An Advent Sermon

An Advent sermon by Karl Barth (who departed this world on this date in 1968).

The Church of Jesus Christ
Sermon on Romans 15:5-13

Dear friends! The church of Jesus Christ is a company, a troop, a gathering – a “congregation” according to the old and beautiful word which we must once again learn to understand – a [communal] congregation which is held together not by common interests, nor by common blood, and not even by common opinions and convictions, but by the fact that in it again and again – not to be silenced, nor counterfeited, nor confused with any other sound – that voice rings out which we hear at the beginning and again at the end of our text: “May the God of patience and of consolation give to you …!” “May the God of hope fill you …!” The voice which thus speaks to us, so entreating and at the same time so giving, so earnestly and also so friendly, is – in the words of the Apostle Paul – the voice of God’s own Word, from which the church of Jesus Christ is born, from which she must again and again be fed, and from which alone she can live. – God knows who God is; and in his Word he tells us: he is the God who gives patience, consolation, and hope. God knows that we need him like nothing else, and yet have no power over him; and in his Word he tells us that, he collects and pulls our thinking and willing together and to himself so that we must plead: “May he give to us! May he fill us!” And God knows how near he is to us, how ready he is for us; and in his word he tells us that, by laying on our own lips, as if from very near by, a sigh uttered in the deepest and surest trust in him: “May he, he give to us! May he fill us!” Let this voice, with which God says to us what he knows of himself and us, come from ever so far away (the Apostle Paul really is far away from us, and the whole Bible is very far removed from all the other books and newspapers which we read): if only this voice rings out with its sound, its message, its claim and encouragement, then the church of Jesus Christ is there, in and of which I too, by hearing this voice, “become and will remain a living member forever” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 54).

But in this Advent season we have reason to reflect: That there is a Word of God for us and thus a church of Jesus Christ as a place of consolation, patience and hope which come from God: such a thing is not self-evident. Such a thing is not simply always and everywhere, like the air we breathe. Such a thing is not simply given to us, either by nature or by history, so that we could simply dispose of it as if it were something that belonged to us. That there is God’s Word in the church: such a thing is neither grounded in human psychic life, nor is it a cultural achievement, nor does it belong to the essence and being of any ethnic group or race, nor is it grounded in the necessary course of world history. Rather it is a secret and a mystery with which our existence is, not provided from within, but clothed from without; which is grounded, not in any sense within us, but absolutely in an alien power and might over us. That there is church and God’s Word, is true because and only because – as our text says &endash; “Christ hath received us”: received us like a beggar from the street, received us as people who did and could not think of receiving him, but who could only be received. We can also say: adopted, as an orphan is adopted, as something which we are not at all by our own power, namely as his brothers [and sisters] and as children of his Father. We can also say: taken along or taken into that region where he, the Son of God, leads, reigns, bears responsibility, cares, and is at work, so that no one but he may have worry and care. By our own power, we would never have reached and come into this region. But he has taken us in. That is the message of Christmas, which we may soon celebrate again: Christ has received us! Indeed he has received us “to the praise of God”: not as though it had to be that way, not according to any law of nature, or because God needed us, and not because of our needs and wishes, but because it was right for him in his freedom to be great and glorious in our being received, adopted, taken along, and taken in by his Son. That is why on Christmas night the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is pleased”: that is, in whom he, God, is pleased!

But, precisely according to our text, all that is true in a noteworthy double sense:

In the first place, it certainly means something quite comprehensive: He has accepted and taken on humanity, namely in order – as God – to be our neighbor, and at the same time – as man – to be God’s neighbor. So that in him God’s kingdom has come near to us human beings, and again in him we human beings may stand before God’s throne as pleasing to God. Because God himself in Jesus Christ has vested and clothed himself with and in humanity, therefore we are vested and clothed with the secret and mystery of the Word and of the church.

