Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Narrow Way

The young Karl Barth, in his preaching, challenges his people, and in doing so, challenges us. In a sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, preached January 18, 1920, Barth speaks to an overly familiar understanding of Christian faith, a faith in which we're kind of good buddies with Jesus and the saints of old.

He speaks of preachers who promise glory without suffering, healing for all imaginable issues, while neglecting the biblical message that suffering is part of the path. It is through affliction that we find our freedom.

He writes:

In contrast, today's kind of Christianity brings us before an open and accessible heaven into which a person easily and victoriously steps. The gospel leads us to a closed door, and before it we must first remain standing and knocking. Like the authors of those modern books, in which so many today find a replacement for the Bible, the spokespersons of today's religion -- including the chapel preachers of the separatist communities in the villages as well as the celebrated pulpit preachers in the cities -- give assurance that "those who follow us will receive what they need easily and beautifully!" The Bible says: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me"! [Mark 8:34 par.] Those two are not the same. (Karl Barth and William Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth, WJK, 2009, pp. 112-113).

The message of a narrow way is not a popular one -- then as now. I wonder about the message I preach -- one that is open, one that I hope is rooted in grace, but do I too preach an easy believism that requires nothing of anyone -- including myself?

So, what do you think of Barth's pronouncements? Is this just the ramblings of an out of date preacher, even if one of history's great theologians? Or does he have something important to say to us?


John said...

Obviously not out of date. Followers of the Prosperity Gospel continue to ignore this wisdom.

But not only them. I found your use of the term "believism" intriguing; all one has to do is believe right doctrine and then all else falls into place? How often have I heard this? Is this not the same thing as saying: "Are you saved?"

And the same for those who say: "Why me?" A better understanding of the Gospel should lead them to say: "Why not me?"

And the same for those who suggest that disasters have fallen on those who are less than orthodox. The notion that 'good comes to the deserving' leads inexorably to the corollary that bad comes to those who deserve it.

The whole theology is one of simplistic cause and effect: the presumption that (right) belief in God pays dividends and wrong belief breeds disaster.

Creation is more complicated than that; God is more complicated than that; belief is more complicated than that.

The reward of earnest belief is earnest relationship, which is priceless. Earnest relationships transform lives and lead to transformed lifestyles.

What must you do to inherit the Kingdom? Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, then, and only then, Jesus teaches, you must FOLLOW ME.

Believe, respond, be transformed.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think both conservatives and liberals are indicted by Barth. Conservatives are full of rules and legalism, but evade the radical gospel for a heath and wealth prosperity teaching. Liberals, often themselves victims of conservative legalism, have huge trouble actually requiring anything of anybody. Rejecting the exclusion of gays, or demonization of the divorced, for instance, they are silent about ANY sexual standards.

They want solidarity with the poor, but can't even get their members to tithe, never mind radically share their possessions.

They condemn conservative militarism, but won't declare themselves a peace church or take any risks of peacemaking.

I speak as a member of such a liberal church--one that I love--but we are losing our young people as they go off to college to either secularism or fundamentalism--because at least the latter asks something, however limited, of them.

Steve said...

This notion of Barth's led to its consummate expression in Bonheoffer’s teaching on cheap/costly grace. "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace." Nothing I've found surpasses Bonheoffer’s analysis of this situation.

I recommend that we dust off our copies of "The Cost of Discipleship" and do a thorough study of the Gospel of Mark (sans the bogus endings) with our congregations. Maybe we will come to a better appreciation of Jesus' statement, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"