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Welcome to the blog of Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School.  Here you will find articles, sermons, lectures and other offerings from Will Willimon.

The Donald Macleod/Short Hills Community Congregational Church Preaching Lectureship: Lecture I

Monday, October 27 “How Odd for God to Choose” Lecture 1: “The Wonderful Scandal of the God who Elects to Work through Preaching” Lecturer: Dr. William H. Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry, Duke Divinity School, Duke University –

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http://av.ptsem.edu/detailedplayer.aspx?PK=6b00d49d-e45e-e411-80b9-0050568c0018#sthash.mphB4Gzr.dpuf

Incarnation: The Truth About God

We declare to you what was from the beginning, that we have heard, what we’ve seen with their eyes, what we have looked at in touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we’ve seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we’ve seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the father  and with his son Jesus Christ.” (First John 1:1 – 3)

Martin Luther (in his Larger Catechism, 1529) said he felt sad for those who follow faiths other than Christianity.  Even though they might worship the one, true God, they had no way of knowing God’s attitude toward them. “They cannot be confident of his love and blessing,…” because they do not know God Incarnate. The Incarnation not only tells us who God is but also God’s intentions for us.

I asked a distinguished new church planter what virtue he most admired in a potential new church planter.

“A robust theology of the Incarnation,” he replied.  “Only someone who believes that God is relentlessly reaching out to save the world has the drive to birth a new church.”

God With Us is experienced as God For Us.  It’s a huge, complex thought to think that God became fully human and yet remained fully divine.  Philip Yancey recalls J. B. Phillips’ delightful story about the Incarnation:

A senior angel is showing a very young angel around the splendors of the universe. They view whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and then flit across the infinite distances of space until at last they enter one particular galaxy of 500 billion stars: As the two of them draw near the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”

He listened in stunned belief as the senior angel told him that this planet, small and insignificant and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet:

“Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince… went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?”

The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of these creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”

“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”

The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was beyond his comprehension.

That which is beyond our comprehension has made itself available to us in a form that is not beyond our experience.  God is with us not only to reveal God to us but to be God for us.  

I asked a pastor, who visits the state prison every single week to conduct Bible study for the inmates, why he felt called to prison ministry.  

“I’ve not been given a great deal of faith,” he admitted.  “Belief in Christ does not come naturally to me.  So I have to go where Jesus is.  I have to be sure that I stay close to Jesus.  I feel so much closer to our Lord, and find his presence so much more believable in prison than at church.”  

What a curious statement of faith – unless the Incarnation is true.

This is an excerpt from my book, Incarnation: Embrace of Heaven and Earth (Abingdon Press, 2013).  I offer it for your reflections during this season of the Incarnation, Advent.

For Us and Our Salvation

“Who for us…and…our salvation…became human,” is not just the heart of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed but is at the heart of our faith’s claims about Jesus.  This is the discovery that led some pious Jews to break with tradition and preach to the world their belief that there are now two names for the powers that rule in heaven, the Father and the Son who both reign in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Why did Almighty God take on our humble flesh? “For us…and…our salvation.”

John’s first letter says that, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4:8)

Contemporary critics have charged Christians with a sort of anthropocentric narcissism, “How arrogant,” they say, “that we humans should think that the Creator of the Universe would go to so much trouble for the likes of us.”

This is indeed the great scandal of the Incarnation – that a God of great magnitude – creator of “all things visible and invisible” (Nicean Creed) – for the sake of us humans entered into our space and time in Christ and fully embraces humanity, despite the cost.

Besides, to say that the Incarnation was, “For us…and…our salvation,” doesn’t mean that God’s love and salvific work is limited to us humans.  Paul says the whole creation is groaning as it awaits deliverance (Rom. 8:19), suggesting that the saving work of God in Incarnation is more than individual; it’s cosmic.  

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  Sometimes the church acts as if what Jesus said was, “For God so loved me and my church friends who resemble me…,” thus limiting the scope of salvation in Incarnation.

The claim that, in Christ, “God so loved the world,” (John 3:16) led early Christians to bound beyond the geographic confines of Judea charging throughout the world boldly making cosmic claims that seem all out of proportion to their small, beleaguered, disliked status in the empire.  In just a few years after the resurrection, these once disheartened disciples became apostles, witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) who busily made disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19).  His own experience of the Incarnation led Paul to tell the struggling little band at Corinth that even in their difficulties they must not forget that, “the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor. 3:22).  It’s a rather preposterous claim to make for the poor Corinthians – unless the Incarnation is true.