But in the second place here something quite special is given us to think about. It is not a matter of course that we belong to Jesus Christ and he to us. “Christ hath become a servant of the Circumcision for the sake of the truth of God, to confirm the promises which came unto the Fathers.” That is: Christ belonged to the people of Israel. This peoples blood was in his veins the blood of the Son of God. He took on the nature of this people when he took on humanity, not for the sake of this people, or because of the advantage of its blood and race, but for the sake of the truth, viz. for the sake of demonstrating the truthfulness and faithfulness of God. Because God had made a covenant with, and given his presence and the promise of an unparalleled redemption to, this and only this people: a stiff-necked and evil people [Ex. 32:9 etc.], but precisely this people – not to reward and lift up the Jews, but to confirm and fulfill this free, gracious promise of God “made to the Fathers” Jesus Christ became a Jew. He said once of himself, that to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and only to them was he sent (Matt. 15:24, cf. 10:5-6). That means for us, who are not Israel, a locked door. If it is nevertheless open, if Christ nevertheless belongs to us too as we to him, then it must once again be true in a special sense that “Christ hath received us unto the praise of God”. That this is so, we are reminded by the existence of the Jewish people to this very day.- Frederick the Great is said once to have asked his personal physician Zimmermann whether he [Zimmermann] could give him an absolutely certain proof of the existence of God, and to have got the laconic reply “Your Majesty, the Jews!” Zimmermann was right. The Jew reminds us with his existence that we are not Jews, and thus that by nature [eigentlich] we are “without Christ, foreign, and outside the citizenship of Israel, and foreign to the testaments of promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). The Jew reminds us that it is something special, new and wonderful if we nevertheless are “no longer guests and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). We are not that by nature. The Jew, in his so puzzlingly strange and just as puzzlingly indestructible existence among all other peoples, is the living proof that God is free to choose whom he will, that he certainly does not owe it to us to choose us too, that it is grace if he chooses us too. It could well be that one resists this admittedly strict proof of God, that one resists the God of free grace, if one all-too-passionately resists the Jews. But the special, new and wonderful thing about the fact that Christ – although a “servant of the Circumcision for the sake of God’s truth” – has also received us, consists in the fact that the elected and graced people of Israel treated its Redeemer no otherwise than … all peoples of all times and places would have done in Israel’s place. That is, it rejected and crucified him, not in foolish haste, not by mistake, but in precise and conscious continuation of the way in which it has always treated its God. “My people”, as God so often called this people, showed itself once again and now definitively as “Not my people” [Hos. 1:9]. But the prophet Hosea had said precisely the opposite, and now it became true in the crucifixion of Christ! “Where it was said to them: ‘You are not my people’, it will be said to them: ‘O ye children of the living God'” (Hosea 2:1). “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” [Luke 23:34]: that was said to this people on Golgotha. Only that this could now no longer be said just to Israel. By making itself equal to the other peoples, Israel had also made the other peoples equal to itself. The locked door was opened. Israel itself had to open it. God’s covenant and truth were not broken, but were fulfilled in those in Israel – but also in those among the Gentiles – who now recognized and accepted God’s mercy as the work of his covenant and his truth. For that was the fulfillment of the covenant, the faithfulness of God precisely in Christ’s death on the cross: “God concluded all under unfaith, so that he might have mercy on all”(Rom. 11:32).

Therefore it follows: “The Gentiles praise God because of mercy.” Note well: not because they are better, purer, more upright than the Jews! If there were an advantage, the Jews would have it to this day: not because of any good qualities, but because it pleased God to elect them, to make with them a covenant which he fulfilled in Christ in order to keep it also with us. Therefore the Gentiles praise God: because to them who were not Israel, in Christ crucified in the midst of Israel, God showed and confirmed his mercy to them too. Because the covenant with Israel for Israel and for the Gentiles was revealed as covenant of grace for sinners, who cannot boast of any kept faithfulness, who can live only by mercy, but who really may live by mercy. – Therewith cease both the advantage of the Jews and our disadvantage. That is what a genuine Jew cannot understand to this day: viz. that precisely the covenant, which God indeed made with his and only with his people, has now – in the rejection of Christ by this his people – been revealed as the free and un-owed goodness which God wants to do to everyone. Precisely this covenant!, says St. Paul, and lets precisely the book of this one old and now fulfilled covenant speak for and testify to the glory of God among the heathen: “Therefore will I praise thee among the Gentiles, and sing thy name.” “Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people!” “Praise the Lord, all Gentiles, and extol him, all peoples!” “It will be the root of Jesse, and he will rise up to rule over the Gentiles; on him shall the Gentiles hope.” Thus, therefore, has Christ received us to the praise of God. “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus Christ was a Jew. But in that, in the sins of the Jews, he bore and bore away the sins of the whole world including ours, the salvation from the Jews has come also to us. We rejoice in this wide-open door, when we rejoice that there is a Word of God for us and thus a church of Jesus Christ. How should we, whenever we think about that, not also and above all think of the Jews? And how should we, whenever we think about the Jews, not think above all that “The Gentiles praise God for mercy’s sake”?

