Friday, April 29, 2011

Even Amid the Devestation; Christ is Risen!

The Second Week of Eastertide will long be remembered by us as the time of terribly deadly storms that ravaged Alabama. We have lost over a dozen of our churches, a number of parsonages, the homes of many of our people, and worst of all, the lives of many sisters and brothers. We are heartbroken.

In times like these God gives us the opportunity to rediscover the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ. By God's grace, we believe we shall look back on the next few weeks as a time when -- even admid our tragedy -- we experienced the presence and power of the Risen Christ. Our loss is huge, but we may find that the gifts of God are greater even than our loss. Still, Light shines.

Over the past harrowing forty-eight hours, I've been proud of our churches and our pastors as they move into prayer and into action -- Matt Lacey's teams have shown the wisdom of hours of training and preparation for such a time as this. The North Alabama Conference has had all too much exposure to natural disaster. We have developed one of the most extensive and well prepared network of staging areas, disaster response teams, equipment facilities and trained people who are able to respond in force. Through UMCOR and our connectional giving, we have not waited until disaster struck. We are connected, organized, and in action in Christ's name. Over the last forty-eight hours, the Cabinet and I have been engaged with our churches and pastors who were hit. Methodists from all over the country have been sending messages of concern and will receive funds to help us. I've heard from pastors in North Carolina, Maryland., Indiana, and Washington who will be receiving offerings for us on Sunday. Even in the storm, our connection is testifying to our faith in God's ability to redeem even this. We are not alone!

We shall build back our devestated churches. We shall stick with our ravaged communities. We shall offer funds and hands-on-work for those in need. We gave over half a milliion dollars to help with Katrina relief and days and days of work. We shall do even more now that disaster has come our way.

And we shall claim all Wesleyan good work as visible proof.that, even in the storm, even amid the loss, "Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!"

I'll be in our hard hit Southwest District this weekend, and will preach at our Forrest Lake Church (even without electricity and badly damaged, Forrest Lake has taken in those who need shelter). We shall pray, shall receive a special offering for the victims, and we shall testify to our faith in a God who keeps coming back to bless us, to raise us up, and to be with us.

Will Willimon

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter: God Comes To Us

The Resurrection is not only an event in the past; it has present implications. Easter is a sign of what God is up to in the world. The same resurrected Jesus who came back to his defeated disciples continues to come to us. This meditation is selected from my book, “Why Jesus?”(Abingdon, 2010). Happy Easter.

On Easter evening, when the disciples gathered behind the locked doors and the risen Christ came and stood among them, two of the twelve were absent. Thomas was somewhere else. Judas wasn’t there either and we know why: he was mourning his own betrayal of Jesus into the hands of the authorities. Judas believed in the power of the authorities, or the power of money, or the power of revolution or something else he deemed more loveable than Jesus. (In my experience, this is the way it is with some disbelief. It’s not so much that we don’t believe; it’s that we deeply believe that something or someone else is much more of a “god” than Jesus.)

Thomas also disbelieved. But his disbelief had a more willful tint than Judas’ disbelief. Thomas told the other disciples, when he heard that Christ had appeared to them, “If I can’t touch the holes in his hands and jab my fist through the wound in his side, I will not believe that the apparition that you saw was really Jesus.”

The next thing you know the risen Christ reappears, telling Thomas, “Go ahead. Jab your hand in my side. Stop your unbelief and believe.”

How do we know that the one who is raised from the dead is Jesus? Jesus, God crucified, has nail prints in his hands, a gaping wound in his side.

John doesn’t say that Thomas took Jesus up on his offer. I like to think that he didn’t. Just having Jesus compassionately reach out to his disbelief, just hearing Jesus say, “You need proof? I’ll give you proof,” was all Thomas needed to exclaim, “My Lord! My God!”

The Resurrection is a sign that Jesus is determined to give back the whole world to God, including you. He will stoop at nothing, even a cross, even allowing you to make a crude poke in his side, to get to you. So, if you’re having trouble believing in Jesus as the Son of God, don’t worry. It will come. He isn’t done with you or with the world yet. The King is determined to have sway over your life. The divine Lover will stoop to anything to get what he wants. Keep looking over your shoulder. He wants you.

