Being Known by God: Preaching Meister Eckhart

Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Portal that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories. See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.

Were I to launch into a sermon on the upcoming presidential election, my email box would short-circuit from the deluge of opinions many would need to communicate. However, because this sermon is on the life of Meister Eckhart, chances are good that when it comes to email I'll receive nary a byte. Face it, theology fails to generate the same temperature of heated discourse as politics, despite the admonition against bringing up either politics or religion on a first date.

On the other hand, were these the Middle Ages, the ceaseless subject matter of CNN or Fox News would be the moods and moves of God rather than the latest exploits of kings and princes. In medieval Europe, where earthly life was precarious and death the daily dread, the life to come was the only life that warranted debate.

The doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church dominated medieval religious thought, but among Catholics there were those whose divergent enthusiastic experiences of God threatened Rome's supremacy. The pope endured such enthusiasm as long as it stayed in the pews, but once it began to seep into pulpits and monasteries, he called in the Roman Inquisition to stamp it out. In the early 14th century, the Inquisition tried but failed to stamp out a German Dominican monk whose mystical experiences and preaching ignited a fuse that eventually would blow Western Christianity into pieces.

While chances are good that you may never have heard of Meister Eckhart, you have heard of Martin Luther. If Luther was chief catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, Eckhart was a chief catalyst for Luther. Eckhart's sermons preached a personal, unmediated, and enthusiastic relationship with God as well as emphasized the futility of good works in affording righteousness. These sermons overturned Luther's own theological tables. Unfortunately they also got Eckhart hauled before the Inquisition and charged with heresy.

Johannes Eckhart was born near Erfurt, Germany, in 1260. A Dominican monk, a graduate of the university of Paris where received his Masters (ergo the Meister title), a professor, priest, and tireless advocate for the poor, Meister Eckhart also broke convention by supporting the charismatic lay women's movement of his day.

However Meister Eckhart is best remembered as a mystic. He died in an unknown place in 1329 following his papal inquisition, but before he was officially condemned as heretical. At his own defense, Eckhart declared, "I may err but I am not a heretic—the first has to do with the mind but the second must come from the will." As far as Meister Eckhart's will went, all he ever desired was a closer walk with God.

Catholic Church scholars today generally agree that Meister Eckhart was unjustly condemned. The Dominican Order to which he belonged formally requested in 1980 that Rome lift all censures. But Meister Eckhart's relationship with God never depended on ecclesiastical endorsement any more than it depended on personal piety. Eckhart preached, "People should not worry as much about what they do as about what they are . . . holiness is not based on what we do but rather on what we are, for it is not our works which sanctify us . . . God never tied your salvation to any pattern of life, therefore you must be permeated with the divine Presence, informed with the form of the Beloved God who is within so that you may radiate His presence without ever having to work at it."

From a Protestant perspective, mystics are those who take the doctrine of God's indwelling Spirit to its logical and radical conclusions. Known in popular Christian nomenclature as "Jesus in your heart," this doctrine of the indwelling Spirit teaches that by faith God Himself has taken up residence in your soul. "God is at home," Eckhart wrote; "we're the ones who have gone out for a walk." Through this residential Spirit, not only is your room in heaven secure, but your life on earth is currently energized to image God. You exude unbridled love for God and neighbor, you eagerly and sacrificially serve others, you joyfully and effortlessly obey God and courageously confront any trial.

At least that's the idea. The problem, of course, is that most Christians' lives only evidence the contrary, thus begging the obvious question: If indeed Jesus does reside in my heart, presumably filling it with his divine fullness, then why do I still look and act like as if I have a vacancy sign on my soul? Most of us shrug such logical deductions off, pleading patience since God "is not finished with me yet." But not the mystics. Hey, they reason, if Jesus is living inside me, I want to tap into that energy with all that I've got.