Friday, 29 April 2011

Beautiful Church - a New Hymn

Reading up on the Blumhardts and their developing, at times divergent, views of the kingdom of God and the Church, I remembered my own musings on the correlation a couple of years ago. I looked at Christian hymnody and more recent choruses and found there either Church or Kingdom, but very little that related them properly in God's plan for the earth.

The result was that I had a go at writing a hymn myself! The starting point was the opening line of an obscure hymn by a Victorian high Anglican clergyman, E L Drown. This line, and several others which struck me as beautiful, I kept. Drown, however, goes on to sketch the beauties of church furnishings, liturgy and offices. I wanted rather to place Church within the wider 'kingdom' plan of God for a testimony to, and blessing for, the earth.

Beautiful Church of Christ below,
Radiant in this world of woe;
Welcoming gate to Heaven above,
Sanctified house of God I love.
He who was slain on Calvary
Founded this Church eternally.

Harried and tried by Satan’s horde;
Hated by men who hate her Lord;
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Seeing in faith His glorious throne;
Bearing His cross she walks His road,
Finding His grace to bear the load.

Temple of Jesus, called the Way,
His human face she dares display:
Grieving at imperfections shown,
Making her intercessions known;
Bearing with brethren, loving all,
She manifests the Kingdom call.

Beautiful hearts this Church adorn,
Giving their lives for God’s Firstborn.
Salvation’s Ark she opens wide,
Beckoning all to come inside;
Bringing new sons to second birth,
She is a praise in all the earth.

Church, the abode and rest of God;
The path that saints and martyrs trod.
Baptism her ensign, Christ her light;
Souls here made glorious, robed in white.
Fitly adorned as Christ’s own Bride,
She reigns for ever at His side!

© Jesus Fellowship Songs / CopyCare Ltd, 2009,
adapted from E. L. Drown, 1863, Public Domain

God's Kingdom Here And Now

"We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God's name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth."

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth - for that was always God's intention.

"The angels have God in heaven, I have not - I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God's intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth."
[my own translation (and in parts paraphrase) from the German]

Here you will find a further meditation by Blumhardt on the in-breaking kingdom of God - and the amazing but urgent opportunities that gives for Christian witness.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Church And The Kingdom

As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919). The blessing was that Christoph might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the Victor (see previous post).

Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, a fiery preacher. The novellist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.

Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there until Johann's death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.

But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. "A Christian must be born twice", he wrote: "once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human". In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.

In a letter which he kept secret for years, he reproached his father for three failings:
1. His individualism. Johann had compassion on each person, and for that person to know the healing power of God was sufficient evidence of the in-breaking kingdom of God. Christoph had a more developed notion of God's kingdom: a rulership that included all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures.

2. His view of the Church. Johann was too accepting of a religious system which his son had come to see as a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.

3. His view of mission. Christoph saw his father's model of outreach as simply feeding a church which was a mere extension of imperialism. His son saw the more 'cosmic' aspect of the kingdom of God - that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a 'city on a hill' (Matthew 5:14). His father had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Blumhardt and the Victorious Christ

The other key factor in Johnn Christoph Blumhardt's legacy is his unshakable conviction in 'realised eschatology', that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now. His influences here were twofold:

1. He was acquainted with the prophecy of Johann Albrecht Bengel, who had calculated from bible numerology that the Millennium (a period of one thousand years referred to in Book of Revelation, 20:1-10, in which Christ's followers would rule the earth spiritually) would begin in 1836. This had heightened expectancy in some church circles for new outbreaks of the miraculous.

2. From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil.

So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth.

Blumhardt's experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God's kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).

It would be his son who would take the interpretation of the kingdom deeper and wider, as we shall see.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

"Christ Loved The Church"

So, what makes Johann Christoph Blumhardt significant enough to warrant an English edition of his works? In what ways was he a "mover and shaker"?

This post looks at a key (and at first sight unlikely) factor: his conservatism, his belief in the established church. England by this time had seen the Quakers, then the Great Awakening, the powerful movings of God associated with the Wesleys and george Whitefield (an overview of which is given here). These times of the in-breaking of God's power had, however, led to large numbers leaving the Anglican communion to found new groups and movements.

Germany had always been resistant to sectarianism - look how it treated the Anabaptists (see some of my posts of 2010). But in Blumhardt, the message of renewal, and the manifest power of God with signs and wonders, came from a solid son of the church who had no intention of seceding from it. This resonated far and wide, and Blumhardt's parsonage welcomed thousands of visitors, including author/parson Eduard Mörike and novellist Hermann Hesse.

A short article in German assesses the reactions of some of these visitors.

1. FAITH. "He really does believe! It isn't magic!", wrote Blumhardt's bishop. Real faith, "the faith that pulls the fire from heaven" (Salvation Army hymn) has always fascinated and attracted. People want to believe in the miraculous. Blumhardt made it seem quite ordinary.

2. LOVE. "Love is his religion", wrote a noted painter. Blumhardt's God was compassionate, offered hope, gave repentance and a new start even to the most damaged and dirty, and any manifestation of healing etc was a signpost to that nature in Him. This too is timelessly attractive, especially to Christians stultified by habit - what Blumhardt called "religion".

3. HOPE. Blumhardt's heightened understanding of light and darkness (through the exorcism of 1842) made him see that God was ready at any moment to invade the darkness of human life with the light that is the real Jesus - not of "religion" but of life . Darkness, he wrote, is contrary to our nature if we are of God, so there will always be a way to escape from it if we put our trust in Him.

All of these, Blumhardt believed, were available within the orbit of the church. But because of much encrusting of "church-ianity", God's lavish heart in these areas had to be actively and stongly preached, which is what Blumhardt spent a lot of his time doing.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The In-Breaking Kingdom Of God

I always appreciate the arrival of the new edition of The Plough, published by Church Communities International. There aren't too many publications emanating from an Anabaptist, "all things in common", communitarian stream, but this is one.

The latest issue heralds a bold and very welcome move: to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).

"What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?", writes one of the series' editors. "They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century."

Johann Christoph was pastor in Möttlingen, a village in South-West Germany as unremarkable as Blumhardt himself. Until 1842, that is, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of 'deliverance ministry', exorcism and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.

"Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled." People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such 'success' was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.

Even so, "Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith."

What made this a radical movement in the scope of this blog is that Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.

Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it.

But Blumhardt also offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God's power to be seen in today's world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God's glory and the blessing of multitudes.