“Of First Importance”

I preached the sermon below this afternoon in the Providence Seminary chapel as part of the ongoing sermon series “Christ and the Pandemic.”  The Scriptural text for my message was 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth purportedly once told an audience of pastors that they must prepare their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Now if we wanted to translate that into contemporary idiom, we might say that a preacher should split their computer screen between their Bible app on one side and Google headlines on the other.  Any preacher who heeds this advice will find no shortage of material these days.  With the dreaded second wave of COVID looming large, Winnipeg and the surrounding area advancing to Code Orange, protests and riots in many American streets, an ever-lengthening parade of “cancelled” celebrities and executives, and an upcoming election for our neighbours to the South that could quite conceivably lead to civil war, there’s plenty of material for newspaper-holding preachers to talk about.

However, I’ve always been somewhat baffled by this quote attributed to Barth as it seems so . . . well, unBarthian.  It seems strange that the theologian of the 20th century who perhaps most strongly championed the priority of the Word of God would put it on a level with the newspaper.  I’ve never been able to track down where Barth said that preachers must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another and the Barth scholars I’ve talked to haven’t been able to tell me where to find it either.  There is another word of advice, however, that Barth gave to preachers that is reliably documented.  It occurred in 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power.  When Barth was asked by a group of preachers in Germany how they should preach in light of Hitler’s burgeoning dictatorship, Barth replied that they should “preach as if nothing happened.”

So, let me get this straight, a genocidal maniac is actively consolidating power around himself and preachers should preach “as if nothing happened”!!!!????  Or, to frame it slightly differently, a pandemic is sweeping the globe leaving as of last night over a million dead in its wake, crippling economies, and locking us down in our bubbles, and those in the pulpit should carry on as usual!!!!????  What kind of homiletical advice is that?????

In some ways, it is wisdom that resonates with Cameron’s admonition last week urging us to return to the fundamentals.  When the pressure is on and the stakes are high, a musician or an athlete has to be able to rely on their schooling in the fundamentals of their craft.  If Lebron James had to consciously think about his footwork every time he caught the ball, he would never be able to spin to the basket and dunk the ball or fade away and release a jump shot over the outstretched arms of his defender.  In a similar way, a church that has forgotten the fundamentals will have nothing to say in a moment of crisis—or, at least nothing of substance to say.  Instead, it will simply repeat the popular cultural platitudes: “Wear a mask.” “Be kind to one another.”  “Work for justice.”  Don’t get me wrong, we should all aspire to these things, but we don’t need to go to church to learn any of them.  Even worse is when the church ends up thoughtlessly parroting the sentimental slogans of our surrounding culture.  Joining its voice with the celebrities and professional athletes couped up in their multi-million dollar mansions recording public service announcements while their nannies watch the children, just so that we can be relieved to know that “We are all in this together.”  A word that perhaps could be soothing, were it not so obviously untrue.

All of this has served as somewhat of a long and rambling orientation to our Scripture reading this afternoon, which reminds us that the first and most fundamental thing that the church has to say in any context, whether it be feast or famine, pandemic or political crisis, is Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen. Or as Paul elsewhere instructs his young protégé Timothy, “Preach the Word!  Be prepared in season and out of season.”  Because this Word, is the One through whom the worlds were made, the One who has reconciled humanity to God in his very own Body, and the One towards whom all of history stretches to find its final consummation—to preach this Word is to speak in the most timely and relevant fashion of all.  As I like to say to my preaching students, “If you don’t see the relevance of the acclamation ‘Jesus is Lord!’ then you simply don’t understand the grammar of the sentence.

In the brief time that remains, I’d like to bring to the fore a few aspects of the message that has been handed on that Paul declares to be “of first importance.”  First, Paul stressed in two different places that what has happened in the Christ event is “in accordance with the Scriptures.”  The story of Jesus does not take place in a vacuum but must be understood within the context of the covenant-keeping God and his faithfulness towards his people Israel.  As children of the new covenant, adopted brothers and sisters of Christ, we find that we too have been inscripturated in the pages of the Old and New Testaments.  This means that asking what the Bible has to say about COVID, risks getting things exactly backwards.  Rather, the question for Christians is how do we and how does COVID fit into the continuing story of God rendered in Scripture.  Starting with COVID, or in Barth’s case Hitler, risks giving too much credit to pandemics and petty dictators.  Both are relativized and put in their proper place before the throne of God.

Second, there’s a lot of wistful longing these days for a return to “normal.”  This type of talk is completely understandable, but it is also decidedly less than Christian.  For today’s passage reminds us that a return to “normal” is a return to the abnormality of a world that crucified and buried the Son of God when he walked among us.  While COVID has impacted all of our lives in countless ways, we must not forget the ones who have suffered and continue to suffer in silence in our midst at the hands of various other diseases, mental illness, financial instability, unspeakable tragedy, and a variety of other causes.  In our desire to return to normal, we run the risk of normalizing the various forms of oppression which undergird Western society.  We Christians should be the last to make these mistakes, for we are not a people of the past, but citizens of a future that has been cracked open by the power that rolled away the stone from the tomb of Christ.  Our hope is not for a return to 2019, but rather is a deep yearning for the coming of the Kingdom of God.  In the memorable words of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, “Easter should make rebels of us all.”

Finally, the apostle Paul declares how the same power that raised Jesus from the dead has been at work in his own life.  Prior to meeting the risen Lord on the Damascus Road, Paul himself was a pandemic unleashed upon the early Christian community, travelling from town to town placing the followers of the Way under lockdown and handing them over to death.  Now, through the grace of God, the man who once dealt death had become enlisted as an unlikely foot soldier in the cause of the Lord of Life.  Such reversals are par for the course in a Kingdom ruled by the slain, but risen, Lamb.  The current global pandemic may seem like an unlikely tableau for the display of the grace of God, but is it any more unlikely than the clay which was the life of a fanatical religious terrorist named Saul or the darkened canvass of a stone-cold Garden tomb?  Perhaps the crucial question then is not what does the Bible have to say about COVID?  But rather it is where is our gracious Lord at work even now piercing the darkness with the light of his risen life?  And having witnessed what he is up to in our virus-shattered world, will we heed his summons to join him and work with him, opening ourselves to the grace of God which works in and through us?  Consider carefully, for this is truly a matter of first importance.



3 thoughts on ““Of First Importance””

    1. Thanks Stan,
      I’ll have to look that up. I’m currently in the midst of reading Volume I of Barth in Conversation, which is quite wonderful.

  1. Rob,
    I enjoyed this very much. Many Christians emphasize ‘grace in us’ at the expense of ‘grace through us.’ May we realize both! Hope you and your precious family are doing well.

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