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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: Preaching and the Resurrection, Continued

April 13, 2010

If one considers the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus – the birth of the church from the once despondent and defeated disciples, the perseverance of the saints even unto today, last Sunday’s sermon that changed a life -- it is difficult to see why anyone would disbelieve it, except for two reasons:

1. The resurrection is an odd occurrence, outside the range of our usual experience, so that makes it difficult for our conceptual abilities. We tend to reject that which we lack the conceptual apparatus for understanding. Because we cannot conceive of resurrection we deny its possibility.

2. Perhaps more importantly, if Jesus is raised from the dead, if the resurrection is true, a fact that is real, then we must change. Resurrection carries with it a claim, a demand that we live in the light of this stunning new reality or else appear oddly out of step. Now we must acknowledge who sits upon the throne, who is in charge, how the story ends. Now we must either change, join in God’s revolution or else remain unchanged, in the grip of the old world and its rulers, sin and death.

Thus because we preachers must, at least on a yearly basis, preach resurrection, we keep being challenged to live and talk in the light of the resurrection. We keep being born again into a new reality. We are not permitted the old excuse for lethargy, “people don’t change.” Certainly, everything we know about people suggests that they usually don’t change. But sometimes they do. And that keeps us preachers nervous and sitting lightly on our cynicism. Change is rare, virtually impossible, were it not that Jesus has been raised from the dead. When a pastor keeps working with some suffering parishioner, even when there is no discernable change in that person’s life, when a pastor keeps preaching the truth even with no visible congregational response, that pastor is being a faithful witness to the resurrection (Luke 1:2). That preacher is continuing to be obedient to the charge of the angel at the tomb to go and tell something that has changed the fate of the world (Matt. 28:7), which the world cannot know if no one dares to tell.

Preacher Paul was not only the great missionary to the Gentiles but also living proof that the dead can be raised, thus accounting for his frequently self-referential testimonials of his encounter with Christ. In Paul’s encounter, the dead Jesus was not only seen as raised, but the Church Enemy Number One, Paul, was also raised. On Easter, Jesus was not just raised from the dead. He did not just return to us, he returned to us, to the very ones who had so forsaken and denied him. When he appeared first and most frequently to his own disciples (the ones who, when the soldiers came to arrest him had fled into the darkness) the risen Christ thereby demonstrated that it is of the nature of the true and living God to forgive. And not only to forgive but also to call, commission, and commandeer. “Go! Tell!”

Easter keeps differentiating the church from a respectable, gradually progressive, moral improvement society. Here, there are sudden lurches to the left and to the right, falling backwards and lunging forward, people breaking lose and getting out of control. Easter keeps reminding us pastors that the church is the result of something that God in Jesus Christ has done, not something we have done. When the world wants change, the world raises an army, arms itself to the teeth and marches forth with banners unfurled to storm the wilderness. When the God of cross and resurrection wants to change the world this God always does so nonviolently, through some voice crying in the wilderness, through preaching.

Easter is great grace to those well disciplined, hard working, conscientious preachers who are so often in danger of thinking that the Kingdom of God depends mostly on their well constructed and energetically delivered sermons. Easter is also a warning to cautious and too prudent preachers that they ought to expect to live on the edge, ought not to expect to be “kept” by the church. A resurrected Christ is pure movement, elusive, evasive, he goes ahead of us, will not be held by us. A true and living God seems to enjoy shocking and surprising those who think that they are tight with God. We therefore ought to press the boundaries of what is possible and what is impossible to say in the pulpit, ought to keep working the edges as if miracles were not miraculous at all but simply typical of a God who loves to raise the dead. We ought to preach in such a reckless, utterly-dependent-upon-God sort of way that, if God has not vindicated the peculiar way of Jesus by raising him from the dead, then our ministry is in vain. But, as Paul says, thank God, our faith in resurrection is not in vain because, by the grace of God, our preaching is not in vain.

Will Willimon

[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," April 12, 2010. North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]


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