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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 retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: "Father, Forgive"

March 27, 2012

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

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's blog, North Alabama Conference, United Methodist Church.]

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