“Jesus Christ [not the Bible] is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death…Jesus Christ is God’s vigorous announcement of God’s claim upon our whole life.”
Those lines constitute the opening salvo of the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of Faith written by the pastor and theologian Karl Barth in 1934 on behalf of the dwindling minority of Christians in Germany who publicy repudiated the Third Reich.
Barth wrote the whole document while his colleagues slept off their lunchtime booze.
“We reject the false doctrine,” Barth wrote, “that there could be areas of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords…With both its faith and its obedience, the Church must testify that it belongs to and obeys Christ alone.”
I studied Karl Barth at Princeton. My teacher, George Hunsinger, had a thick, white beard and reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. A photograph of Karl Barth laughing with Martin Luther King Jr. hung in his office. The picture captured Barth’s first and only visit to the United States.
I remember we were discussing Barth’s Barmen Declaration in class, and Dr. Hunsinger, uncharacteristically, broke from his lecture and took off his reading glasses. His jovial countenance turned serious, and he said, seemingly at random though not random at all, “just outside the Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria, immediately outside the walls of the camp, there was and still is a Christian church.”
It was an 8:00 class but suddenly no one was fighting off a yawn.
“Just imagine,” he said, “the prison guards and the commandant at that concentration camp probably went to that church on Sundays. They confessed their sins and received the assurance of pardon and prayed to the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ there, and then they walked out of the church and went back to the camp and killed scores of Jews not thinking it in any way contradicting their calling themselves Christians.”
“How does that work?” someone joked, trying to take the edge off.
“It happens,” he replied, “when you reduce the Gospel to forgiveness and you evict Jesus Christ from every place but the privacy of your heart.”
His righteous anger was like an ember warming inside him.
“Whenever you read Karl Barth,” the professor told us,” think of that church on the edge of the concentration camp. Think of the pews filled with Christians and the ovens filled with innocents and then think about what it means to call Jesus Lord.”
Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, they’re not unawares.
They’ve heard the Easter news. They’ve heard from the women who dropped their embalming fluid and fled to tell it. They’ve heard from Peter. They’ve heard that the tomb is empty.
Having heard that Death has been defeated, having heard that the Power of Sin has been conquered, and having heard that self-giving, cheek-turning, cruciform love has been vindicated from the grave, our moral imagination is so impoverished that the first Easter Sunday isn’t even over and here we are (in these two disciples) walking back home as if the world is the same as it ever was and we can get back to our lives as knew them.
They’ve heard the Easter news, yet these two disciples still make two common mistakes— two common reductions— in how they understand Jesus.
“Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God,” they tell the stranger (who is Christ). True enough, but not sufficient.
“We had hoped he would be the one to liberate Israel,” they tell him, “we had hoped he was the revolutionary who would finally free us from our oppressors.” Again, their answers aren’t wrong; their answers just aren’t big enough.”
It’s not until this stranger breaks bread before them that their eyes are opened and they run— in the dark of night, eight miles to Emmaus, they run— to go and tell the disciples what they’ve learned.
And when they get there, after the Risen Jesus has taught them the Bible study to end all Bible studies— what have the learned?
They don’t call Jesus a prophet.
They don’t dash after the disciples to report “God has raised Jesus, the prophet, from the dead.”
They don’t call Jesus a liberator.
They don’t run to Peter and say “Jesus the revolutionary has been resurrected.”
They don’t even call him a savior or a substitute.
They don’t dash after the disciples to report, “The Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world has come back.”
No, after the Risen Jesus interprets Moses and the prophets for them (ie, the Old Testament; ie, the only Bible they knew) they take off to herald the return of Jesus the kurios.
They confess their faith in Jesus as kurios.
“The kurios is risen indeed!” they proclaim to Peter.
Luke book-ends his Gospel with that inconviently all-encompassing word kurios. The whole entire Bible, Jesus has apparently taught these two, testifies to how this crucified Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is the kurios who demands our faith.
The word we translate into English as faith is the word pistis in the Greek of the New Testament. And pistis has a range of meanings. Pistis can mean confidence or trust. It can mean conviction, belief, or assurance. And those are the connotations we normally associate with the English word faith.
In Christ alone by grace through trust alone.
Through belief alone, is how we hear it.
But— here’s the rub— pistis also means fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, obedience.
Now, keep in mind that the very first Christian creedwas “Jesus is kurios” and you tell me which is the likeliest definition for pistis.
So how did we go from faith-as-obedience to faith-as-belief?
How did get from faith-as-allegiance to faith-as-trust?
I’m glad you asked.
When Luke wrote his Gospel and when Paul wrote his epistles, Christianity was an odd and tiny community amidst an empire antithetical to it.
Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.
Baptism was not a cute christening.
Baptism was not a sentimental dedication.
Baptism was not a blessing, a way to baptize the life you would’ve lived anyway.
Back then, to be baptized as a Christian was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation and a rethinking of everything that had come before.
To profess that “Jesus is Lord” was to protest that “Caesar is not Lord.”
The affirmation of one requires the reununciation of the other.
Which is why, in Luke’s day and for centuries after, when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside.
By a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked.
Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.
And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world.
And the first Christians weren’t bullshitting.
For example, if you were a gladiator, baptism meant that you renounced your career and got yourself a new one.
Then, having left the old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus the kurios and everything your new way of life as a disciple would demand.
And the first Christians— they walked the Jesus talk of their baptismal pledge.
