Thursday, March 29, 2012

Father, Forgive

Don’t you find it curious that the first word, the very first word that Jesus speaks in agony on the cross, is “Father, forgive”? Such blood, violence, injustice, crushed bone, and ripped sinew, the hands nailed to the wood. With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, and accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.” Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. We though the meant that as a metaphor. (I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve uttered a really good prayer for the souls of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.) On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies, the main foes of his good news, us.

How curious of Jesus to unite ignorance and forgiveness. I usually think of ignorance as the enemy of forgiveness. I say, “Forgiveness is fine—as long as the perpetrator first knows and then admits that what he did was wrong.” First, sorrowful, knowledgeable repentance, then secondary, gracious forgiveness. Right?

Yet here, from the cross, is preemptive forgiveness. We begin with forgiveness. Jesus’ first word is forgiveness. It’s as if, when God the Father began creating the world, the first word was not “Let there be light” but rather “Let there be forgiveness.” There will be no new world, no order out of chaos, no life from death, no new liaison between us and God without forgiveness first. Forgiveness is the first step, the bridge toward us that only God can build. The first word into our darkness is, “Father, forgive.”

“Father, forgive,” must always be the first word between us and God, because of our sin and because of God’s eternal quest to have us. Forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out to us in love, beat God away. Here on the cross, God the Father had two possibilities, the way I see it. One, God could abandon us. God could have said, “All right, that’s enough. I did everything possible to reach toward them, embrace them, save them, bring them toward myself, but when they stooped to killing my Son, that’s it.” God could have abandoned us at this moment. Or, two, God the Father could have abandoned God the Son, handed him over into our sinful hands. God could have left the Son to hang there as the hapless, helpless victim of our evil.

But these were never real options for God if God were to continue to be the God who is revealed to us in Scripture. God the Father cannot be separated from God the Son. God the Father stays with the Son and in the suffering and horror gets us in the bargain. God the Father stays with us and gets a crucified Son. The unity of the Trinity is maintained—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and in so doing, the Father and the Holy Spirit take on the suffering of the Son. The Father of course could not have abandoned the Son without abandoning who the Father really is. So the Father maintains the life of the Trinity by uniting with us through massive forgiveness, for there is no way for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to be with God the Son, the Incarnate Word, without being with us murderers of God.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Cross: The Measure of Love

Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I’m sharing some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

To tell the truth, Lord Jesus, we weren’t that close to your cross when the soldiers nailed you to the wood and hoisted you up over Golgotha. But from where we were standing, at a safe distance, it looked to us like your arms were extended just about as far as they could go. It made us very uncomfortable to see your arms stretched out so very wide.

Yet you tended to do that, even before you got your cross. Seeing you hanging there, arms in such unnatural embrace, we recalled how troublesome was your reach throughout your ministry, a real pain. First the dirty, common fisherfolk whom you called to abandon their families and follow you, then the tax collectors, the whores, the lepers, the stumbling blind and crawling lame, cruel Roman soldiers, bleeding women, clergy, even corpses, all responding to your touch, all caught within your grasp. A Savior can’t reach that far and not expect to be punished for it. And on Friday, God knows you paid dearly for your barrier-breaking, boundary-bursting reach.

You overreached.

How wide is your reach? See, even now, the nails through your hands cannot constrain you. You stoop, strain, bend, and grab, reaching down all the way to hell itself, determined to gather, to reap, to have all us sinners, dead or alive, no matter what the sin, all in your clutch, all in your embrace.

We gather here, at the foot of your cross as those who have been grabbed, got hold of, by a Lord whose reach knows no bounds. So this day, this fateful Friday, we warn those not yet reached—Hitler, Stalin, the woman sitting next to us today on the bus, the man who yesterday cut us off in traffic and grinned about it, the one who so wronged me that I hate him and wish he were not, the Palestinian who strapped the plastic explosive to herself and pulled the cord hoping to take some Jewish children with her—beware. Take it from us sinners: His reach is without bounds, His embrace wide, determined and irresistible. He will have you, if He has to die trying. Amen.

Will Willimon

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Cross: Our Way to God

I’m honored that Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I’m sharing some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. So what did God do? In an amazing act of condescension, on Good Friday, God climbed down to us, became one with us. The story of divine condescension begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. We thought, if there is to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down, down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the depths of hell. He who knew not sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it. God still stoops, in your life and mine, condescends.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” he asked his disciples, before his way up Golgotha. Our answer is an obvious, “No!” His cup is not only the cup of crucifixion and death, it is the bloody, bloody cup that one must drink if one is going to get mixed up in us. Any God who would wander into the human condition, any God who has this thirst to pursue us, had better not be too put off by pain, for that’s the way we tend to treat our saviors. Any God who tries to love us had better be ready to die for it.

Earlier in this very same gospel, it was said, “The Word, the eternal Logos of God, became flesh and moved in with us, and we beheld his glory” (AP). Now the Word, the Christ of God, sees where so reckless a move ends: on a cross. “I thirst, I yearn to feast with you,” he says, “and behold, if you dare, where it gets me.”

When I was giving some lectures at a seminary in Sweden some years ago, a seminarian asked, “Do you really think Jesus Christ is the only way for us to get to God?”

And I thoughtfully replied, “I’ll just say this, if you were born in South Carolina, and living in America, yes. There really is no way for somebody like me to get to God, other than a Savior who doesn’t mind a little blood and gore, a bit of suffering and grizzly shock and awe, in order to get to me. A nice, balanced Savior couldn’t do much for a guy like me. I need a fanatic like Jesus. For we have demonstrated that we are an awfully, fanatically cruel and bloody people when our security is threatened. We have this history of murdering our saviors. So I just can’t imagine any other way to God except Jesus.”

Will Willimon

Sounds of Sumatanga is April 21, and it’s a great day to connect with friends from United Methodist Churches all over the Conference. The day will be filled with music and food, activities for kids and more for just a $5 admission. I hope you’re planning to support Camp Sumatanga by attending. Details are available at .

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Cross and Ministry

Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon, edited by my friend Dr. Robert Ratcliff. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I thought I would share some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

I was having a difficult time in my previous congregation. A stormy board meeting was followed by a poorly received sermon, which was then succeeded by a none-too-pleasant public confrontation with the chair of the church trustees. What had I done to so badly manage the congregation? I sat in my office, going over the events of the past week, attempting to take appropriate responsibility for the administrative mess I was in. Could I have been more discreet? Why had I felt the need to bring things to a head now? Had I abused the pulpit in last Sunday’s sermon?

Then I returned to my preparation for next Sunday’s sermon. Year B of the Common Lectionary, Mark. Another story of Jesus’ teaching and healing. Another story of rejection. Then it hit me. Why was I so surprised that our congregation was full of conflict? Was the conflict a sign of my failure to skillfully manage congregational differences, or my skillful pastoral telling of the truth? I heard Mark ask, “What’s the problem? You think that you are a better preacher than Jesus?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

At that moment I recalled that just about 99 percent of Mark’s Gospel encompasses the preparation to crucify Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion, or the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross, it appears, is not optional equipment for a faithful ministry. The cross, the self-giving, emptying of God in the crucified Jesus—God’s great victory over sin and death through divine suffering—is the primary ethical trajectory of the New Testament.

Will Willimon