William H. Willimon

P.S. Our Conference Lay Ministry Team has coordinated daily devotionals written by lay people from across the Conference to help us prepare for Annual Conference 2011. The devotions are on our Conference website as part of the Lay Ministry Blog. They will run from today, April 25, thru June 8. Go to to see the devotionals each day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

God's Peculiar Love

Over the next few weeks, I’m reflecting upon Jesus as God’s salvation. These meditations are selected from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010). Lent is the season of the cross. The cross rearranges our definitions of God – God defined not as almighty power but rather as suffering love.

The night before his death on a cross, Jesus cries out in Gethsemane, in prayer, “I don’t want to die,” he, who was one with the Father, shows the peculiar nature of God’s love: God’s love is not sentimental or sweet; it is costly love that is free to love completely, even unto death. Jesus in Gethsemane also embodies God’s freedom: God is free to walk away from the horrors of humanity or to love even down to the dregs of suffering and death. In love, God chooses to love all the way to the end.

Still, from what we know of Jesus, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything less than drinking the cup of suffering down to the bottom and being obedient to the Father for, in so doing Jesus is being true to his deepest self. The God whom Jesus reveals in Gethsemane is not being less-than-godly in this anguish in the Garden but is rather disclosing true divinity – suffering, sacrificial love, all the way to the end. And the God who loves humanity enough to die with and for humanity reveals what true humanity really is – obedient, trusting love. Here is a God who is truly known only in Gethsemane as the cross looms before him. So when, after the Garden, the next day as Jesus breathes his last and the soldier says, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”[i] we hear a statement that can only be made at the foot of the cross after a night like that – Jesus is fully human and fully God, God truly human, humanity truly caught up into the divine heart, Mount Calvary become Mount Zion, the veil in the temple ripped in two.

A wonder as great as his resurrection was his death on the cross. The miracles he performed were wonderful but they were temporary fixes, holding death at bay for just awhile. Jesus did more than love the world through an occasional good deed here and there – a random act of kindness to somebody’s mother-in-law, the restoration of sight to one blind man. On the cross he accomplished something cosmic, decisive, something that went right to the heart of the matter.

By the way. Where were Jesus’ disciples during all this sweat, tears, and anguish in the garden? Once again, true to form, they are sleeping like babes, thereby aggravating Jesus to no end. It isn’t like he asked them to die for him; all he asked was that they watch and stay half awake one hour for him while he prayed.[ii]

Repeatedly Jesus predicted his death but his disciples found it impossible to believe.[iii] Perhaps having seen so much good and so much God in Jesus, it was inconceivable to them that the world would eventually turn on the God who had so graciously, in Jesus, turned to us. Perhaps it was that they just couldn’t conceive of anyone named “God” acting in such a way as to get crucified.

So when soldiers come to arrest Jesus, his lead disciple, Peter, swings into action, takes matters in hand, draws a sword (Jesus had earlier expressly commanded his people not to take extra baggage while walking with him[iv]) and nicks a piece of an ear of the High Priest’s servants. Jesus rebukes Peter telling him to put away the sword, not because Peter is such a lousy swordsman but because this isn’t at all the way God’s reign comes.

“Do you think,” Jesus asks, “that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?”[v]

But that would be the way of Caesar, not Jesus. Rome promised their allies and subject peoples peace, security, good highways and the best legal system in the world. But at a price: high taxes, an oppressive bureaucracy, a far flung military, a few worship services to honor the Emperor, and much crucifixion of Jews.

Jesus went to the cross between vacillating but dangerous Pilate and the colluding religious authorities. Rome had an economic and military stranglehold upon the whole known world; Jesus commanded his followers never to take up the sword. Jesus’ sovereignty was different from Rome,[vi] as is dramatized by the Romans mockery of Jesus just before crucifying him, putting a royal robe upon him and shouting, “Hail king!”[vii] Rome solidified power with the whip, nails, and a cross; Jesus accomplished what he wanted to do through nonviolent, suffering love.