For example, Christians quickly became known— before almost anything else— in the Roman Empire for rescuing the unwanted, infirm babies that pagans would abandon to die in the fields.
Baptism wasn’t an outward and visible sign of your inward and invisible trust.
Quite the opposite.
Baptism was your public pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.
If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, there’s a reason.
A few hundred years after Luke wrote his Gospel and Paul wrote his letters, the kurios of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Roman Empire Christian too.
Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.
After Constantine, now that the empire was allegedly Christian, the ways of the world ostensibly got baptized; consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed.
Constantine is the reason why whenever you hear Jesus say “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s” it doesn’t occur to you that Jesus is being sarcastic.
What had been an alternative way in the world became, with Constantine, a religion that awaited the world to come.
Jesus was demoted from the kurios, who is seated at the right hand of the Father and to whom has been given all authority over the Earth, and Jesus was given instead the position of Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.
Which meant pistis eventually became synonymous with trust.
Faith moved inside, to our heads and hearts, from embodiment to belief.
I apologize for the historical detour, but I figure if you’re such an over-acheiver that you come to church on Labor Day weekend then you ought to be able to handle it.
I want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with the kurios called Constantine that makes it difficult for us to hear rightly when we hear Cleopas call Jesus Lord.
It’s this difficulty that leads to us confusing faith with belief, making pistis private, and reducing the Gospel to after life affairs.
It’s this shift that happens with the kurios called Constantine that produces nonsensical rubbish like the statement “I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.”
Walking along the way to Emmaus, Luke reports that the Risen Christ “interpreted to [Cleopas and the other disciple] all the things about himself in all of the scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.”
Straight out of the grave, what Jesus wants his disciples to know is that the whole Bible is about him.
The Apostle Paul registers the same claim in his letter to the Romans when he declares that “Jesus Christ is the telos of the Law.”
Telos means end; as in, aim or goal.
Christ is the telos of the Torah, Paul writes.
The Bible is about me, Jesus says today. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning of the Bible and the end, from the first page to the last page.
It’s all Christophany.
It’s all an epiphany of Christ.
It’s not “The Old Testament is over here and the New Testament is over here and the two are radically distinct from one another.”
No, that’s called heresy.
All of it— it’s purpose, Jesus teaches today— is to reveal Jesus Christ to us, to apprentice us under Jesus Christ.
Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People— all of it— telegraphs the way of Christ.
All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus?
They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.
“Eye for an eye?”
In a world of wildly disproportionate justice, “eye for an eye” was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.
God forbade his People to make graven images because the Father has no visible image but the eternal Son who would take flesh and dwell among us.
Christ is the telos of the Bible, Paul says.
Everything in the Bible telegraphs the way of Christ.
God’s People wandered as refugees and aliens in a foreign land in order to make ready a People capable of Christ’s command to welcome the foreigners in their own land.
God disciplined his People Israel to love neighbor as though the neighbor was God; so that, in Jesus Christ there might be a People schooled to love their enemy, for such a People— a people who’re trained to love their enemy— can never rightly call the Constantines of our world kurios.
After the professor told us about the church at the edge of the concentration camp, he told us about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in the hills of southern France.
Around the same time Karl Barth was drafting his call to Christian resistance, Andre Trocme became the town’s pastor. In 1940, after the fall of France, Jewish refugees began arriving by the hundreds in Le Chambon seeking sanctuary.
Without so much as a discussion or debate, Trocme and his parishioners began taking them into their homes and barns and, whenever German soldiers showed up, hiding them up in the mountains.
Still more refugees arrived as word among the Jews spread that this was a community whose only Fuhrer was Jesus Christ.
The villagers of Le Chambon did not decide that their home would become a haven for refugees. They did not cast themselves in the role of rescuers.
In the process of obeying Jesus Christ, they simply now found themselves with refugees before them.
Villagers later told a biographer they believed that having suffered under three centuries of Catholic persecution they’d developed “the habit of quietly refusing to dilute the claims the faith makes upon us.”
“The Bible tells the story of Jesus,” one village woman explained, “and the story of Jesus reveals God’s way in the world so it would be self-destructive to live according to any other way, wouldn’t it? What the refugees asked of us was no different than what we had always done— abide with Jesus.”
Once, in February 1943, Nazi police arrived to arrest the pastor and some of his parishioners. The police officers sat in a villager’s living room waiting for the would-be prisoners to go fetch their suitcases.
The woman in whose house they waited invited the policemen to join her at her dinner table— despite the fact that Jews were hiding upstairs in her bedroom.
When asked by a biographer how she could be so hospitable to enemies who were there to take her husband away, perhaps to his death, the woman, Magda, replied:
“It was dinner time…the food was ready…how could I not invite them to eat with me? Don’t use such foolish words as “forgiving” and “good” with me. Inviting strangers and enemies to supper is just the normal thing to do if Jesus is Lord.”
As the pastor, Andre Trocme, taught a men’s circle, all of whom harbored Jews in their homes, “If Jesus Christ is not only Lord but the one “by whom all things were made” then this life isn’t so much what Christ demands. It’s the life Christ has designed for all of us.”
Faith is a trust that takes the form of allegiance— lived out loyalty, embodied belief— not because we could ever measure up to the example of Christ, not because we’ll be graded on the quality of our performance, but because if Jesus Christ is the kurios “by whom all things are made” then the life of Jesus reveals the grain of the universe, and a beautiful life will be yielded by no other pattern.
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