Marcus Borg thinks that if you think Jesus thought of himself as “one anointed by God to be the climactic figure in Israel’s history,” then “thinking that Jesus thought of himself in such grand terms raises serious questions about the mental health of Jesus.”   Borg declares, “I don’t think people like Jesus have an exalted perception of themselves.” 

Borg says we have two ways to think about Incarnation.  The first way is “supernatural theism” which Borg dismisses as “common in popular-level Christianity throughout the centuries.”  He claims that this view naïvely “sees God as a being ‘out there’ and not ‘here.’”  God is seen as an “interventionist” who, for about three years, inserted Jesus “as the unique incarnation of an absent interventionist God.”

The other view, which is Borg’s, is “panentheism or dialectial theism.”  “God is not ‘out  there’ but ‘right here’ as well as more than right here….  Within this view, Jesus as a Spirit person was open to the presence of God….  I see Jesus as the embodiment and incarnation of the God who is everywhere present.  But he is not a visitor from elsewhere, sent to the world by a god ‘out there.’  He is not different in kind from us but as completely human as we are.”   Is Borg an Arian or Docetist?  You make the call.

Borg generalizes the idea of Incarnation into a vague divine permeation of earthly things, detaching the presence of God from the specifics of Jesus.   As we noted earlier, rendering Incarnation into a vague sense of God’s presence in the world has long been a way to escape the potentially life-changing, challenging, demands of Jesus by rendering him spiritual and insubstantial.  The world was created by God, so the reasoning goes, and God loves us and the world enough to send the Son, therefore let us be content with ourselves as we are and the world as it is.  

No. Incarnation is an aspect of the Atonement, God’s setting right things between us and God.  Bethlehem and Golgotha are linked.  In Jesus Christ God said a divine, dramatic, loving “yes” to us; the God of the cross also said a resounding, decisive “no” to how we were living and to what we made of the world.   Christ loved us enough to become one with us as we are but Christ loved us enough not to leave us as we are.  As the creed proclaims, he became incarnate “for us and our salvation,” not simply to affirm our humanity or to condone our continued sin.

Borg’s pantheism is similar to Joan Osborne’s popular song that sings, “What if God was one of us?”  “What if God was on a bus?”  Incarnation stresses that God has indeed become like one of us, a full human being, but he came to us as Jesus, a very specific human being who lived, died, and rose in a specific way.  Furthermore, Jesus is more than “one of us,” he is at the same time the full, unique revelation of God, which none of us are or ever will be.   

N.T. Wright admits that incarnational thinking “entails a commitment of faith, love, trust, and obedience,” in the witness of Scripture.  Borg has more confidence in his own insights about Jesus than the testimonies of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  His Christology is his reflection upon his own spiritual experience rather than upon the specifics of Christ because he sees the Gospels as products of human spirituality.   Wright countered Borg by boldly stating that when he (Wright) talks about Jesus, “I do not think ….I am merely talking about the state of my own devotion…. I am talking….about Jesus and God.”

While we cannot ascend to God through our human thoughts and experiences, it is true that God descends to us and when that happens, we indeed experience of the truth of Incarnation.  We bump against a God who is not merely a projection of our spiritual yearnings.  Though experience of millions confirms the gospels’ testimony of God With Us, the gospels are more than testimony to inner human experience.  In the rhythm of the church’s worship, we experience Incarnation.  The pattern of prayer and praise that we follow on Sunday morning is a very human activity that takes place in earthly space and time.  We wash with water in baptism; we ingest wine and bread in the Eucharist.  In so doing we become vulnerable to the incursions of a God we did not concoct for ourselves.  We dare to believe that God uses these thoroughly human activities – bathing, eating, and drinking – to come very close to us in all of God’s holy otherness.

We experience, maybe not every Sunday, but often enough to keep us at worship, the presence of God moving among us in our earthly worship.  There we are, just going through the rituals, only to be surprised by the undeniable descent of the Holy Spirit.  We find ourselves “lost in wonder, love, and praise” (Charles Wesley) and we exclaim with our progenitor, Jacob, an incarnational thought: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16)

Standing at the baptismal font, offering a dear child to be baptized, we look up and there at the font are all the desperate, degenerate, despicable rogues, and knuckleheads whom our Lord has gone out and recruited for the kingdom of God.  We are making Eucharist, meeting Jesus in bread and wine only to see across from us at the Lord’s Table Judas, and worse.  One reason why we believe in the truth of Incarnation is not only because the Bible tells us so, but also because we’ve lived it in your church and mine.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, that we have heard, what we’ve seen with their eyes, what we have looked at in touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we’ve seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we’ve seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the father  and with his son Jesus Christ.” (First John 1:1 – 3)

This is an excerpt from my book, Incarnation: Embrace of Heaven and Earth (Abingdon Press, 2013).  I offer it for your reflections during this season of the Incarnation, Advent.