To the mob crying, “Crucify him!” Pilate said, “Behold the man,” not knowing his double entendre. Pilate is no real man in his dithering appeasement of the crowd. This bedraggled, whipped rabbi before whom Pilate smirks is the real man, the model for true humanity. Yet Pilate is not alone in infamy. Pilate tells the chief priests that he is inclined to release Jesus, for this little rabbi is no real threat to the Empire.

And the reply of the religious authorities? “If you let Jesus go, you are not really a true friend of Caesar,”[viii] they say, implying that they are Caesar’s friends. They seal their apostasy with the astounding claim, “We have no king but Caesar.” They thus forsake the teaching of the whole Old Testament. How many times did the God of Israel need to say, “I am the one, the only Lord. All the world is mine. I am King”? The cross is a sad reminder to religious leaders of any age about the cost of subservience to the government and the predominate order, the substitution of Jesus’ way for Caesar’s.

In Gethsemane and on Calvary’s hill, Jesus redefined the sovereignty of God. The one we expected to be the royal Victor became the tortured Victim. The one who looked like the failed Victim became the divine victory. As Paul said, Christ “humbled himself…. Therefore God has highly exalted him….that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”[ix] The King who reigns from a cross redefines power for the Caesars of all time, be they democratically elected or not. Early Christian preachers, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John told the story of Jesus in such a way that subverts the stories of Augustus, Louis XIV, Queen Victoria, and all the imitators of Caesar closer to home. Divine sovereignty redefined on a cross.

William H. Willimon


[i] Son of God! Mark 15:39.
[ii] while he prayed. Mark 14:32 ff.
[iii] impossible to believe. Matthew 20:18.
[iv] walking with him Luke 10:1 ff.
[v] legions of angels?” Matthew 26:53-54.
[vi] different from Rome. John 18:13-40.
[vii] “Hail king!” John 19.
[viii] friend of Caesar,” John 19:12.
[ix] Christ is Lord.” Philippians 2.

P.S. Our North Alabama Annual Conference will meet June 2-4, 2011, at Asbury UMC in Madison. We are asking all our churches and individuals to be in prayer for this time of Christian Conferencing. We have a prayer sign up on our Conference website –

Also, beginning the last week of this month, our Lay Ministry Team will provide daily devotionals leading up to Annual Conference. These will be posted on our Conference website beginning April 25.

Monday, April 11, 2011

God On A Cross

Over the next few weeks, I’m reflecting upon Jesus as God’s salvation. These meditations are selected from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010). Lent is the season of the cross. The cross rearranges our definitions of God – God defined not as almighty power but rather as suffering love.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, sharing a meal with them. Jesus called the Passover bread his “body,” and urged his disciples to feed on him for the remission of their sins. He passed around the cup of wine, telling them that the wine was now the sacrificial blood poured out like the blood was dashed upon the altar in the temple.[i] Whereas the temple was where Israel celebrated the Old Covenant, the “Old Testament” between God and Israel;

  • now this cup, this bread was sign of the New Covenant, the “New Testament” God was ratifying with the whole world.
  • now, in Jesus, people didn’t need to perform an ancient ritual act, blood sacrifice or engagement in some certified spiritual practice as doled out by the priestly experts at the temple.
  • now the necessary ladder from heaven to earth and back again, the movable Tent of Meeting, the great high altar on Mount Zion was among us as Jesus.
  • now the world need not come to the temple. God’s “temple” had, in vagabond lover Jesus Christ, come out to the whole world.
  • now the appointed means to enable humanity to get to God and God to get to humanity was provided by God – God’s own Son, Jesus. The work that Jesus did on the cross was redemptive, bringing-us-close-to-God work, which he did for all time, for all people.

All that being said, it’s still a shock to see God on a cross. It’s not at all what we expected. Can the problems between us and God be so deep that they can only be set right by God submitting to such human violence? Once again we see that we cannot affirm “God is love” without risk of grave misunderstanding, anymore than we can say, “Jesus is both God and Human” without nuance of what we mean by human and divine. The cross signifies that deep paradox is built into any accurate picture of Jesus because we don’t expect God to go to such lengths to get to us.

