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.
This month Cascade publishes my second novel, I’m not from Here. It’s a parable, in Southern idiom, the Don Quixote-like adventures of Felix Goforth Luckie who, while attempting to be a salesman in a small town, Galilee, Georgia, discovers himself, the world, and God.
In this excerpt, Felix heads to church in Galilee.
Felix’s goal that Sunday morning was church, though he was gradually, with the help of The Prophet, extricating himself from the clutches of conventional religious practice. The reason for his venturing forth this morning was obedience to his mother’s injunction, “Go to church so you can get a good start.
As he walked he listened to his iPod: “But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you, . . . so the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all. Like a procession you walk together towards your god-self. You are the way and the way-farer.
He paused before crossing the last street and surveyed the church—rambling, squash-colored brick with a bell tower to the side, preserved meticulously from the early twenties. Switching off his iPod, he pondered the inscrutable wisdom that he had just heard. Could he be in a procession towards his god-self, both wayfarer and way.
The rusted black sign read, “GALILEE FIRST METHODIST CHURCH, SOUTH, The Revernd Doctor Dimsdale Witzkopf, DMin., 11:00 Sundays. youth Activities Cancelled All summer. No United Methodist Women’s Meetings until Farther Notice.”
Two aged Fords were parked beside the church, even though it was 10:40. Felix climbed the worn granite steps toward a door on the left side and optimistically pulled the handle. The door refused. He turned, faced the street and smiled, feeling stupid. He walked down the steps and over to the front of the church, half-hoping that someone might appear so he would not have to risk trying another locked door in vain. He gave thanks when the central door gave way. As he stepped blindly into a darkened entrance hall, an elderly woman’s high voice called, “You are new, I take it. Heard you rattling the side door. It’s always shut to protect from wetness.”
“Thank you,” he responded awkwardly. “I’m from Salisbury.” Her expression did not change.
“Yes, well, there you have it,” she declared as she shoved a folded piece of paper at him, opened the sanctuary door, and gestured him into the main body of the church. “Our large organ from Ohio is susceptible to wetness.
At fifteen minutes before the churching hour the room was empty except for a couple of shuffling members of the choir in the loft behind the pulpit.
“I’m not really going through Galilee,” Felix said in an attempt to prolong their conversation. “I’m a new resident, having just moved here to begin work in communications technology.”
“One would think, as hot and dry as this summer has been, wetness wouldn’t be a problem,” she continued. Then, shoving him into the empty sanctuary, the woman laughed, shaking her head in amusement. “No, you are just passing through.”
Plopped on an empty pew, he stared at a sprawl of gladioli on the altar table. A minute or two before eleven, Felix heard a church bell clang, as if someone were beating a bucket with a hammer. Then slamming doors and muffled voices. People shuffled in, murmuring as they took their habitual seats. The organ gurgled a prelude. An aged choir (four older women, two ancient men) chirped a tremulous call to worship, “Here We Are,” sung with resignation.
The pastor appeared from a side door next to the choir loft and then disappeared in a chair behind the pulpit. All that could be seen of him was his spouting hair. When an usher thrust the attendance pad at him, Felix dutifully signed with the blunt golf pencil that had been provided. He included his new address and checked “Desire a Visit,” because there was no category for newcomers. On the “Prayer Concerns” line, he wrote, “‘You are the way and the wayfarers’—The Prophet.” He smiled as he stretched to his left to pass the pad to his sole companion in the pew, an older woman who glared at him as she received the pad, jerking it.
The pastor seemed as little interested in the subject of his sermon as the passive congregation. His text was from one of the gospels, wherever Jesus says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The preacher announced, “This is what Christianity is all about. The whole point of Jesus, in case any of you were wondering.
Felix smiled. He saw himself as on a pilgrimage in search of the point of it all. He had ventured forth on an assignment that took him away from the narrow, negative, judgmental Christianity of Beulah Baptist, upwards into some new but as yet indistinct, graciously vague, neighborly spirituality. The preacher’s declaration that the point was “love your neighbor as yourself” sounded like The Prophet.
Witzkopf’s interest in his subject quickened. His voice rose as he pronounced that most people don’t notice that Jesus stressed “as yourself” as the key to Christianity. “So ‘love your neighbor’ isn’t the mush you people think it is.”
“Self-love is the basis for all true love,” claimed the preacher. “If you can’t love yourself, lots of luck loving anybody else. Schopenhauer said that love does not let itself be forced. So there. I say unto you that love, like faith, isn’t forced. No means no.” Witzkopf gave a giggle that was unreturned by the congregation.