Now we can understand the second thing that our text has to tell us about the church of Jesus Christ: As Christ has received us to the praise of God, so “receive one another.” That is a law which may not be evaded. That is a command, and indeed a strict and inexorable command. But the Gentiles and the Jews, all those received by Christ, who praise God for mercy’s sake, fulfill this command. They receive each other. “To receive one another”: that means, to see each other as Christ sees us. He sees us all as covenant-breakers, but also as those with whom God will nevertheless keep his covenant. He sees us in our pious and worldly godlessness, but also as those to whom the kingdom of God has come near. He sees us as those who must simply rely on mercy, but also as those to whom mercy has already come. He sees us as Jews struggling with the true God and as Gentiles at peace with false gods, but he also sees us both united as “children of the living God” [Hos. 2:1]. Indeed, with our own eyes we cannot see each other as such. When we see each other with our own eyes, then it regularly happens that we miss both the fact that we are covenant-breakers and the fact that God nevertheless keeps his covenant. Then we take much too seriously both the excellences and the faults that we see in each other; then we both praise ourselves and each other much too loudly, and blame each other and ourselves much too vehemently. But in any case we simply do not receive each other. Then we are in the market place, but not in the church. Then the Word of God is silent. But when it is not silent, when we consider that we are received by Jesus Christ to the praise of God, then we see ourselves and each other with the eyes of Jesus Christ: and that surely means that our deep covenant-breaking, godlessness and pitifulness, but also God’s faithfulness ruling unmovedly over each one of us, are revealed to us, and that – despite all excellences and faults, praise and blame – however important they might be in their place – we can only reach out and shake hands with one another, in order with each other to praise God’s faithfulness to us the unfaithful. If and when we see ourselves and each other thus, then we receive each other, then we are in the church of Jesus Christ. For that is the church of Jesus Christ: the congregation of those who – hearing the word of the God of patience, consolation and hope – receive each other, even as Jesus Christ has received us. That is “the communion of the saints”. The praise of God for mercy’s sake has brought them together and, through thick and thin, will keep them together. Will hold them together in such a way as no friendship, no like-mindedness, no ethnic or national community, and no state can hold people together. Will hold them together in such a way as in the whole world only the members of the body of Christ are held together by him, their head.

And now we may close with a brief indication of the things which, in our text, are prayed for:

In the first place, it is that “ye be of one mind with one another according to Jesus Christ, so that unanimously with one mouth ye may praise God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Which is to say: From our mutual receiving of each other as Christ has received us, there must follow that in the church of Jesus Christ one thought and one will becomes living and powerful in all: indeed not just some human unity of thought and will, but a unity of perhaps very disparate human thoughts and wills in the intention of making loud the praise of God for mercy’s sake, of passing it on, of awakening it even in those who do not yet know that they have received mercy. This intention would then have to be carried out “unanimously with one mouth”. But that means: the church of Jesus Christ would have to be a community, a congregation, who together recognize the word which they have heard in order to confess it together. The church must be that! But is it that? If it is that, then where is its recognition and its confession? And if it is not that, why isn’t it? Our text bids us simply to pray for the church, that it may become a church of recognition and of confession. If only we would once again, and with one accord, pray for that! And what does it mean to pray? To cry out, to call, to reach out so that for us too that might be true which is true once and for all: that Christ has received us. The church’s recognition and the church’s confession would then follow such a prayer, if prayed in earnest, as surly as thunder follows lightning.

The second thing is this: That God “may fill you with all joy and peace in faith, that ye may have full hope by the power of the Holy Ghost.” That means: From our mutual receiving of each other, as Christ has received us, there must follow that in the church of Jesus Christ all joylessness would at least be on the way to becoming joy, all peacelessness at least on the way to peace, all distress about one’s own present would somewhere finally be overflowed by hope in the presence of the Lord. Does our church lack confession and recognition because so much unmoved and immovable joylessness, peacelessness and distress is in us? Or is there so much stark joylessness, peacelessness and distress in us despite our supposed faith, because recognition and confession are lacking in our church? We must certainly presume that th Christ has received us to the praise of God. If that remains hidden from us, then ere is a definite connection here. And therefore it is understandable that here too we are simply admonished that we must pray for the church, pray that joy and peace in its faith may prevail, that we – not by the strength of our will or mind, but by the power of the Holy Spirit might partake of a full, an overflowing hope. And again our prayer must simply be a sighing that this might not remain entirely hidden from us: that Christ has received us to the praise of God. If that remains hidden from us, then we will hardly receive each other; and so long as we do not receive one another, how could we have peace, joy and hope? They certainly stand and wait just outside our door. And they will be given us. If and when we earnestly ask for the one thing we must ask for.

In these times, the thoughts of many are concerned more seriously than before with what is lacking in the church and for us in the church. Note well that our Pauline text does not speak of that; but where it could talk about that, it simply prays and thus also bids us pray to the God of patience, consolation and hope, who is the Lord of the church. When we hear that, and let ourselves be told that we simply should, may and can pray, then it may become clear to us that there is one thing – and indeed the decisive thing – which is not lacking today in the church and for us in the church: namely the Word, from which the church is born.

When we hear this, viz. that there is a prayer that can do many things, then we certainly have the Word of God. Let us keep it, by doing that which by the Word of God is thus urged upon us! Perhaps these times have come upon our church in order that we might learn – otherwise and better than before – to pray, and thus to keep that which we have.