On August 20, 1886, a man named Paul Tillich was born in Germany to a Lutheran pastor and his wife. Like his father, Tillich also became a minister and during World War I he served as a chaplain in the German army. He was sent to Verdun and, if you are as smart as my honors world history students, you know that Verdun was the site of unspeakable horror and death. Transferred out of Verdun for a short time, he was later reassigned and sent back. It was too much for young Paul, and being immersed once more in the carnage of Verdun caused severe spiritual and mental problems for him. He had what was then called a “mental breakdown” and was hospitalized.
After the war ended in 1918, he studied advanced theology and philosophy, later teaching
these subjects. When Hitler rose to power, the voice of Paul Tillich was one of the few that dared to declare that the extreme patriotism of the Nazi ideology was idolatrous and could only result in evil. Tillich escaped from Germany and fled to America as a refugee, a middle-aged professor unknown to most American Christians. It was here that Paul Tillich did the work of his lifetime, publishing his Christian existentialist ideas and influencing virtually all the Christian denominations. Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, later said that the thought and writing of Paul Tillich would challenge the world for centuries to come. His mind, which had once seemed frail after witnessing the horrors of Verdun, became one of the greatest of the past century. In 1957, shortly before his
death, he published a book called Dynamics of Faith, which was destined to become a classic. The scope of his theology was vast, but he also showed himself to be extremely sensitive to the spiritual and emotional needs of the typical post-modern believer.
And, as fate would have it, in 1986—one hundred years after Tillich’s birth–a young university student, picked up a copy of Dynamics of Faith, and the trajectory of his life was changed forever. This student was to abandon his plans of being an English teacher and instead follow the path of religious studies, later becoming ordained a Catholic priest and ministering to the parish of Holy Redeemer Catholic Community. It is fair to say that some fundamental choices I have made in my spiritual journey are a direct result of my having met Paul Tillich.
Tillich had witnessed the unspeakable horrors of war and evil but was also in love with the
beauty of life. He knew what political power was but he also knew the potency of spiritual power. In a now famous sermon, Paul Tillich–theologian, professor, exile and refugee, former mental patient–referred to the words of St. Paul, who had also been a refugee and who had been a former persecutor of Christians but was now a champion of the Church. Tillich’s words stand as something of a credo for all those who dare confront the power of evil in the name of the God of Jesus.
If God is for us, who is against us?…Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.
Paul Tillich writes, “ These words are among the most powerful ever written. Their sound is able to grasp human souls in desperate situations. In my own experience, they have proved to be stronger than the sound of exploding shells, of weeping at open graves, of the sighs of the sick, of the moaning of the dying. They are stronger than the self-accusation of those who are in despair about themselves and they prevail over the permanent whisper of anxiety in the depth of our being.”
Tillich continues: “What is it that makes these words so powerful? It is a fair question and perceptive. The apostle Paul describes, in the language of his time, the elemental forces that oppose and shake all human beings. Some of these forces are ugly and brutish: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. Some of these
forces are beautiful and glorious, even if the language is strange to our ears: death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth. Even if the language is strange, the truth is familiar. We may not believe in the elemental powers and cosmic angels as the people did in the time of the Apostle Paul, but more people today are turning to the mythology of astrology, channeling spirits of the past, UFOs, and cults of many kinds in their search for some base of power and truth that will give them some solid
place to stand in a madly spinning and churning universe…The past can chain us.
Things present worry us. Things to come stalk us. With all this power rushing against us, how can we dare to state that we are more than conquerors?”
We tend to see evil as a strong force in the world, but that is simply because evil people
are focused on what they want to achieve. What we forget is that Jesus himself, the ultimate good gift from God, is focused on what he wants to achieve as well. Jesus confronts us with a clear and definite challenge: to put aside our fears and to trust in the power of God’s love as the foundation of the universe.
Jesus said the Reign of God is like yeast that a woman puts in three measures of flour
until all of it is leavened. Not only did Jesus compare God to a woman (still heresy in some quarters today!) but he also considered the Reign of God like yeast, which in 1st century Judea was something that had to be discarded every holy day in order to
maintain kosher purity. So, the sense of the saying really is: “The Reign of God contaminates the flour and changes it.” (By the way, 3 measures of flour would equal about 100 pounds of bread, which sounds like a ridiculous amount of bread for a woman to be baking! But since the woman is God, this suggests something about God’s generosity.)
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure someone finds in a field, then sells all he has so
he can buy the field. Does this sound right? Aren’t we supposed to work for what we get? Is it right for someone to trespass on another’s land, find a treasure, and then buy the land for the treasure? The point here is that Jesus is leading us into places where we feel we have no right to be, where we feel unworthy and like we are trespassing on land reserved for someone more deserving. It is here that Jesus reveals to us the inner treasure that is greater than anything we could have found on our own.
The kingdom of heaven is like the pearl of great price. If we truly see the value of God’s Reign, then we will do whatever it takes to possess it because it is so precious.
Paul Tillich sums it all up for us: “Meanwhile, to us and to all who seek some firm footing in a churning and twisting universe that threatens us with the darkest shadows and fears. There is…firm footing, and it is Jesus Christ rose from the tomb that we might know that light is greater than darkness, that love is greater than hate, and that life is greater than
death. We are more than conquerors. We have power unimaginable. We have love infinite. We have life eternal. We are connected to the love of God from whom came the universe. All that opposes God , be it powerful or lovely, will not stand. If God is with us, who is against us?”