In retrospect, it was a mistake to be reading Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans so soon before my one visit to this year’s Churchwide Assembly. I must plead inexcusable tardiness: in three years of recently-concluded formal theological education, I never went deeper into Barth than a sermon or two. Reading the massive and urgent Romans commentary was intoxicating. Seeing the Christian community described as no more than “a crater formed by the explosion” of the Gospel, characterized not by “possession and self-sufficiency” but by “deprivation and hope” brings a reader back to the oldest stirrings of the Reformation. It was not, however, a helpful propaedeutic for Assembly worship.
Serving as an usher for a mid-day liturgy that week, I was present for a long and lamentable sermon. The text was Jesus’ preaching in the temple in Luke 3. The prophecy from Isaiah which Jesus says has been fulfilled formed the heart of the message, which urged the church to see itself as anointed by the Spirit in the same manner Christ was—bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, restoring sight to the blind.
These prophetic texts are favorites of preachers who think that their task consists primarily of enumerating those good things which the church is doing, or isn’t doing but should be. This day’s sermon took that approach. It was very heavy on human agency and the church’s mission and relatively light on divine action as anything but a force inspiring and cooperating with our own good deeds.
There wasn’t anything particularly objectionable about the good deeds the preacher urged on us—in fact, they dovetailed with my own sense of social ethics—but I was left baffled by the purpose of the sermon. Is this what Luther-anism means, after all? Is the purpose of our proclamation to constantly spur ourselves on to more perfect realizations of prophetic texts? Where is the desperation? Where is the crushing need for God’s grace? What happened to the stragglers from the human army opposed to God? When did they turn into mealy-mouthed utopians? I know I am not alone in having sound humanitarian impulses, so I don’t imagine many of us need those impulses oiled with religious phraseology.
More generally, it seems to me that big-church preaching, whether at a national assembly or at events like the Valparaiso Liturgical Institute, tends toward theological blandness. This should not, after all, be surprising. There is a paradox involved when a movement founded and nourished at the margins—a monk in Wittenberg, for instance—takes institutional shape. The voices that have most refreshed our tradition, from Luther himself to Kierkegaard, Barth (who in Romans quotes Luther more seriously than most Lutherans do), and Bonhoeffer, have all been marginal figures in their own times and churches (not to mention Athanasius and even Paul himself in the letter to the Galatians). They were driven to enunciate their theologies under what seemed like a divine or demonic compulsion. They took God’s side against themselves, so to speak.
This is not, I suppose, a helpful pose from which to engage in church governance. Luther’s trackless wilderness of faith, Kierkegaard’s omnipresent dread, Barth’s all-annihilating divine righteousness, Bonhoeffer’s self-immolating definition of vocation all militate against the kind of sanguine uplift needed to organize and drive a body of people, even Christians.
Not that the collective mind of an institutional church can’t assimilate the difficult rhetoric. Many of us have learned how to use terms like “anxiety,” “costly,” “priesthood of all believers,” and so on in a way that preserves the effect but subverts the meaning. Every impulse of reason and human nature, Luther realized, drives us away from absence to presence, from negation to affirmation, from invisibility to visibility, from passive justice to active justice, from silence to speech, and ultimately from the theology of the cross to the theology of glory. Those impulses must be amplified exponentially when the preacher—frail vessel that he or she is to begin with—stands before thousands of waiting eyes and ears. Church governance requires an optimism (distinct, please note, from hope) to which a true theologian has little or no access.
So we soldier on through pointless sermons that harass us with their depressingly relentless positivity, their confusion of adjectives with insight, and their false equation of ministry to-do lists with costly discipleship. We try desperately to fill in the crater left by the Gospel with all the seriousness and success of a dog trying to fill the Grand Canyon. The sermons seem almost superfluous to the prayers and sacrament that—thank God!—follow. And that, I have learned, is what draws me (and perhaps many others) back to these grand events. We hear the words, we receive the elements, and after receiving we watch our fellow beggars receive likewise.
The concentration on the faces, whether at Churchwide, Valparaiso, or a synodical installation, is no different from the concentration on the faces in our own parish churches. It is a unique and beautiful sight. And if the Word is poorly preached, the Sacrament always comes to the rescue, as we gather to hear the words—“for you”—and receive the body and blood that address us more deeply and needfully than a lifetime of sermons ever could.