The Word in this World -- Review

The Word in this World: Two SermonsTHE WORD IN THIS WORLD: Two Sermons by Karl Barth.  Edited by Kurt I. Johanson.  Introduction by William H. Willimon.  Translated by Christopher Asprey.    Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 2007.  66 pages.

    Karl Barth has been hailed as the greatest theologian of the Twentieth Century.  He has left a legacy that continues to be felt by the church, despite the fact that his death occurred four decades back.  Indeed, I can say that my own theological journey has been influenced by Barth’s work – his thoughts on the Word of God helping me come to grips with the biblical story.  But Barth was not only a profound and influential theologian, he was also a preacher.  William Willimon, writing in the introduction to the booklet, notes that Barth saw his theological work, especially the Church Dogmatics,  as being a support to the work of the preacher serving in the local church.   

    Recently I had the opportunity to review a collection of sermons that Barth preached while serving as pastor of the Swiss community at Safenwil (The Early Preaching of Karl Barth, Edited with Commentary by William H. Willimon, WJK Press, 2009).  That review caught the eye of Karl Johanson, who asked me to review a small book composed of two sermons preached by Barth. 

    The two sermons in this collection, which also carries an introduction by Willimon, come out of two very different eras of Barth’s career.   As such, they set in firm contrast the early and the later Barth.  One is quite practical and seemingly relevant to the day, while the second is focused entirely on the theological understanding of the text.

    The first sermon was preached shortly after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and appears here for the first time in English translation.  It is a fascinating sermon and very unlike the Barth we’ve come to know as the profoundly biblical theologian.  But, at this point, Barth has yet to make his mark as a theologian.  Instead, he is a very young  twenty-six-year-old pastor serving the Protestant church at Safenwil, Switzerland.  At this point in time, he has yet to break with his theological masters over their support of the German war machine.  He has yet to write his provocative Romans commentary that shook the theological world.  Indeed, this sermon predates by five years the earliest sermon in the collection edited by Willimon.    In this sermon, which Willimon calls “touchingly pastoral, in many of the ways Barth would condemn as ‘pastoral’” (p. 19), Barth seems almost obsessed by the details of the sinking of the Titanic.  It seems relevant, focused on the issues of the day, but one wonders how relevant this event was to the people living at Safenwil.  While there are theological reflection and exegetical work present in the sermon -- focused on Psalm 103 –  this work is largely lost in the shuffle of his reflections on the loss of life and the arrogance of builder and captain.   He wonders how a ship could be equipped with a playground, pool, and Turkish baths, but not have sufficient life boats to carry to safety passengers and crew.  Barth’s message is twofold.  One is rooted in reflections on human sin and guilt, together with the promise of mercy.  The focus of Barth’s attention is not on God, but on human hubris and the need to be more concerned about human life.  Indeed, whatever is theological in the message is overshadowed by the details of the event itself. 

    The second sermon was preached in 1934 at Bremen.  Adolph Hitler had only recently come to power, and the Confessing Church had, just days before, spoken out clearly against Hitler’s encroachments on the church.  Indeed, just two days later, Barth would lose his position at the University of Bonn, forcing his move to Basel.  Whereas the first sermon was preached by a twenty-six-year-old beginning preacher, this one came from the lips of a forty-eight-year-old man who had become a distinguished and influential theologian – not just in Germany but around the world.  The contrast between the two sermons is marked.  In the first sermon Barth is obsessed with the contemporary scene, but in this sermon, with the German church and people facing a storm that would wreak havoc on Germany and the world, the contemporary scene is strangely absent.  This is a sermon focused on text and theological reflection.  Hitler is not mentioned once.  Indeed, nothing is said of the current situation.  Instead, the focus is on Peter’s relationship with Jesus. 

    The Bremen sermon is a verse, by verse exposition of Matthew 14:22-33, wherein Jesus puts the disciples in a boat, heads off to pray, and then in the middle of the night, crosses the water to join the disciples.  Peter, first spooked and then emboldened, asks if he might cross over to Jesus – a request that Jesus grants.  Peter will sink, once his attention is drawn away from Jesus by the coming storm.  All is not lost, however, for Jesus reaches out and lifts him to safety.  It is a well-known and oft-preached text, and Barth finds much to ponder.  Indeed, in it is a word to church about God’s rule and its faithfulness to the cause of God.  In it the recipient is reminded that God alone is sovereign, even as other voices would argue differently.  In a telling moment in the sermon, Barth pictures Jesus crossing over to the boat, and the people in the boat cry out in fear that this is a ghost.  Barth responds that if this were a ghost – indeed, if this figure was a figment of their imagination then they should fear.  He declares to his listeners:
    A Jesus who is not really Jesus but a figment of the pious imagination, the product of our revolutionary or reactionary dreams, the mirage of our hopelessness or our enthusiasm – a Jesus like this certainly may and must be feared, for in fact this imaginary Jesus could only magnify the distress we experience in our lives and in the church (p. 51). 

Think for a moment that these words were spoken to people confronted by efforts to revision the theology of the church to support a Nazi ideology.  He called for the people to give allegiance to the biblical Jesus, the one that stood in contrast to the one being offered by the officials in church and state – and yet nothing directly is stated. 

    The contrast between the two sermons is so great that one would wonder if they could come from the same person, and yet they did.  Willimon, in his introduction, appreciates the effort given to the first sermon, a sermon that is thoroughly pastoral and relevant, and yet he finds it lacking in substance.  He chooses to embrace the second kind of sermon, even if it seems to lack relevance.  He appreciates that the times had become so dangerous “that Barth dare not take his eyes off a God who saves, who judges, who teaches, who kills and makes alive” (p. 21).

    The book is brief, and yet the reader will be well served.  The preacher might look at the contrasting sermons and consider which of the sermons is closest to hers or his own sermons.  What lessons can be drawn – both in terms of rhetoric and in theology?  Kurt Johanson is to be commended for making these two sermons available for the first time in English translation.  Attending to them will prove beneficial, whether or not one is a preacher. 


John said…

Barth's sermon, preached in the shadow of the threats from the Brownshirts to manipulate and control and re-vision Christianity into a political force, or into a tool of power, perhaps one lesson to be gained from the two sermons is that the when the Christian Church is under direct attack, some among us are able to keep their focus through the storm on Christ, and the rest of us need to listen and learn therefrom.

Brownshirts come in different colors, and can be worn by those with a less overtly evil intent.

Anonymous said…
"Brownshirts come in different colors,"

You mean camouflaged?

We are all innocent until proven guilty of course. Even Gary and I!
David Mc said…
oops, forgot to check the Name/URL button

Popular posts from this blog

The Power of Love -- A Sermon

Choose God, Choose Life -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 6A (Deuteronomy)

A Shattered Yoke - A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (Isaiah)