Thinking Faithfully About Christ

  The Incarnation bids us to keep our ideas about God as complex as the God who comes to us in the Incarnation as Jesus.  Quite early on the church realized that to get Christ wrong is to get God wrong.  It took us four centuries to find ideas commensurate with the reality of Incarnation. We tried simpler solutions but none of them worked:

Adoptionism: Jesus was a wonderfully God-intoxicated human being, anointed by the Holy Spirit in much the same way as the prophets of the Old Testament, only more so.  At his baptism, Adoptionists asserted, Jesus was “adopted” by the Father and became God the Father’s beloved Son, commissioned to preach the good news and to perform miracles in the name of the Father.  Jesus is almost like God, but not quite.

Docetism (from the Greek, dokein “to appear”)  in contrast to Adoptionism, said that Christ was fully divine but from time to time “appeared” to be human.  Docetism fails to acknowledge Christ’s full humanity; it is inconceivable that an omniscient and omnipotent God could suffer human pain on the cross. Christ lovingly appeared to humanity as if he were one of us but spiritually insightful believers know that he was actually God in human disguise.  Jesus was much like a human being, but not quite.

Sometimes the church has focused upon Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection and has neglected an emphasis upon his life and ministry. This is a docetic limitation of the truth of Incarnation. When we think about a real human being, we don’t just focus upon a vague image of what they look like, we also focus upon what they say and do. That Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary tells us something important about him; how he acted as an adult tells us even more.  Jesus didn’t just enunciate a few high-sounding principles; he became a model for us to follow, a teacher who led by example. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says Jesus in John’s gospel (14:6). In saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is surely speaking about the totality of his life and work here on this earth.  We are to walk the way he walked.  Neglect of Jesus’ life and work by exclusively focusing upon his birth, cross, and resurrection is Docetism in yet another guise.

Some popular contemporary preachers present sermons that extract kernel principles and noble ideas of contemporary relevance from the primitive husk of biblical narratives, as if the historical particularities of Jesus’ life and death don’t matter, that how Jesus actually lived in this world is detached from the alleged principles he taught.  Or the infamous “Jesus Seminar” makes a big deal of voting up or down what they judge to be the actual words of Jesus, as if we worship the words of Jesus.  Docetism lives!  

We say in the creed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  That is, Jesus engaged in the most universal and unavoidable of human conditions – pain.  Any docetic attempt to back off from Jesus’ suffering, attempting to redo Jesus into some sort of impervious robot who was born and then died and whose bodily and spiritual suffering are only illusions, has always been resisted by church.

Jesus gave his followers absolutely no permission ever to impose suffering upon others and at the same time promised that they would encounter suffering because of him.  “For to this you have been called, for Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:19-21)  A docetic, almost human Christ tends to be irrelevant to human suffering.  The scriptures say that Christ did not just come close to human suffering and mortality but dared to drink the cup of suffering all the way to the dregs.  Down through the ages, countless Christians have discovered the pastoral truth of the Incarnation: only a truly human, suffering Savior can help.

Against Docetists of every age, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Orthodox theology has specifically insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.”  

Arianism (from a fourth century cleric, Arius) was the main cause for convening the great Fourth Century ecumenical councils that affirmed the Incarnation. Arianism, professing great admiration for God the Father, said that God’s essence could not be shared, for such sharing would entail a division and diminution of God.  Arius reasoned that Christ, The Eternal Word of God, can’t be fully one with God, but must be a creature formed by the Father.  “Son of God” is therefore a sort of honorary title because of Christ’s superior character. Like the Adoptionists, Arius stressed Christ’s humanity, saying that though he was a human being, Christ was the highest and best of all God’s creatures, nearly God, but not quite.

While orthodox Christianity rejected Arianism, like Docetism, it never disappeared. Pick something about Jesus that you find appealing and emphasize that virtue as making Jesus very special.  Those well-meaning folk who acclaim Jesus as a man of high moral character, or a great ethical teacher, or a spiritual leader, or an example of God’s love and justice in service to the poor (though not really “God”) show the resilience of Arianism.  Arians tend to see Jesus as a teacher or “Spirit Person” (Marcus Borg); Jesus’ teaching is more important than Jesus himself. Jesus becomes a great example, among other human examples, of compassion and spiritual wisdom. The cross is reduced to an evil act done to Jesus rather than a human act that a redemptive God used to do something about us. The mysterious story of our redemption, the cross, is reduced to a sad tale of yet another good teacher whose teaching brought him to a bad conclusion.

