Sunday, September 18, 2005

Proper 20, Year A, September 18

Liturgical color: greenLectionary and Tradition is a resource for sermon preparation, Bible study and lectio divina. This Sunday, Karl Barth on standing on "solid ground" (Phil. 1:27). Also, the Heidelberg Catechism on "a community chosen for eternal life" and the Cambridge Platform on the unity of the church.

Reading from Hebrew Scripture with Responsorial Psalm
Ex. 16:2-15 with Ps. 105:1-6,37-45 or
Jon. 3:10-4:11 with Ps. 145:1-8 and

Phil. 1:21-30 and

Mt. 20:1-16

Weekly Theme
Side by Side

Focus Statement
"Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ...."

If God's claim on humanity is to be comprehended in a word, on the one side (predominantly in the Johannine writings) it is that we should abide, and on the other (predominantly in Paul) that we should stand.

The essential unity of the two conceptions is clear. Christians who are summoned to an "abiding" and a "standing" have a possibility in what is given them in Jesus Christ and through life with Him and in His Church; and the sum of all that is demanded of them is to make use of this possibility, or rather to let it realise itself.

The anxiety and fear forbidden to them are definitely excluded as this possible becomes actual. And the achievement of everything that is positively to be demanded of them is definitely guaranteed. At the place and on the ground on which they are set, it is already decided in advance what they will and will not do, and therefore what they will decide. In what they will do or not do, they will be obedient to the command of God, accepting His claim as right. The place of their abiding and the ground of their standing are identical. In both cases the reference is to the Lord, grace, faith, the apostolic proclamation. The concern, and the only concern, is that they should abide at this place and not leave it, that they stand on this ground and not stumble or stoop or fall or be brought down because they exchange it for another.

The seriousness and rigour, the absoluteness and radicalism of the demand are unmistakeable in both forms of the summons. Both pictorially and conceptually, the "standing" (as, for example, in the passages 1 Cor. 16:13f and Eph. 6:14f) undoubtedly demands an active determination, perseverance and restraint. And although at a first glance the "abiding" seems to be merely passive in contrast to a vagabond and vacillating caprice, it, too, impresses the hearer in such a way that there can be no mistaking the fact that it demands obedience and is therefore a command. The possibility presented with this place and ground is a law for those who are set in it. It is presented to them. It is to be realised in their existence. Its glory will necessarily be revealed in what they do and do not do. The fact that it is presented in this way makes them responsible that this should happen. But if it leaves them no choice but obedience, it is the choice of their obedience, in which they themselves are to realise it, they themselves are to be the active witnesses of its realisation.

Humility and love and selflessness and every other act of Christian virtue, the confession and the loyalty and perseverance of faith, the joyousness of hope—all these are for Christians a simple duty, a fulfilment of the injunction to let their light shine, not in any sense extraordinary, but the ordinary rule of life. Yet they are an obligation which they have to meet, a debt which they are required to pay. To allow to happen what at this place and on this ground has to happen with unavoidable necessity is something which can take place only through the Yes and No of their own will and determined act. There is repeated in this "abide" and "stand" the assault and disturbance of the wholly alien majesty of the new being which with their calling and baptism has burst in once and for all on their old man, and by which the latter has been once and for all vanquished and superseded.

But again it is the case that the disturbance and assault of this demand, its character as divine Law, is grounded in the fact that in content it speaks, no less than the warning against anxiety and fear, of a liberation which humans are to give themselves and in which they are to acquiesce. Those who are to "abide" are told openly that they are already in the native sphere to which they belong, in which they can breathe freely, in which everything they need comes flowing in to them from all sides, so that they can quietly renounce all seeking and hunting after other possibilities.

Experimenting with other possibilities is a necessity for those who have not yet found the reality of life. But those who are told to "abide" have found this reality.

To be "in Christ" is not one of the many stages on the way of life from which we may be ordered, and it may be good to look farther afield and to go on because they are only stages. It is not a standpoint which it is advisable to compare with other standpoints and then perhaps to exchange with them on account of the relativity of all standpoints.... If we want to press on and look farther, we shall only come back to this place if the search is successful. The only alternatives are the madness of a seeking for seeking's sake, or the misery of a seeking which can never lead to a finding. The obligation to abide at the place where we may abide—because that which is abiding is there—spares us not only all superfluous flights and detours, but also that madness and misery.

