Monday, March 28, 2011

People of the Cross

During these weeks of Lent, I’m reflecting upon Jesus as God’s salvation. These meditations are selected from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010). Lent is the Christian season of the cross in which we discover a very different definition of God than the one we expected, a God who reaches out to us in suffering, self-sacrificial love.

On the way to Jerusalem (and in a sense, Jesus was always on his way there, i.e. on the way to his death) James and John ask, “Rabbi, do for us whatever we ask.”[i]

“Ask,” said Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left when you come into your glory.” When you are crowned King, made Messiah, as we know you will surely be, let us sit on your Cabinet, sharing in your glory.

Their request must have discouraged Jesus. Here were those who had witnessed his servant leadership, who had shared in his trials, still thinking about power and glory.

“You don’t know what you are asking,” replied Jesus, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” He was of course talking about his imminent death.

“We can!” they answered. The folly of Jesus’ dearest friends is almost boundless.

Then Jesus responds, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.”
Surely he spoke with irony. In the end, when he was lifted up high on a cross his disciples were nowhere in sight. On his right and his left were two common criminals.

Hearing about the attempt at one-ups-manship by James and John, the other disciples are indignant. Jesus gives them a lesson in leadership, Jesus style, telling them that they were behaving no better than a bunch of pagans, which must have deeply stung these Jews.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant; whoever wants to be first must be slave of all,” he told them. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus died on a cross, not to appease the anger and blood lust of God the Father (as the church has sometimes implied) but rather because of the anger and blood lust that the Father’s love received from a humanity who wanted nothing so much as to be gods unto ourselves. The cross which the world erected to silence another uppity Jew became, in the hands of God, the means whereby God got to us.

Everything about Jesus is cruciform. The cross is not just an unfortunate event on a Friday afternoon at the garbage dump outside Jerusalem; it’s the way the world welcomed lover Jesus from day one. Herod tried to kill him when he was yet a wee one in swaddling.[ii] From his very first sermon at Nazareth the world was attempting to summon up the courage to render its final verdict upon Jesus’ loving reach, “Crucify him!”

Gethsemane and Calvary bring to a head just about anything I’ve told you thus far about Jesus. It was not just that Jesus was born in a stable, had compassion on many hurting people, told some unforgettable stories, and taught noble ideals. Rather the significant thing is that Jesus willingly accepted the destiny toward which his actions drove him, willingly enduring the world’s response to its salvation. Arrested as enemy of Caesar, tortured to death as a criminal, Jesus was more than just one more victim of government injustice. He is not just an example that sometimes good can come from bad. Rather, as Paul puts it, on the cross Jesus was Victor: Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross.”[iii] And he did it for Love: the cross is not what God demands of Jesus for our sin but rather what Jesus got for bringing the love of God so close to sinners like us. This is all validated by God’s raising this crucified victim from the dead, not dramatically rescuing Jesus’ failed messianic project, nor certifying that Jesus had at last paid the divine price for our sin, but rather showing forth to the world who God really is and how God gets what God wants.

What’s amazing is that the providence of God took this cross, this horrible sign of Roman cruelty and the world’s rejection and wove even that into God’s good purposes for humanity. Very early on, the church preached, “Jesus died for our sins.”[iv] That which the world saw as sign of Jesus’ miserable failure, of the government’s need to kick butt in order to keep law and order, of the fickleness of the crowd, or the sinister betrayal of his followers, Jesus’ people came to see as a sign of God finally doing something about the problem of us. “At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly,” said Paul.[v] “Jesus Christ, you crucified, but God raised from the dead,” preached Peter.[vi] Paul says that when he preached among the Corinthians, “I preached nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[vii] God’s love is infinitely persuasive, patient, and willing to suffer in order to love us. God acts just like Jesus.

And so must we. Jesus promised rewards, but not always the rewards we wanted. When, after the rich man turned away from discipleship and Peter exclaimed, “We’ve left everything and followed you!” Jesus replied that he would receive everything back ten times more – houses, family, friends -- and suffering too. Suffering too? That’s a “reward”?[viii]

As Jesus trudged up Calvary, exhausted from his brutal torture, a man in the crowd of onlookers, Simon of Cyrene, was enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross.[ix] Simon is beloved by many of us; in a sense many of us have been picked out of the crowd of curious onlookers and made cross bearers. Every Christian helps Jesus carry the cross for Jesus chooses not to carry the cross by himself. Jesus never promised his people perpetual good health, freedom from all aches and pains, or bypassing of death. Jesus got little of the “good life,” nor did he promise us that we, by following him, would do so. Rather, he assured us that he would never allow anything worse to happen to us than happened to him. He promised that the world would also nail us to some “cross,” if we followed him. As Martin Luther King said it, paraphrasing Jesus, “the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.” In our Jesus-induced times of pain, he gives even us innate cowards the courage to take up our cross and follow.