The gospels preach this. For instance, the first thirteen chapters of Mark’s gospel show Jesus the powerful Magician, the all-knowing seer, the divine one who casts out demons and commands the wind and wave, “Be still!” Jesus comes across as a human being but with remarkable divine powers. When Jesus heals a paralytic, the religious leaders ask, “Who is this speaking blasphemy? Who is powerful enough to forgive sin except God alone?”[ii]

In chapter 13 the mood shifts and Jesus becomes the human, anguished one who is tormented by thoughts of his imminent arrest. In Mark 14, dining in darkness at the home of Simon the leper (apparently no healthy person would receive Jesus at this late hour), when an unnamed woman shows up and adoringly pours expensive sweet smelling oil on Jesus, his disciples (feigning concern for the less fortunate) protest, “she should have sold this oil and given the money to the poor.” Jesus tells them to show compassion for the poor anytime they want but tonight, “she has anointed my body for burial.”[iii]

The next night Jesus shares a last meal with his disciples.[iv] During the meal, Jesus tells them that when the going gets rough all of them will scatter. Peter self-righteously protests, “Though these eleven cowards desert you, you can count on me.”[v] Before dawn, when challenged by a little serving girl, Peter curses and three times denies even knowing Jesus.[vi] The night ends with Peter (nicknamed “The Rock,” by Jesus) weeping in the darkness like a baby – the first in a long line of Jesus’ best friends who were grave disappointments to their Master.

Jesus then enters the Garden of Gethsemane, sees the prospect of his looming execution, sweats like great drops of blood, and prays to be delivered.[vii] “Oh God, I don’t want to die!” Is this any way for a God to act? It’s as if, in these later chapters of Mark, Jesus the God-Human One is Jesus the All-too Human One wrestling with God. Remember that our story began in a garden, the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were tested and flunked the exam, disobeying and rebelling against who God created us to be.[viii] Now, in another garden, Jesus is confronted with a fork in the road. Jesus can be obedient to God’s way, at grave risk deliver God’s love letter to humanity or he can act like our primal progenitors and safely go his own way. He can stand up to his adversaries and suffer what they have in store for him, or he can cut and run.

Jesus’ anguish in the garden is a great mystery in which the gospels enable us to peer into the depths of divine love. Of Jesus it can be said, “Truly he is the Son of God,” and yet he is no robot unflinchingly plodding toward his death on a cross. He is truly flesh and blood. He does not play-act in Gethsemane; he wrestles with his destiny, crying in anguished dereliction. He is ready to play his part in the divine drama of redemption and he asks to be delivered from it. He is obedient to his Father’s loving but risky rescue operation for the world and anguished that such painful lengths must be traveled in order to reach the human race. Nobody takes Jesus’ life – in free obedience he gives it. In short, he is in his anguish, as the church believed him to be, truly God and truly human. And in his obedience, in his complete unity with the Father’s loving determination to get back the fallen, murderous human race, he is truly God.

William H. Willimon

[i] altar in the temple. Leviticus 17:11.
[ii] God alone.” Mark 5:21.
[iii] for burial. Mark 14:3-9.
[iv] with his disciples. Mark 14:17-31.
[v] you can count on me. Mark 14:26-31.
[vi] even knowing Jesus. Mark 14:66-72.
[vii] to be delivered from it. Mark 14:32-42.
[viii] us to be. Genesis 1:26-2:25.

P.S. Our North Alabama Annual Conference will meet June 2-4, 2011, at Asbury UMC in Madison. We are asking all our churches and individuals to be in prayer for this time of Christian Conferencing. We have a prayer sign up on our Conference website –

Monday, April 04, 2011

God Healing the Division Between Us and God

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reflecting upon Jesus as the means of our atonement with God. These meditations are selections from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010).

When Jesus finally led his disciples into Jerusalem (on the day the church now calls “Palm Sunday”), many of his followers expected him at last to stand up and act like a Messiah, become King, storm the Roman garrison and set up a grand new “House of David” government. To their surprise, he bypassed City Hall and attacked the temple. Why did Jesus not head for the palace, confront Pilate and do something really useful rather than make such a fuss over a place of worship?