This is obviously an invitation and permission even as a command; a liberation as a commitment. It obviously engages us by freeing us in the depths of our being. It puts us under an obligation by giving us the freedom which we can only jeopardise and lose at once by trying to be disobedient; the freedom which can be won and kept only by obedience to this command.

And those who are to "stand" are evidently told that they are on ground on which they can stand—not on marsh or on a moving sidewalk, but on solid earth.

Is it possible that we prefer to stumble and stoop and fall and lie, or at best crawl? If we cannot prefer this, and if we are given the presupposition that we may atand, how can we fail to rejoice when we are told that we are to realise this presupposition and therefore to stand ? Falling and lying have a fatal similarity to sickness and death. For this reason we must beware of that favourite word of philosophers and humanists—die Lage (the lie of things). Strictly speaking, it ought to be applied to human relationships and conditions only sensu malo, only when there is a desire expressly to characterise them as fatal, as a suspicious "lying around" of persons and social groups and whole nations who ought properly to be standing on their feet. To be healthy and to live is to stand.

And the honest human being who would rather stand than lie must surely hail as particularly good news the imperative: Stand! Stand because you are able and are permitted to do so!

There can be no doubt that the New Testament στηκετε or στητε (cf. Eph. 5:14) is directly connected with the sound of the trumpet (1 Cor. 15:52) in the αναστασις νεκρων ("resurrection of the dead"). It commands both the later standing which the Christian is allowed and commanded in and with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the preliminary standing which he is allowed and commanded in anticipation of his own resurrection. This is commanded because it is permitted. It is a liberation and loosing because it comes to him as an alien and imperious law. It is a genuine consolation because it is so diametrically opposed to the foolish wishes of the old man. These terms, then, do not give us any grounds for supposing that the Law can be dissevered from the Gospel, or that it can be explained and proclaimed with clarity and power unless it is interpreted on the basis of the Gospel.

What makes the demand so majestic and unconditional when we are told to "abide" and "stand" is not in the first instance that God wills or does not will something of us, but primarily that God is for us and not against us.

Source: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II.2, "The Doctrine of
God," pp. 600ff. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004.

Return to lectionary readings for this Sunday

What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?

I believe that the Son of God
through his Spirit and Word,
out of the entire human race,
from the beginning of the world to its end,
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself
a community chosen for eternal life
and united in true faith.
And of this community I am and always will be
a living member.

Source: Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, translation authorized by the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Return to lectionary readings for this Sunday

Of the Form of the Visible Church, and of Church Covenant

Saints by calling must have a visible political union among themselves, or else they are not yet a particular church, as those similitudes hold forth, which the Scripture makes use of to show the nature of particular churches; as a body, a building, house, hands, eyes, feet and other members, must be united, or else (remaining separate) are not a body. Stones, timber, though squared, hewn and polished, are not a house, until they are compacted and united; so saints or believers in judgment of charity, are not a church unless orderly knit together.

Source: Cambridge Platform of Ecclesiastical Discipline, 1648.

Return to lectionary readings for this Sunday

Other lectionary preaching and study resources

Buy Barth's Church Dogmatics (all 14 volumes)
Buy Barth's Church Dogmatics (1-volume selection)
Revised Common Lectionary weekly texts
SAMUEL (Scripture and Memory: Universal Electronic Library)
The Text This Week
Revised Common Lectionary FAQs


At 3:25 PM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

Would you like to use this space to share your own reflections on the readings for this Sunday? Go ahead: we'd like to hear from you.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Our focus during the post-Katrina time is on the gospel of having each worker be paid enough for the day, and everyone willing to work to be sent to work. Thousands, yea, hundreds of thousands are out of work due to Katrina. Many have migrated north. NYC has just set up a relief effort where hundreds have come. We wonder what Cleveland and environs are doing to provide jobs and housing for the survivors. How are they living the gospel? How are you?


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