Felix scarcely had time to turn over these arresting thoughts before the preacher sneered, “As my mentor, the great Schopenhauer, put so well, ‘If we were not all so excessively interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it.’ Get it?”
The preacher mentioned “the insidious myth of altruism,” and some other things, then carefully read, spitting the words, “Again, Schopenhauer: ‘Truth is no harlot who throws her arms round the neck of him who does not desire her. . . . She is so coy a beauty that even the man who sacrifices everything to her can still not be certain of her favors.’” A couple of older women toward the front turned toward one another and frowned.
Felix liked the quote. He saved “truth is no harlot” to the notepad on his Dragon, thinking, “That sums it all up.”
I’d be happy to send you an autographed copy of I’m Not from Here for Christmas giving. Send your name and address to me at email@example.com and I’ll sign a copy of I’m Not from Here, send it to you postage free, and charge you later.
I’m Not from Here: A Parable https://www.amazon.com/dp/1625641850/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awd_hagBwb3TGRFG9
This month Cascade publishes my second novel, I’m not from Here. It’s a parable, in Southern idiom, the Don Quixote-like adventures of Felix Goforth Luckie who, while attempting to be a salesman in a small town, Galilee, Georgia, discovers himself, the world, and God. Here is an excerpt from an early chapter of the book:
The neon sign over the front door read, “ROBER D IVE-IN.” Pulling into the graveled lot, as a cloud of gray, dry dust settled, Felix was relieved to see an ancient Chevrolet truck out back. Can’t beat a small-town eatery.
As he opened the restaurant’s front door a couple of large flies seized the opportunity and buzzed in before him. Said Felix, smiling. “I’ve just driven all the way from North Carolina without AC, so I’m fine. I really like things kept natural.”
“‘Not to decide is to decide,’” mumbled the man. “John Paul Sawt. You sweatin’ almost much as me. Sit up here to the counter. I won’t have to walk so far to hep you.”
“Sure,” said Felix cheerfully. “Just looking for home cooking. May I see a menu?”
“We got hot dogs, some meatloaf, and”—here he turned his ample torso slightly and with a minimum of motion opened the refrigerator behind him, peered in and pronounced—“a bunch of spaghetti from our last Eyetalion night . . . ‘Hell is other people.’”
Luckie played it safe with a couple of reliable American hot dogs.The cook waddled into the kitchen. Should I have risked the meatloaf? Felix mused.
When the cook emerged with two hot dogs in buns indistinguishable under reddish brown chili, swiping the sweat from his forehead with his free hand, he looked beyond Felix and warned, “Better watch your stuff. ‘No exit.’” The man wordlessly gestured with his rag toward the front parking lot.
Wheeling around, Felix saw two guys busily pulling clothes out of his car, hauling plunder toward their old pickup. Felix bolted off the stool. “Hey, hey! What are you doing?” One of the thieves was holding a stack of Felix’s shirts, along with some of his inspirational CDs. The other was bent over the car, digging through a pile of briefs and socks on the backseat. The one standing next to the car and receiving the goods stared dumbly at Felix. The other, after hearing Felix’s cry, carefully pulled his body out of the back of the car, hoisted up his jeans, turned and looked annoyed, as if he had been thoughtlessly interrupted. He laid the discs on the roof of the car with a sigh, reached into the front right pocket of his tight, faded jeans, and extracted a black-handled knife, flipped it open toward Felix, pointed the long, silver blade at him and asked, “Now what the hell it look like we doing?”
Felix froze but finally managed to find the words, “You can’t . . . you can’t just take my stuff. Guys, I need that.”
“Oh yeah? How come you think you need this shit more than us?”
The question gave Felix pause. “Maybe you have something there. I do believe that rights ought to be balanced with need.”
“Here’s my damn right, fool!” the thief responded, thrusting the knife up in the air in front of Felix as if he were going to shove it up his nose.
A huge black Chrysler with dark tinted windows appeared out of nowhere, skidding up behind Felix’s car in a roar of gravel, a wave of dust and blinking blue lights. The fat man behind the counter had called the law.
Seeing the cops, the thief with the knife turned and shoved the clothes he was holding back into the car, but he did so in such panic that he accidentally stabbed his left arm, crying out in pain and dropping the knife in the dust.
The cop screamed to the wounded thief, “Hit the ground, sucker! Now!” He fell to his knees, weeping, holding his bleeding arm. Felix also fell to the ground. “Not you! Him!” the cop said to Felix.
“I’ve done killed myself,” wept the thief.
The cop looked down at him and pronounced, “Damn. Guess we’ll have to take you to ‘mergency room. And on a Satiday. You ain’t dead. That patrol car there is brand new. Put some of them old clothes on the backseat so you won’t bleed on county property. If you do, by God, you will pay for a new backseat!” The thief struggled to his feet, sniveling, whimpering, pressing the wound on his arm.