The writings of Paul show that from a very early date (probably as early as the first blow that was struck against the head of Jesus by the soldiers) the followers of Jesus began to make sense out of the senseless death of Jesus. There was complete agreement that, on the cross, God was taking the horrible act that we perpetrated and utilizing that to do something about the problems between us and God. Paul -- who put some strange limits on women speaking in church, or same-sex relations, or marriage -- had an unlimited, extravagant, sweeping view of Christ’s cruciform rescue operation for weak, ungodly, sinners:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us…we have been justified by his blood,…saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.[x]

Weak, sinful, ungodly people are the recipients of the determined love of God that is made manifest on the cross, work that we could not do for ourselves.

Will Willimon

[i] we ask. Mark 10:35-45.
[ii] in swaddling. Matthew 2.
[iii] on the cross.” Colossians 2:15.
[iv] our sins. 1 Corinthians 15:3.
[v] the ungodly. Romans 5:6.
[vi] preached Peter. Acts 2:36 ff.
[vii] him crucified. 1 Corinthians 1:23.
[viii] insert
[ix] cross of Jesus. Luke 23:26-32.
[x] saved by his life. Romans 5:6-10.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

There Once Was a World by Peter L. Steinke

Some years ago I co-authored a book, Resident Aliens, which announced the demise of the Christendom era. Since then, many have noted that the church today finds itself in a radically different situation than the past decades in America. What are the implications of this? My friend Peter Steinke wrote a meditation on our life today as journey and exile. As we enter the season of Lent, I thought you might find Peter’s thoughts helpful: -Will Willimon

There once was a world where the church functioned according to what some have called the "attractional" model…. People come to a place, consume the spiritual goods, and serve as patrons to "meet the budget." But a shift has happened. North American culture has taken new turns.

Christendom refers to a period of time when the Christian faith profoundly informed the culture. And, in turn, the culture carried the traditions, symbols, and rituals of the Christian faith. Another often-used term—post-Christian era—… In a "post-Christian" world, the church cannot expect favorable treatment or higher visibility.

One could say that a gathering storm—a confluence of factors—has assailed the church and its dominant perch on the societal ladder. None of this has to do with the church's internal functioning. The sea change is external or contextual. There once was a world that was eager to be hospitable to Christian churches and supported "blue laws," soccerless Sundays, eating fish rather than meat on Friday, public prayer in schools and at nodal events, deferring to clergy by way of discounts, weekly religion sections in urban newspapers, and greeting others with "Merry Christmas." Now, suddenly, with steep changes happening in our society, congregations have to ask themselves whether they are responding to a world that no longer exists.

The loss of members, influence, and a sense of mission—the church's misfortune of the moment—resembles the experience of Israel's exile. The lesson of the present dislocation is clear, if still not learned. The era of Christendom is gone. No longer is culture subsidizing and supporting churches.

Today's rapidly changing world is pressing the church to respond to a shift of paradigms—but not for the first time. In previous shifts, the church has both responded slowly and responded imaginatively. …Faced with a strange new world, the church is challenged to be true to its purpose and attuned to its context. I believe the paradigm shift of rapid change constitutes a rich opportunity for the church. God has set the door open to the future. But the new day is as perplexing as it is promising. …these dislocations could be part of God's new creation. It may be God working through the unknown that contributes to the destabilization of the world. God is no stranger to Eden's deportation, Babel's scattering, the exodus, the exile, and crucifixion. God can be surprising, mysterious, taking history into unexpected turns.

The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. …Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: "Give me a copy of the wonderful plans." Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation.

Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey …Transition time is life's curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.

The Bible is replete with stories of transition and exile. …Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness—alone, hungry numb—and the devil tempts him three times. The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons… Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Wesley Study Bible as a Ministry Resource

Bill Thrasher, our pastor at Sand Springs UMC, is a strong leader in Christian education of his flock. He noted how the Wesley Study Bible, which I had the honor of editing with Joel Green, had become a help to him in his work in Christian formation of the young. He wrote to me recently urging all our churches to use the Wesley Study Bible in their Confirmation Classes and work with their students.

I’ve also done a book that is keyed to the WSB, This We Believe (Abingdon) that is keyed to the WSB. - Will Willimon

Sometimes I wonder, who appreciates Wesleyan theology and doctrine more, those who grew up in the church or those of us who became part of the UMC much later in life? Of course, since I chose to become a United Methodist because of the doctrine, I think those like me are more appreciative. This anecdotal observation comes from watching, listening, conversations, and attending school with other local pastors and elders as well. Wesleyan theology is a great gift.

My journey began when I was twelve years old and my father, an evangelical bi-vocational preacher of another denomination, noticed that I lay upon my bed reading my Bible hours upon hours at a time. He bought me my first Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. In a way, since Thompson was an ordained Methodist elder and pastor, his Bible was the forerunner to the Wesleyan Study Bible. Then my father told me something very out of character for him. He said, “Son, don’t listen to what man says. Don’t even listen to what I say. Pray and study this Bible the way I showed you and the Holy Spirit will teach you the truth”. I applied this to my life. As a result, I preached and taught Wesleyan theology without even knowing it. The truth of the Scripture led me to Wesleyan beliefs and practice of theology.

