by James Nieman
He was only twenty-seven years old when called as pastor to the grimy urban parish of Gelsenkirchen. He had other dreams at the time, a life of study and scholarship, perhaps, safe and serene. What he got instead was a scrappy, blue-collar congregation of coal miners eager for a change of fortune, for better days ahead. The winds were blowing in that direction, to be sure. A new party was in power, a new leader elected, all accompanied by resurgent national pride. For the young pastor, though, these were ominous signs. There was new pressure for Christian leaders like him to fall in line, toe the line, speak the line that the ways of Jesus and the ways of state were identical. He couldn't, he wouldn't do that.
Officials noted his stubbornness, trumped up charges, and held him for four months as a threat to national security. Prison might persuade him, they thought. Instead, it stiffened his resolve to study as never before. Within a year of his captivity he completed his brave and bracing book on, of all things, the epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews? A biblical book largely ignored today but for its pithy phrases in Christian liturgies, greeting cards, and T-shirts. If you're standing up for what you believe, why waste your time on Hebrews? Stranger still, this young pastor focused his efforts on the section of Hebrews you heard today, its third and fourth chapters, convinced that they showed the way to a new kind of life.
His name was Ernst Käsemann. No one had heard of him back in 1937, and no one reads him any longer, three quarters of a century later. But within a decade of his arrest he was on his way to becoming one of the premier New Testament scholars of his generation. Not that his life was ever easy. His views were controversial, radical, a threat to scholars and an offense to church and civic leaders. But in many respects, his lifelong contribution began in that urban parish and dank prison where he first glimpsed that the threat before German Christians was just like that faced by those who first heard today's reading. Like the recipients of Hebrews, the churches of Nazi Germany were adrift, lost, completely at risk. On one side, the seductions of a powerful empire; on the other, the lure of easy indifference. Sound familiar?
Käsemann took this plight seriously but reframed it. Yes, we are adrift and at risk, but in turning to Hebrews he saw another way to make sense of this. We are like those ancient tribes in the wilderness, a wandering people of God not aimless and alone but headed toward a sure promise and a certain destination. Indeed, that's the whole point of the verses just before today's reading. Those who first heard Hebrews were bid to see themselves as a kind of wandering people summoned by God, called into being by a divine word that set them on a new course. Käsemann wanted his urban congregation to claim the same for itself. Rather than listless before each passing whim or subject to the ruling powers, they were on the way toward a different future where God was calling them. It's life on the way, following a promise. Is that claim and that hope so distant, so irrelevant to us?
Of course, the word that calls in Hebrews looks a lot different from the usual words that beckon and lure. So often, our lives are described and determined by the words we select, the identities we embrace: race or class, region or clan, gender or orientation, party or preference. But these are the self-generated human words by which we position ourselves for advantage and judgment. God's wandering people are marked by a different word entirely, a holy word not of human origin. And that's the real point in the verses we heard today. The word calling us to wander with God is not the deadly, deadening discourse of human categories and types. It is living and active, sharp and piercing, critical and exposing, holding us accountable. Such vivid terms make clear that wandering with God will be unsettling, even risky.
It's a strange word in Hebrews, this word so active, so piercing, so exposing. It's strange until you realize that God's word has always been sharp and two-edged for the sake of new life. In the beginning, that word split the waters above from the waters below, day from night, sky from sea from land, creating a space for life. In the days of slavery, that word severed Israel from captivity, sundered the Red Sea, prodded them into the wilderness, exposed their sin on the way to the promised land. Through the prophets, that active word was slicing once more between justice and harm, covenant and false gods, even driving the people into exile so they one day might repent. "And now in these last days," as it says in the first chapter of Hebrews, that word appears through the Son, judged and rejected, pierced and torn, severed from his own people that all might have life. This same word is now calling us to wander with God, sustained by the promise of a life poured out for us.
No wonder, then, that our reading suddenly turns from this active, piercing, exposing word of life to the image of a priest. The word calling us to wander with God, the word who is Jesus, is like a great high priest sent to serve us. His place of service is not a temple of human construction but the very cosmos and all therein. And he is a priest like no other, for he knows our weakness, being tested and tried like us. It is again an image of the cross. The word, itself pierced and torn, is now the priest, emptied and poured out, sacrificing himself for the sake of our life. As it says later in Hebrews, he is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," the sustaining promise in our wandering with God. Through Jesus, we can approach God with confidence, begging mercy in time of need, wherever our journeys may go.
In the midst of a world falling down around him, Ernst Käsemann wanted his parishoners, and I suspect even us today, to know a promise first made to our ancestors in the faith. What sustains us is not the pathetic prattle of our own invention. No, what sustains us is an active, piercing word that calls us to wander. Along God's way, we meet a caring priest whose self-sacrifice brings life to the world and help in time of need. I wonder what Käsemann thought when his own daughter took that message to heart. In the early 1970s, Elisabeth wandered across the sea from Germany to Argentina, serving the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires and calling for justice from the new ruling party. Officials noted her stubbornness, trumped up charges, and held her as a threat to national security. Prison might persuade her, they thought.
The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, I guess. Except that while Ernst poured out his life as a scholar, Elisabeth's was poured out as one of the "disappeared," murdered like thousands of others by a cowardly regime. I don't know how you keep on going in the face of such horror. I suspect few of us do. But at the time of her death, Käsemann insisted that his daughter not become an object of pity. "I would like her death to open people's eyes," he said, "so that the reality of Argentina, so beautiful yet harboring such an inferno, can be seen. I should not like to leave the last word to the executioners and the military." Even in sorrow, he sought a different word, living and active, piercing and exposing not just a brutal dictatorship but his own nation's complicity in propping it up. Maybe that's what it means to wander with God. Maybe it's going where you're called and saying what you must. And maybe it's trusting in the great high priest who shares our steps, knows our weakness, and meets us in deepest need.