“Them seats is real leather,” said the cop proudly.
“But . . . but I didn’t call the police,” Felix protested. “Officer, can’t this be settled in another way? I don’t want these guys charged. I don’t want retribution.”
The cop slammed the back door on the laments of the bleeding, weeping thieves, wheeled around, and grabbed Felix by his sweat-drenched shirt. “Where you from?”
“Salisbury,” replied Felix weakly. “North Carolina.”
“Well then maybe that explains why you are stupid,” said the cop. “We got laws in this town. Don’t tell me how to do my damn job. You hea’ me?”
“But I don’t want these guys’ lives ruined just because they made a mistake,” Felix protested. “What is the long-term good of punishment?”
“Shut up!” the cop commanded. “I come out here and put my ass on the line. Give a hundred and fifty percent. Here we are trying to do our job and some stupid” (he spit out the words exaggeratedly for rhetorical effect) “smartass from Sawlsberry damn, North damn Carolina thinks he knows more than accredited first responders. Well, in Georgia, stealing, with a knife too, is a helluvalot more than a ‘mistake.’ The American Way is alive in Galilee. Now you just git back on your way and mind your own damn business and we’ll mind ours, got that?”
“I hope you’re happy for destroying a young man’s life!” wailed one of the weeping thieves from the backseat of the patrol car. “The NRA says we could have had a gun. All we had was a knife! Oh Gaaawdd!”
“Shut up!” the fat cop ordered.
“I so wish we had another way . . .” pled Felix.
“Don’t blaspheme the NRA!”
I’d be happy to send you an autographed copy of I’m Not from Here for Christmas giving. Send your name and address to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll sign a copy of I’m Not from Here and charge you later.
I’m Not from Here: A Parable https://www.amazon.com/dp/1625641850/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awd_hagBwb3TGRFG9
Speaking to his students at Liberty University in Lynchburg last week, President Jerry Falwell, Jr. said that, “It just blows my mind that the president of the United States” wants “more gun control.” Liberty students applauded when Falwell said that the shooting at San Bernadino wouldn’t have happened if any of the victims had “what I have in my back pocket right now.” More applause. “Is it legal to pull it out? I don’t know.” (I think it is.) Huge ovation.
“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in” (more loud, student applause) “and killed them.” The President then pleaded with all the students to go get a gun. Liberty, he reminded the as yet inadequately armed students, has a free course in how to shoot. President Falwell now packs a .25 pistol. He’s looking for a holster so he can move his pistol from his back pocket and pull it out anytime he needs it in his work as President of Liberty.
Sure, there will be whining nannies who will scold Falwell for being a racist, Xenophobic, fear monger. The Governor of Virginia, a gun totter himself, immediately expressed outrage, chiding Falwell for the harm that may result from his “reckless words.”
I write, not as a politician (unlike Falwell, I don’t know any) but as a preacher. Baptist Falwell’s remarks on guns are no more dumb than those of his buddy (allegedly Presbyterian) Trump. I admit that my negative reaction to Falwell’s remarks is due to my being a Methodist preacher. Because I preach the gospel with Jesus, I’ve got to stand up and make offensive comments to people on a regular basis. So I give thanks to my Lord and Savior that so few in my congregation pack heat. Occasionally, at the end of my sermons, they’ve tossed hymnals at me, hissed and booed. One smacked with a Bible a couple of weeks ago after my sermon from Jeremiah. They don’t need any more weapons to attack me for my preaching.
As Bishop in Alabama, I was keenly aware that Alabama is notoriously lax on concealed weapons. Fear of concealed weapons is my excuse for my wishy washy sermons while I was there. I carefully weighed my words in many a Sunday sermon knowing that the congregation had the capacity to take me out during the Benediction.
When I’m a visiting preacher I breathe a sigh of relief when I enter a church that has one of those “Gun Free Zone” signs out front. Jesus routinely hands me some tough texts to preach, so tough that I always ask my clergy host to have everyone check their guns at the door during the hymn before my sermon. I’ve refused to preach to some congregations in South Carolina without a church-wide pat down. (Those of you who are not Christians may not know that First Church Nazareth, after Jesus’ very first sermon, responded to Jesus’ preaching by trying to toss him off a cliff! Luke 4, you can look it up. Imagine what they might have done to Jesus at fully armed Liberty U.)