Against all these attempts to make God With Us more accessible to our conventional thinking, in 451 the Council of Chalcedon worked out an elegantly philosophical defense of Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine.  The Nicean Creed, and the more fully developed Constantinopolitan Creed that came shortly after it, refused to attempt to encase Christ in any sensible, logical but (in regard to what we know of Christ) simplistic and heretical attempt to conceive of the meaning of Christ.  Much was at stake.  Nothing within us can save us; we can be rescued, redeemed, enlightened only by God.  In Christ, Chalcedon reasoned, God was rescuing and redeeming humanity, not simply working through a representative or highly placed emissary of God.  At the same time our Redeemer must become fully like us in order fully to redeem all of us.  

Chalcedon did not attempt precisely to define how Christ is fully human and fully divine, rather the council affirmed what the church had always known about Jesus Christ.  Christ  presents us with many tensions – the tension between our ways and God’s way, friction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this earth, contrasts between present life and eternal life.  Chalcedon blessed the tension that had been part of our encounter with Jesus from the first, letting the tension stand forever as a rebuke to any simplistic way of speaking about Christ.

Chesterton said that in our thought about the Incarnation, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”   I’m glad that, in thinking about Christ, the church in its wisdom did not falsely harmonize or overly simply this conjunctive truth but allowed to stand the “furious opposites” combined so wondrously in Christ.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation is opposed to all theories that surmise Jesus as a mere theophany, a transitory appearance by God in human form, such as we often meet among the world’s religions.  In contrast, Incarnation asserts that there is an inextricable, abiding union between Jesus as Son of God and Jesus as fully Son of Man.  So called “Progressive Christianity,” successor to liberal Christianity, seems prone to view Jesus as a fine revelation for his time, but one that can be surpassed in humanity’s ever progressing sense of God.  No, says Orthodox Christianity. Jesus is actually the full truth about God, God’s descent to us because we could not progress up toward God.

Because God so fully loved the world, we may love as well.  Christian faith is never exclusively, or even primarily about some future positive condition.  Because of Incarnation we’ve got to love the world now, in the spirit of Christ love the world we’ve got because the Incarnation proves that God has got the world. “Eternal life” (at least in John’s gospel) is not some misty future destination.  “Eternal life” is life lived now in light of the Word made flesh among us here and now.  It’s what life is like once Jesus, the Incarnate Word, shows up.

The Incarnation leads us to try to love the world, the whole world, half as much is God loves in Jesus Christ, following the same suffering, self-sacrificial way that Jesus loved.  Jesus went to the cross praying, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven,” and taught us to do the same, loving the world as God presently loves the world, loving in the expectation of the final triumph of God’s intentions for the world.

This is an excerpt from my book, Incarnation: Embrace of Heaven and Earth (Abingdon Press, 2013).  I offer it for your reflections during this season of the Incarnation, Advent.

Help is on the way

Steve Seamands reports that the St. Petersburg, Florida Times published a paper on Christmas Day that said, “In keeping with the Christmas spirit, only good news will appear on the front page.  For a full report on other happenings around the world, see page 3A.”  Sure enough, on the front page there was a picture of the Pope, a story of a family helping another family in need, and Santa Claus stretched out on a patio, soaking in Florida sun.  

Then the rest of the news: freedom fighters in Cuba in retreat, a stickup in Chicago, the perishing of a family of nine in a fire, civil war in the Congo, and assorted tragedies from around the globe.  

Seamands counters that the well-intentioned newspaper editor missed the point of Christmas: “Jesus, the Son of God, wasn’t born into a sentimental, good-news-only fantasy world.  He was born into this world, our world, which was evil and dangerous then just as it is now.”

It is scandal enough that God should become human, should be born of a woman in an out of the way place.  But that incarnational scandal is deepened, intensified in that God experiences death in the most shameful form as an executed criminal.  Thus Christians answered the question, “Who is God?” by pointing to the cross and stating what they had learned about God through Jesus: “God is love.”(1 John 4:8)

“Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9) is an astounding thing for someone to say about himself, especially if that person speaks and acts like Jesus.  In claiming that when we see him we see God, Jesus becomes the test of all of our statements about God.   We thought God was at last stirring to save us from our enemies, entering the capital city to defeat our Roman overlords.  Jesus enters the city bouncing in on the back of a donkey, welcomed not by the powers that be but rather by little children shouting, “Hosanna!”  In so doing, Jesus rearranges our ideas about God.  God is not the distant, obscure, uncaring being we once thought God to be; God is Jesus Christ who has come to us.  Incarnation.

This is an excerpt from my book, Incarnation: Embrace of Heaven and Earth (Abingdon Press, 2013).  I offer it for your reflections during this season of the Incarnation, Advent.

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