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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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Will Willimon: How Odd of God-- Talk about the gospel tends to produce conflict

December 22, 2015

 

My book, How Odd of God, is my attempt to show the relevance of Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election for today's preachers. Here is an excerpt from that book that gives you an indication of the encouragement and critique I hope to give contemporary preachers:

1. God is the primary agent of preaching. (see earlier post)

2. Our listeners have been graciously elected by God to be for God. (See earlier post)

3. Talk about the gospel tends to produce conflict.

We preachers like to think of ourselves as reconcilers and peacemakers. Many of our sermons seem designed to lessen the tension that is produced when a biblical text is dropped upon a defensive congregation. Even to stand and say, after an outrageous text has been read, "I have three things I want to say about today's text," is to risk defusing the explosive encounter between God's chosen people and God's chosen word.

Too bad for our self-image as peacemakers; we must preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. The good news of God's gracious election is bad news for our cherished idolatries and self-deceptive ideals. God is not a dim, distant, unknowable, alien force hiding in heaven.[ii] God is a Jew from Nazareth who was tortured to death by a consortium of government and religious leaders, rejected by those whom he came to save, and then went right back to them.

Pastoral care for the congregation through our preaching is not enough. Faithful proclamation can never be merely parochial because God isn't. Christian speech is public heralding rather than insider conversation, missional rather than congregational. Any congregation that is merely a warm-hearted group of caring friends who is not actively, daringly crossing cultural, racial, ideological, national boundaries (mission) is not faithful. Thus Newbigin speaks of the congregation as the "hermeneutic of the gospel," God's means of interpreting to the world the visible, public truth of what the world looks like when the Lamb rules. The congregation is God's self-presentation.[iii] Pastors cannot hunker down with the few faithful handed to us by hard working pastors of a previous generation, those sweet older saints who have enough free time to hang out at church; election is inducement to mission.

My theory is that there is much conflict and quarreling in many congregations because they talk only to themselves. Boredom (and an uneasy sense that church is meant to be more than this cozy club) fosters congregational contentiousness. The conflict that validates a church as Christ's is not that of squabbling, miffed church members but the conflict between Christ and the world.

A church that is not restlessly probing the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, not regularly surprised by the expansive reach of God's saving actions is a church trying to be the elect of God without living the truth of election. God elects the church for the purpose of embodying God's gracious intent beyond the bounds of the church. Others may be enemies of our country or adversaries of the American way of life, but God is not their enemy.

To criminals imprisoned in the Basel jail, Barth preached that the first Christian community was composed on Golgotha:

"They crucified him with the criminals." Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company? . . . Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested . . . , locked up and sentenced. . . . And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him. They are linked in a common bondage never again to be broken . . . a point of no return for them as for him. There remained only the shameful, pain stricken present and the future of their approaching death. . . .

They crucified him with the criminals. . . . This was the first Christian fellowship, ... To live by this promise is to be a Christian community. The two criminals were the first certain Christian community.[iv]
Criminals hanging out with Jesus are the new normal, the first church. God has called us together into a new family that cannot live except as a growing family.

Barth tells Christians that conflict comes with the territory; we cannot avoid the disturbance by "retreat into an island of inwardness."[v] Better that there be conflict in the congregation because it has been abruptly confronted with truth than for conflict to be in the preacher who is desperate to speak about Jesus without anyone discomforted. The "general religious self-consciousness" alleged by Schleiermacher's apologetics (beware, contemporary "spirituality"![vi]) fails to do justice to the contradictions (and conflict) between Christian and worldly thought. Christian preaching is "the aggressor."[vii]
[i] Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns), 2016.

[ii] "We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence. . . . But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ" (CD IV/1, 186).

[iii] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (London: SCM Press, 1953).

[iv] Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, 76-77.

[v] Ibid., 616.

[vi] The oddity of divine election means that preachers "cannot translate the truth and reality of the divine command into a necessary element of [humanity's] spiritual life" ( Ibid., 522).

[vii] Ibid., 521.

From Will's blog, A Peculiar Prophet


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