Jesus grabbed a whip and kicking over their tables, spilling their precious coins across the floor, drove the money changers from the temple. When Jesus cleaned out the temple,[i] charging the money changers there with turning the Lord’s house into “a den of thieves,” this seems a severe, unwarranted reaction by Jesus. After all, the money changers were there as a public service, following scripture, helping people to buy the requisite animals for the temple’s sacrificial rituals. How did Jesus expect people to worship at the temple? It’s like expecting a modern preacher to give a sermon without a Powerpoint projector. How are we to be with God without an appropriate ritual vehicle to get to God? Why Jesus?

The story of Israel could be read as a record of our repeated attempts to get to God. The story begins in darkness as progenitor Jacob dreams of a ladder let down from heaven to earth with heavenly messengers taking God’s mail back and forth.[ii] In the Exodus much of the biblical account of the escape from Egyptian slavery is consumed with minute details about a portable tent (“the Tent of Meeting”) that Israel utilized in the desert in order to meet and to be met by God.[iii] Those stories find their culmination in the grand temple in Jerusalem, the center of the world, Mount Zion where God condescends to God’s people and heaven and earth traffic with one another. The temple took almost fifty years to build. Its complex of buildings occupied over thirty acres and was a wonder of the ancient world. Jews everywhere, when they prayed, turned toward the temple, place of divine-human meeting. When pilgrims trudged up toward Jerusalem for festivals, they weren’t just going up to the capital city; they were going to heaven.

Isaiah foretold a day when, not just Jews, but all the nations would stream into the temple singing, “Let’s go up to Jerusalem, to the temple where we can learn the ways of God and walk with God.”[iv] Everybody would gather to worship the true God at the temple, a “house of prayer for all people.” [v]

Jesus seems strangely, severely critical of the temple. When his disciples expressed awe at the temple’s grandeur, Jesus quipped that he could tear the whole thing down and rebuild it in three days (exactly the number of days Jesus’ body was in the tomb.)[vi] In driving the money changers from the temple, in disrupting the temple system, in healing people outside of the temple’s rituals was Jesus thumbing his nose at the temple hierarchy (notorious collaborators with the Romans)?

John’s gospel says that Jesus was setting himself up as the new “temple,” the new means of mediation between God and humanity. Jesus argued with a Samaritan woman at the well.[vii] When she said, “You Jews say we’ve got to go to Jerusalem to worship rightly and we Samaritans say it’s at Mount Gerizim,” Jesus responded that one day soon, “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The woman confessed confusion about what all that “spirit and truth” meant and the right location for worship, saying, “Oh well, when Messiah gets here, he’ll explain it all to us.”

Jesus said, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Somehow discussions of where best to worship are being shifted from Mount Zion to Jesus. About three decades after this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman the majestic temple lay in ruins. The patience of Emperor Titus ran out with these troublesome Jews. Rome had attempted to pacify the Jews by allowing them to have their temple; now the Romans decided that there was no way to keep Jews quiet without reducing their temple to ashes. Christians came to believe that the temple, the meeting place between God and humanity, was now a man from Nazareth.

Some people think of the cross of Christ as our way to get to be with God in heaven when we die. Surprisingly, the gospels portray the cross first as God’s way to get heaven to earth now. When Jesus breathed his last and died on the cross, Matthew says that the curtain in the temple – the veil that separated heaven from earth at the high altar, sinful people from righteous God -- was mysteriously ripped in two.[viii] Who slashed the curtain? It was as if in one last, dramatic, wrenching act of self-sacrifice, God ripped the veil of separation between earth and heaven. Now Israel need not gather on the Day of Atonement (the day of “at-one-ment” with God), stand before the temple, give over their sins to the priest who pulled back the curtain, entered the temple’s holiest place, and offered their sins to God. The curtain was ripped asunder. Now we could get to God because God had gotten to us. On the cross, Jesus had somehow done something decisive about the distance between us and God.

Will Willimon

[i] out the temple. Mark 11.
[ii] back and forth. Genesis 28:12.
[iii] met by God. Exodus 27:21; 33:7.
[iv] walk with God.” Isaiah 2:2-4.
[v] all people.” Matthew 21:13.
[vi] in the tomb.) Luke 18:33.
[vii] at the well. John 4.
[viii] ripped in two. Luke 23:35.