16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily for 17 July 2005
Rev. Jim Ryan
“The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness.”
For most of the Summer the Second Reading in our Liturgy is taken from the Letter to the Romans. I would like to put some perspective on Romans this morning.
For the past 100 years a central discussion within Christian theology, faith, and practice there has been a guiding notion about Church. The phrase, “Church from above, and Church from below” gives us an image to think about this discussion.
Here’s some history on this century old discussion. In 1918 following the great promise of progress of the new 20th century and then the great devastation of the First World War when all was seemingly wrecked in Europe, Karl Barth issued his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. It was a remarkable document. Barth read Romans with little of the scriptural scholarship then in vogue. He proclaimed a “Theology from above” by focusing all attention on the Law of God and God’s absolute power in our lives.
Not long after this another German theologian began his teachings that finding God was about mucking around in the experience of dashed dreams and total destruction. This “Theology from below” was the view of Paul Tillich. And the discussion, even the competition for peoples’ hearts and views was engaged.
Interestingly, while these two teachers held such different, some would say, opposite views they were united in one view. They saw the lunacy as well as the danger of National Socialism as it arose in the 1920s and 1930s. Barth and Tillich both fled Nazi Germany. Barth could not agree that all allegiance was owed to the State, not when he had taught in his Commentary on Romans that God is ultimate. And Tillich could not agree that people were just followers and had no say in the values of life.
Both men exiled themselves to the United States to continue this discussion of the God from above and the God from below. And for the next seventy years this seemed to be the discussion as well as the basis of many Christian battles about God and Church.
These days the view from above is held strongly by the group that is now being referred to as “values evangelicals.” One of the most obvious pictures of this belief is the person who goes to sporting events so that the camera can pick up the sign they’ve brought that says only, “John 3:16.” I’m sure you’ve seen it…..”God so loved the world that he gave his only Son and all who believe in Him will not die but have eternal life.”
The God from below view is pictured with no specific image of God so much as through humanitarian efforts of caregiving. Dorothee Soelle, another German theologian, says in her book, “Truth is Concrete,” “Praying is not a despairing cry to the empty heavens, but an answer to the word…. A despairing cry is only possible because God is already there.”
We have become familiar with this discussion/debate about God from above and God from below. But is seems to be coming to an end.
The fundamentalists and the fanatics seem to be getting not only much of the press coverage, they are growing louder in their assertions. And, sadly in the Islamic world the certainty of God’s wishes are being met with those Christians who are absolutely certain that their God is right. We see death, bombings, destruction, innocent victims all around us.
How do we deal with this new century of fundamentalists and fanatics? There seems to be no discussion only hateful acts. We can only wish for the genteel discussion of theologians.
I am not certain, but I am assured by God’s word and the teachings of Jesus. We are challenged to carry both truths forward…. God is above, the One who is revealed and God is below, the One who is discovered. And Jesus’ parables lead us where the fundamentalists won’t go.
Jesus teaches that we are to reach out and to include, become the see that becomes the largest tree with nesting birds seeking shelter. We are to become the yeast that spreads through the entire bread.
In the face of violence both within Christian churches and across religious beliefs it occurs to me that the Gospel of Jesus remains true. He is both the One who is above who reveals and inspires as well as the One who is below who moves us to act.