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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: The Effect of Easter on Preachers

April 05, 2010

It makes a world of difference whether or not a preacher has been encountered by the living, speaking, resurrected Christ. Thus, making doxology to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Paul asks that we present ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” by not being “conformed to this world” but by being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). All of this is resurrection talk, the sort of tensive situation of those who find their lives still in an old, dying world, yet also are conscious of a new world being born. Our lives are eschatologically stretched between the sneak preview of the new world being shown to us in the church and the old world where the principalities and powers are reluctant to give way. We throw out our frail voices into a dying world and they come back to us, in the lives of those in the congregation who have seen and heard the risen Christ and who now embody that new life in their lives.

As pastors, we see a world in the grip of the Enemy, the final Enemy, but we also, by the grace of God, get to see the Enemy losing His grip upon some of the territory He once thought was His. We see death and the cross being raised again in a thousand place but we also see Jesus. In the meantime, which is the only time the church has ever known, we live as those who know something about the fate of the world that the world does not yet know, something so grand and wonderful that we cannot keep silent. We must go and tell. We must preach.

Paul confesses his own internalization of the resurrection in which he places Easter at the center of his discipleship:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the community of his sufferings by becoming just like him in his death, so that I might be like him in his resurrection. No, I have not already obtained such a state, nor have I already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Sisters and brothers, I do not consider that I have already made this my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, the prize, the upward call of God in Jesus Christ. (Phil. 3:10-14, my translation)

Because of Easter, we preachers are not permitted despair. We keep forgetting what is behind and straining forward, eager to see what else a risen Christ can do through our preaching. There is certainly enough failure and disappointment in the preaching life to understand why depression, disillusionment, and despair could be considered the three curses of the preaching ministry. Despair is most understandable among some of our most conscientious and dedicated preachers. Any pastor who is not tempted by despair has probably given in to the world too soon, has become dishonest and deceitful about his or her homiletical failures, has become too easily pleased by and accommodated to present arrangements, is expecting too little of the preached word. Weekly confrontation with the gap between what God dares to say to us and what we are able to hear, leads many of our best and brightest to despondency. We grieve for the church and we despair that preaching really is as effective as God promises it to be. It seems sometimes as if our faith is in vain and our preaching is in vain. It seems as if God’s Word returns to God empty.

Yet, as Paul says, after the resurrection of Christ we do not grieve as those who have no hope. If our hope were in ourselves or our techniques for the skillful and effective proclamation of the gospel, we might well abandon hope. Our hope is in Christ, who for reasons known only fully to himself, has determined our spoken words to be a major means of his powerful presence in the world. Many Sundays I do not know why, and many Sundays, standing at the door of the church, bidding farewell to the worshippers, I see no evidence for Christ’s faith in us preachers. The congregation appears to have heard nothing and the world seems sadly the same.

Yet by the grace of God, I do so believe. I do believe that we have something to preach and I do believe that we preachers work not alone. In Jesus Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself. And Easter tells us that God’s purposes shall not be defeated, not by the Enemy, nor death, nor principalities and powers, or even by the church itself.

There is that sort of homiletical despair that leads some of our brothers and sisters to quit, to stop talking and to go into less demanding vocations. Yet there is also that despair, which I find more widespread, that leads some of us to slither into permanent cynicism about the efficacy of preaching.

“Preaching doesn’t change people,” becomes their mantra.

Some of this sense of the vanity of preaching is due to lack of faith that God can do any new thing with us. It is sad to see such accommodation to sin and death. How do we know that Easter is not true? Who told us that Jesus used bad judgment when he made us his witnesses to the resurrection even to the ends of the earth?

In order for the powers-that-be to have their way with us, to convince us that the rumor of resurrection is a lie, they must first convince us that death is “reality,” and that wisdom comes in uncomplaining adjustment to that reality – “This is it. This is all there is. Preaching is woefully archaic, one sided, authoritarian indoctrination that is bound to fail. Get used to it.”

The world, the flesh and the devil have a stake in our convincing ourselves that preaching doesn’t work – it’s one of the ways that the world protects itself from the reality of resurrection.

So, by the sheer grace of God and our faith in Easter, we still preach and that we continue to preach, last Sunday and the next, becomes a sort of proof of the truth of the resurrection.

Will Willimon

[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," April 5, 2010, North Alabama Conference, United Methodist Church.]


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