Karl Barth’s sermon from July 26, 1914 (just days after Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia and just days before World War I finally erupted), is a reflection on the seeming incongruence of Ephesians 2:4-7 – and especially the idea that God has set us in the heavenly realm with Jesus – with the fearful turbulence of the times. “God has set us in the heavenly realm! Isn’t that an utterly astonishing, indeed incredible thing to say?” With sayings such as these, it seems, the Bible and Christian teaching reveal their disconnect with reality. This may be the right thing to say or to believe, but it only really holds true in Church. Out in the real world, we sure don’t see any evidence of this transference, even though it would certainly be nice if God really did transfer us out of our fearful and chaotic reality and into one of peace and order.
But is the idea that God has set us in the heavenly realm truly out of touch with the grittiness of reality? Barth says no. We must understand what this heavenly realm really is. First of all, he says it cannot be reduced to mere words or to a single idea, so he identifies it by its effects. It encompasses freedom, happiness, orderliness, and bliss. When we live in this realm we don’t hurt each other or ourselves. We don’t deceive one another. We don’t focus all of our energy on ourselves and our fortunes. Instead, we focus our attention on one needful thing: “that God is and that God is love.”
This heavenly realm would then seem to be some place distant, either in space or time. But following Paul and Jesus, Barth recognizes that the heavenly realm is right here, all around us and above us. The question we have to ask ourselves is “whether it is there for us, whether we belong to it, whether we have a living experience of it … whether we are really in the heavenly realm.” Paul in Ephesians affirms yes. “God has transferred us.”
So how do we reconcile what Paul says with the fact that we see so much evil around us, that the world in our own time (in many ways to the same degree as at the outset of World War I) is full of fear, anger, nationalistic and racist passions, vindictiveness, and an unwavering certainty that our way of life is the best one, the one that God or science or nature or fate or the dialectic struggle of human history has ordained is the way of life that can save the world from itself, if we can just enforce it on everyone else. How can we say something like “God has seated us in the heavenly realm with Christ” or “God is sovereign” or “Jesus is Lord” when the world shows no sign of slowing down in its headlong rush toward self-destruction. In what sense is Jesus truly Lord, in what sense is the Kingdom of God truly present, and in what sense do we truly exist therein?
The heavenly realm is a reality that exists side-by-side with – or really rather right on top of – the present evil reality, and it is a reality that must be apprehended through the eyes of faith. It is here, right now, inside all who are being transformed into the image of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not simply waiting for it to come about in the future. We may be waiting for its full revelation in the future, when the present evil age completely passes away, but we are not waiting for it to begin. Only spiritual vision, vision that is focused doggedly on our resurrected Savior Jesus, can apprehend it and can proclaim it. On the other hand, it is the vision of worldliness that insistently refuses to acknowledge that the Kingdom of Heaven is “real”, defining “real” or “relevant” in such a way that only what is material – in fact, only the most pessimistic vision of what is material – can be said to be “real”.
The Christian confession that God has transferred us into the heavenlies with Christ is not simply wishful thinking. It is truly real. It is the most truly real reality amongst the various competing realities, but it can only be apprehended through the eyes of faith. Looking through the eyes of faith can be difficult when the world screams in our ears and leaps about before our eyes declaring that everything is about to come crashing down. The world itself may indeed come crashing down, but that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is Lord, that he reigns even now, and that we have been seated together with him in the heavenly realm. If and when the world comes crashing down, it will only do so to serve his purposes, to bring about judgment on a world that insists on itself as the only valid reality.
You can find an English translation of Karl Barth’s sermons from July to November of 1914, as well as a very helpful Introduction to Barth and the impact of World War I on him and his world, in A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, translated and edited by William Klempa.