affected by the allure of the Ring. Long after the victory over the demonic power of Sauron, Frodo continued to suffer from “a last flicker of pride…[he was] not content with being a mere instrument of good.” He was not content to be solely God’s servant, with all that implies of his own diminishment. He needed to undergo a cleansing, a “truer understanding of his position in littleness and greatness.”  He was not able to accept himself as a “mere” agent or vessel of
“Be comforted…It is no doing of yours. You are not great…Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”
“God lays no merit on you.” I first read that forty-five years ago and it has been a great comfort to me ever since. I think Barth in his own person sometimes exemplified this; he was of course famously irascible about those who disagreed with him, and he fully understood the magnitude of the task he had set for himself, but in his letters and late writings his humorous self-deprecation has the ring of authenticity. The angels laugh, he says, at old Karl with his wheelbarrows full of Church Dogmatics. There is so much freedom in that! Barth’s humor and joy are among the greatest benefits of reading his letters and conversations.
So. All these thoughts arise out of the revelation that Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive. It is not for nothing that the central thing remembered in the Christian community about Martin Luther King is the “kitchen epiphany” when, close to total despair, he sensed Jesus promising him that he would always be with him, that he would never be alone, “no never alone.” There are many areas of theology that Dr. King left unexplored, but whatever doctrinal deficiencies there may have been, in the story of his life we see the presence of a Lord who is not dead, but living—the Lord who guarantees his own promises. The African-American church is presently experiencing some of the same attrition as the mainline white churches, but it still preserves its traditional emphasis on the God who “makes a way out of no way” and redeems the unredeemable. That is what undergirds black people’s astonishing offers of forgiveness for the unforgiveable, redemption for the unredeemable. All of our churches could use a lot more of what Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “God did not come to love the loveable and improve the improveable, but to raise the dead.”
How curious to reflect upon the idea of a dead Jesus raising the dead! When I was a young preacher I learned a lesson. I was invited to preach to a congregation in a very liberal church. I was relatively innocent of such contexts in those days and I preached on the text about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. It was reported to me afterwards that people were scandalized that the preacher appeared to believe what she was preaching. I made up my mind that day that I would always preach a Lord who raises the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4) and that I would trust him to do the same in my preaching even when what I was saying seemed impossible. Living with Barth for decades enables us to believe and to trust that the Holy Spirit has not gone missing from the living Word of the living Lord.
Speaking of Barth’s doctrine of the church or lack thereof, I brought Volume I Part 2 with me to
where the church is, there also we have always this church which is not the church, that is, in the church the work of sin and apostasy is always going on as well…There is no time at which to a greater or less degree the church does not also have the appearance [of] such a church…but although there is in it no lack of man’s upstart arbitrariness, it exists in dependence on Jesus Christ. And [it is] because it lives by Jesus Christ, not because it is constantly involved in upstart and arbitrary action, that it is the true church.” (214).
At this point I hear the voice of Will Campbell speaking to me many years ago when I was a young convert to socio-political causes. After listening to me complaining about racists, he said, “Fleming. We’re all racists.” I have heard him saying that every day of my life since then. We who are so proud of our enlightened attitudes need to be on our knees repenting of our self-satisfaction and self-righteousness every single day for the rest of our lives.
I remember also the words of P. T. Forsyth: “Many preach Christ but get in front of him by the multiplicity of their own works.” I wonder how your church describes itself. I’ve been collecting church self-descriptions: “We are a warm, welcoming, nurturing, perse, non-discriminating, inclusive, embracing, affirming….(etc)congregation.” Talk about multiplicity of works! “We feed the poor, we march for justice, fly rainbow flags, recycle plastic, oppose oppression, practice radical hospitality…” You would think the Second Coming had already occurred. How about this for your church letterhead: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…and there is no health in us.” Here’s Barth’s voice again: “Man condemns himself to death by the question about the good, because the only certain answer [to the question about the good] is that he, the human being, is not good, and from the viewpoint of the good, is powerless.” The paradox is that this truth sets us free. It is the difference between “if/then” and “because/therefore.” Because in Christ we have been delivered from the world of merit and demerit, thereforewe are new men and women. In the strange new world of the Bible there is a new creation. Because/ therefore! This is the source of the Christian’s “works,” which means that we can sit light to their importance in God’s cosmic, apocalyptic enterprise. In the end it is God’swork, not ours. That gospel truth is the is the subject and the object of our praise.
I want to leave you with the epistolary, conversational voice of Barth. Years ago I read a volume of Barth’s letters and found one in particular that has accompanied me ever since, particularly as I am now growing old. This is a letter that Barth wrote to John Godsey during a bout of the illness that eventually caused his death.
When you visited me in the year 1965, I still did not have the slightest idea that the most difficult part of my ordeals still lay before me. A few days afterward I had to re-enter the hospital and then remain there for four months, undergo a second operation, and take many, many kinds of medicine. Somewhere within me there lives a bacillus with the name proteus mirabilis which has an inclination to enter my kidneys—which would then mean my finish. I am certain that this monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. It has in common with sin and with the demons also that it cannot simply be done away with but can be only just despised, combated, and suppressed. That was and is still the task of the doctors, beside whom also good nurses have worked on me night and day….apart from this, however, I am getting along better, often extraordinarily well…the main thing is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis has no chance against him.
Letter to John D. Godsey, January 25, 1966
(I think this is in the collection called How I Changed My Mind. )
Barth died in his home in
 Contrast John the Baptist, who said of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
 Letters, p. 328.
C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 197.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching (
 P. T. Forsyth, quoted in Willimon, The Last Word, 62.
 I got this from Philip Ziegler who wrote a sermon or essay on this crucial distinction.