Tag Archives: William Willimon

This is a good Friday

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“I’ll do it when I’m good and ready.” “It’s just not the right time. I need more time.” But in matters of faith, we are never truly good or really ready. Filthy rag righteousness, we could never clean up the mess we’ve made on our own. The Apostle Paul tells the truth and shames us devils, writing to the Romans, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[1] Sinners never clean up real nice, which is why we need Christ’s push broom- cross.

There is waning interest in the kingdom of God and less and less time to pursue it as we spend much of days building our own. Likewise, we behave as if we can put God on a waiting list, as if God is comfortable to remain on the back burner, as if our getting right with God can be rendered in installments, as if we are on a payment plan. A little here, a little there, we attend four Sundays in a row and then our affection grows cold.

We talk of our relationship with God as if we have all the time in the world. We speak about life with Christ as if there is time to spare. We rob him of years that could have been given in service to his ministry but instead, are wasted playing church or worse still, playing God. William Willimon offers this confession for us: “God forgive us for selling out our great intellectual treasure—the gospel of God with us—for a mess of psychobabble and pragmatic, utilitarian, self- help triviality.”[2]

Because we have been told by popular culture that we are good people. Michael Horton writes in Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, “It is easy to become distracted from Christ as the only hope for sinners. Where everything is measured by our happiness rather than by God’s holiness, the sense of our being sinners becomes secondary, if not offensive. If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivations can become a better person, we need only a life coach, not a redeemer.”[3]

But, the words of the penitent thief change the conversation on conversion. Like Judas, the decoy disciple who fakes it until he can make a deal with the Pharisees, he is a pickpocket, a bandit, a robber. We don’t know his name and he was not long a Christian. A new member of the body of Christ, he wasn’t baptized, didn’t join a church, didn’t attend a new member’s class or a single worship service.  But he did what really mattered in the end. He saw a future after death and life beyond the grave. He was a late bloomer, but he bloomed, nonetheless.

“No cross, no crown,” the thief is a follower, not an admirer, a distinction made by Soren Kierkegaard. He says, “Admirers are only too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. They refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended by him.”[4] Thomas a Kempis said, “The cross… is unavoidable. It waits for you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go, you take yourself along. Turn where you will—above, below, without, or within—you’ll find the cross. … (But) if you willingly carry the cross, it will carry you.”[5] If we are to get to heaven, then this is the price of admission.

There is no way around the cross.

The thief only lived for Jesus for a few hours. Nor theological red tape, no right hand of fellowship, no business meeting, no Robert’s Rules of Order, no vote, still, Jesus extends the invitation, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43). The thief is Jesus’ personal guest. There is no waiting period.

If you don’t know Jesus in the pardoning of your sins, then this is a good Friday to be introduced.

End notes|

[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 10-11.  It is part of his foreword for the book.

[2] Romans 5.8

[3 Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 15-16.

[4] The Editors, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2003), 57.

[5] The Editors, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2003), 40.

Say it again

I have ordered nearly forty new books for the new year.  Half are on race and the other half focus on the spiritual life and Christian community.  Along with you, they are my conversation partners.  I feel that no one wants to talk about race as much as I do, at least not in the way that I do.  I want to talk us out of it.  I want to talk about race until it is discredited, waved off as a distraction from our true human being, until race is stereotyped as a lazy interpretation of people groups, a liar, not to be trusted with our fellowship.

And I want to say it again and again, year after year and in every ear.

William Willimon has mine tonight.  He is saying everything that I need to hear in his book Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism.  Head nodding, I am in agreement with him and in his Amen corner.  I turn another page because I need him to say more, to say something different and to repeat the truth again:

“Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations.  Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.”

We know this to be true but it bears repeating so I will say it again tonight and for the rest of my life.  Baptized with Jesus Christ, his gospel is raceless.

Race is a ‘different gospel’

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel– not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaim to you, let that one be accursed!  As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”

~ Galatians 1.6-9, NRSV

Paul writes to the churches of Galatia and to us to remind us of the freedom that we have in Jesus the Christ.  The churches in Galatia had been converted to this new faith and were walking in its liberating life and love.  Paul had removed the shackles of regulations only to return and find them restored.  And it happened rather quickly!

Why?  Because it was familiar and it was what they knew.  They knew the law but were not yet familiar with God’s grace, that is God’s unmerited favor not based on works or in our case, the social coloring of skin.

This response is similar to that of today’s Christians.  We have experienced an emancipatory conversion through our relationship with Jesus and now live in the Spirit, liberated from the laws of the flesh.  But, it does not take long before we, too, turn our ears to those familiar voices and experiences.  Afraid of the newness of life that Christ provided, we will arrest ourselves and detain ourselves.  We will sentence ourselves and walk back into the cages of the socially constructed identities of race and the legality of the social coloring of skin.  This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is a different gospel.

What is the gospel, the good new of Jesus the Christ for the 21st century?  It the same message that was given in the first century: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (First Timothy 1.15).  Those are the only persons that he came for and it is the only category that all of humanity fits into.  We post- modern Christians want to do as Christians have before us.  We want to make the gospel new and even popular.  Well, referring to humanity as sinners is not new and it certainly isn’t popular.

What do race and sin have to do with each other?  What sin does the belief in race produce?  Race is pride in appearance, the external salvation of the self and the belief in the supremacy of humanity– even above God.  Race says that our salvation is found in the social coloring of skin not the salvific work of Christ on the cross.

It is an old sin draped in new words.  But, the worst of its kind, the creature attempting to be like the Creator in ability and knowledge.  Race offers the same deal that the serpent in the Genesis narrative offered to Eve (Genesis 3.1-7).  And the Church’s response imitates that of Adam: silent acceptance and subordination to race.

Frankly, the American Church is but a tool, a part of the machinery of capitalism as it was for slavery and Naziism.  Today, the Church is commercialized, a brand that wants to sell a new product.  We want to have the “latest and the greatest,” the shiny new toy.  But, the message of Jesus Christ is more than two thousand years old and it has not changed.  We have changed but Jesus has not.  He is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13.8).

We have allowed race to translate the gospel instead of the gospel translating race to us.  Race tells us who Jesus is and not vice versa.  Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “By the very act of our modern theological attempts at translation, we have unconsciously distorted the gospel and transformed it into something it never claimed to be… (We have) transformed the gospel rather than ourselves” (22-23).

We can change the methodology but what it means to be Christian today is the same as it was when Jesus walked the earth: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).  The cost of discipleship remains unchanged: follow Jesus, deny yourself and die.

Race is a perversion of the gospel.  It says, “Follow socially colored white people.  Deny yourself in order to become like them (i.e. “act white”) and die to the true, authentic and new self that God has called and created you to be.  It is the good news of the flesh, the celebration of the social coloring of skin and that skin is ‘white’ (but not really).  This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ but different gospel and I join in Paul’s repetition, “As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”  Race is another gospel.