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Text For The Month / Monatsspruch

August 2019

Preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’
Matthew 10.7

Here I question the wisdom of our church to choose for this month such a difficult text. In the expression The kingdom of heaven we have several puzzles that we simply cannot solve. The discussion amongst the scholars remains stuck in numerous contradictions. I will therefore try to bring together at least some related thoughts that may be of practical help to us in these, everywhere, very confusing and challenging times.

Of the four Evangelists, it is only Matthew, who uses the term kingdom of heaven instead of kingdom of God. This was because he wrote his gospel primarily for the Jewish community, who traditionally avoided the use of the ‘name’ God. The meaning of both versions is the same, and because of their frequent usage in the gospels, they are seen as the key elements in Jesus’ teaching. But nowhere does Jesus define the phrase.
The great scholar Adolf von Harnack wrote in the book “Vom inwendigen Leben” in October 1917 about the parables of the heavenly kingdom: “For today’s people, we are left with a mystery. Although for those who know Jesus’ language it is no mystery. Heavenly kingdom is for Jesus the reign of the living God as the Father in our heart, so that we feel we belong to him and he to us, so that we look to him with firm confidence as the personal power that reaches into the heart and does not leave us.”*

In a faith like this, the kingdom of heaven is neither near nor far, it is always with us.

Karl Barth, the most important Swiss theologian of the 20th century, studied under Harnack in Berlin. Barth wrote in stages from 1932 to 1967 his great ‘Kirchliche Dogmatik’, contained in 9000 pages. He calls Christ the royal man and bases this on numerous biblical examples of unequivocal facts in an impressive and inevitable way. I now cite in translation just some of Barth’s statements relating to the text for this month: “The King and his kingdom, the Lord and his rule are one. So it was seen by the community and therefore unforgettable. Amongst all in question only Jesus, only this one person. Why? And why he? He had been a lord amongst his fellow men, a very royal man and certainly also a person like themselves, not in possession and not exercising divine sovereignty, authority and omnipotence, but as their immediate and perfect witness, unmistakably distinguished in their midst.

He was a free man in our world, who had, except for his father, also in heaven nobody and nothing above him. He was therefore quite free to act and fulfil the will of his father. He was not subordinate to anyone, not a nature and history maker, not tied to inner limits and inhibitions. There was only one thing for him to do, not constrained and forced, but superior to the end, in suffering and death. Especially there.

An empire was there, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, as the tradition calls it, in this man of Nazareth. That made him absolutely unique and unforgettable. Here are documents and also monuments of memory only of this man, a person who announced in word and deed, practically and convincingly, the coming of the kingdom of God, superfluous of all considerations of when? And how? The King and his kingdom, the Lord and his reign are one, outside of all other kingdoms, the nearby kingdom of God, that touches everyone in their midst, because Jesus is in their midst (Luke 17.21). This was the mission of the Apostles.”*

Karl Barth has influenced many others, amongst them Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If Barth portrays Jesus rightly as a man “in word and deed, practical and convincing”, then Bonhoeffer writes in ‘Life Together’ about deeds in the chapter about ministry: “The service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God”.

And in the chapter about community we read: “According to God’s will Christendom is a scattered people, scattered like seed ‘in all the kingdoms of the earth’ (Deut. 28.25). That is its curse and its promise. God’s people must dwell in far countries amongst the unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the Kingdom of God in all the world”. Here Bonhoeffer points to the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13.31).

And I deem it fitting to include here Bonhoeffer’s moving prayer, spoken now 75 years past: “By benign powers wondrously protected we wait with confidence what comes our way. God is with us this evening, this morning, and without doubt on each new day.”*

The Kingdom of God is also referred to in the Constitution of our Association, where it is stated in the Objects: “The Young Men’s Christian Associations seek to unite those who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be his disciples in their faith and in their life, and to associate their efforts for the extension of His Kingdom”. There follows, as it has to, an extensive list of practical objects. Of these I list just a few key words: to advance the Christian Faith for the benefit of the public by supporting and encouraging people along the path to a Christian way of life, by raising awareness of Christian values and the needs of others …; to provide facilities and programmes, in the interest of social welfare, cultural activity, recreation and leisure …; the prevention or relief of poverty …; to provide the provision of education …; to promote racial harmony …

Thus, the Association has to earn and secure funds, efficiently and ethically, and then apply these in the spirit of Christian love.
Bernd Hildebrandt

 

September 2019

Was hülfe es dem Menschen, wenn er die ganze Welt gewönne und nähme doch Schaden an seiner Seele?
Matthäus 16,26

“Drei Dinge gibt es, die unergründlich sind, ‘Leben, Seele, Gott’, und die doch für uns das Sein selbst sind”.

Adolf von Harnack

 

 

* Translated from German by B. Hildebrandt

 

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