With this in mind, recently in a quiet time with the Lord, I wondered how we could build stronger Wesleyans. Recalling how the Thompson Bible and God’s Holy Spirit led me into the United Methodist Church, I realized that if we could get our young people to use the Wesley Study Bible beginning at an early age, we would produce generations of stronger Wesleyan adults. The Wesley Study Bible ought to be the Bible of choice to give to all of the young people in our congregations.

It is our custom in our congregation to give a young person a Bible as part of their confirmation training. Why don’t we use the WSB during the confirmation classes and then give the student a WSB upon completing confirmation? How about presenting it to seniors when they graduate from High School? It is very Wesleyan to do, don’t you think?

Blessings to you and yours, and to our church,

William H. Thrasher, Ph.D.
Sand Springs UMC
Gordo, AL 35466

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Making Clergy

This month our Board of Ordained Ministry (Rick Owen, chair) moves into high gear in evaluating persons for ministry in our church. I am thrilled with the various improvements that our BOOM has made in the process of prayerfully evaluating, selecting, and authorizing new clergy. Our whole process of calling people to the ordained ministry has been overhauled with careful attention to the task of producing the leaders that our church needs to grow and to give United Methodism a bright future.

She walked off a good job that she dearly loved and, in her early forties, went back to school in an academic field in which she had no previous experience. When she told her husband that she was heading to seminary, he called her crazy and threatened, “This wasn’t part of my contract.” Her teenagers said they would never forgive her for announcing, “I think God wants me to be a United Methodist minister.”

She borrowed fifty thousand dollars to help pay for the education that the church requires, leapt a dozen hurdles including psychological testing and a financial investigation, and endured grueling interviews and papers on United Methodist doctrine, history, and polity for the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. Not content with her M.Div. degree and her past preparation, the Discipline requires two more years of probation while the Board evaluated her fitness for ministry.

And all of that has brought her tonight, to where she kneels before me in the Service of Ordination. I hold my crosier in one hand and give her a Bible with the other, ominously telling her, “take authority to preach the word.” I ask her to promise loyalty to the United Methodist Church, to defend our doctrine and, more specifically, submissively to go wherever a bishop like me sends a pastor like her. And then I lay hands on her head praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable her to do what she has so brashly promised.

Of all Episcopal duties, the making of new clergy is the most sacred -- and the most daunting. Ordination is counter to just about everything that Americans believe. A vow to subordinate personal ambition, marriage, family, a comfortable income, and even the choice of where to sleep at night to the mission of the Bride of Christ is mind boggling recklessness. The odds are something like one in four that she will make it no more than ten years as a pastor before she burns out, blacks out, or backs out.

And I stand before her, lay hands upon her head, order her to tell people the truth that most of them are assiduously avoiding, pray for the Holy Spirit to zap her, and proclaim that her ministry is God’s idea before it was hers. I am unworthy to be here, as I have been unworthy to nearly everywhere Jesus has put me.

Pray, church, that the Lord will continue to send us laborers for a bountiful harvest!

Will Willimon

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Ashes to Action: Give, Pray, Do

R.G. Lyons is leading some amazing work at our “Church Without Walls.” R.G. is one of the bright new leaders in our mission. In this message R.G. describes an initiative for Lent. - Will Willimon

In a few weeks, many churches across our conference will be observing Ash Wednesday as we come together in sorrow for our sins, our need to repent, and our complete dependence on God’s grace. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that our acts of repentance, sacrifice, and fasting are most authentic when we make common cause with the poor and outcast, when we use our acts of sacrifice to uplift those most in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” – Isaiah 58: 6-7

This year, Mission 2 Gather is offering churches the opportunity to live out Isaiah’s admonition with our Ashes to Action campaign. For two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, we share the stories of people whose lives have been changed through our mission congregations and advanced specials: Kids who have been neglected and abused but have found a place of safety and support, stories of lonely shut-ins who now have a community, and family members of prisoners who have a caring and loving support group. We are inviting our churches to become a part of their lives (and the lives of people like them) by giving, praying, and doing. Every day leading up to Ash Wednesday, participants in Ashes to Action will have opportunities to give to organizations in their own communities and throughout the conference that are ministering to the most needy of our society, to pray for a specific ministry, and to volunteer with our mission agencies to enter into relationship with people who are hurting. Then on Ash Wednesday, we are asking all churches to take up an offering to support the work of the eight Mission 2 Gather organizations.

This offering is very important because giving to Mission 2 Gather organization is essential to serving the people we see on a daily basis. But Ashes to Action is about more. It is about inviting the people in our churches to remember that repentance is not just between them and God; repentance is about entering into the lives of those who have been most sinned against – the poor, the outcast, the unclean.

R.G. Lyons

To join the Ashes to Action campaign, sign up at The calendar and devotional booklet can be downloaded from this website. Also, an informational video that can be used during announcements is available on the website and all churches are invited to use it in any way they think appropriate. For more information or questions, contact Deb Welsh at or R.G. Lyons at