Speaking of Jesus, I noted that President Falwell never mentions Jesus in his plea for pistol-packing students; a rare moment of homiletical good judgment by Falwell. I know that some of you think it odd that a Baptist would fail to mention Jesus in a sermon. But trust me. I’ve worked with Jesus for five decades. Jesus just doesn’t do well in these settings. Jesus said few words that bolster Falwell’s advocacy of a gun-in-every-hip-pocket. Actually, Falwell knows that Jesus said nothing that gives license to his followers ever to, in the President’s pregnant phrase, “pull it out.”
Maybe President Falwell knows more than Jesus about these matters, and maybe Jesus was just plain wrong in what he said about enemies, turning cheeks, etc. I would be the last to say that to Our Lord.
And if President Falwell and his frosh-with-firearms take offense at this sermon, cocking their guns as they collectively mutter, “Go ahead unarmed Methodist preacher, make my day,” I’ve got nothing to pull out except a conviction that Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, really is the way, the truth, and the life. A pistol packing college president pandering to the worst of student sentiments is not.
Some years ago a reporter, doing a piece on the faith of George W. Bush, called and asked if I thought Bush was a Methodist. I said I had heard rumors, but no proof. Bush appeared to be blissfully ignorant of the United Methodist Social Principles, judging from his domestic and foreign policies.
Then the reporter repeated some of the President’s statements about religion and I was forced to glumly admit, “Well, it seems he has a woefully limited knowledge of the Bible, a faith lathered by a great deal of sentimentality, and has been repeatedly converted out of some of his bad habits — maybe ‘W’ is a Methodist.”
Next thing I know, Dick Cheney is alleged to be a Methodist. What fresh outrage was this against my beloved church?
When a noted Christian Princeton Seminary ethicist charged Cheney with “gross immorality” because of his enthusiasm for torture I defended him. “Moral/immoral, evil/good, who can say? It’s mainly a matter of his personal feelings. Dick’s a Methodist, after all.”
This is to explain my elation in receiving the surprising news that Donald Trump is a Presbyterian.
Though I love the idea, I’m having difficulty getting my mind around the thought that The Donald really is a Presby. Maybe that’s just an indication of my own limited Methodist stereotypes of Reformed Christians.
First there was the jolt that Trump was featured at this summer’s Family Leadership Summit in Iowa. I was incredulous; I’m old enough to remember when Presbyterians had qualms about divorce, adultery, remarriage after divorce and a number of areas where The Donald appears not to have received the memo from Jesus.
He told the Family Leadership folks, “People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian).” I’ll say.
I was further discombobulated to learn that Presbyterian Trump boasted that he’s never asked God for forgiveness. What? Where I come from Presbyterians always began Sunday worship with groveling prayers of corporate confession, gleefully admitting all sorts of flattering iniquities, wallowing in their trumped up sin, begging for divine forgiveness. That was when Presbyterians took the phrase “You’re fired” as a threat to their eternal destiny.
Explaining why he doesn’t bother God with unctuous requests for forgiveness, Trump explains, “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” That sounds more Vaguely Uninformed Methodist than Faithfully PCUSA, but who am I to judge?
“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.” That Donald gets so much out of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper makes all the more sad that he doesn’t make it to his beloved New York Presbyterian congregation very often. He’s at best a Christmas and Easter attender — more evidence that Trump really is a Presbyterian.
On the other hand, Donald has been cozy with Christian prosperity teacher and televangelist Paula White, which doesn’t sound very Presbyterian to me. I thought Calvinists were all about hard work and earning your keep, not about asking God to bless you with stuff. Donald has had hands laid on him by televangelist and prosperity teacher Kenneth Copeland and wife Gloria Copeland, Jentezen Franklin, TBN founder Jan Crouch, Clarence McClendon, Messianic Jewish Rabbi Kirt Schneider, and a bunch of Pentecostal preachers who implored our Lord to make Donald the presidential GOP nominee and President of the US. I daresay that Presbyterians have been grossly underrepresented in these ranks. It’s big of them to overlook Donald’s steadfast Presbyterian piety and welcome him so warmly. I guess Donald’s checkbook trumps his lack of evangelical fervor, to coin a phrase.
Knowing his Presbyterianism puts Donald’s periodic anti-immigration, racist, anti-Muslim statements in perspective. It’s not that he’s racist or Xenophobic by nature; it’s just that, as a faithful Presbyterian (on Christmas and Easter) Donald hasn’t had much first-hand experience of inclusive, multiethnic worship. Hey, fellow Methodists, cut him some slack.
Lots of Presbyterians have been President: Grover Cleveland, Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Harrison spring immediately to mind. I don’t think they went to church that often, either. Before you dismiss The Donald, thinking that we are not ready to elect a Presbyterian, think again. Stranger things have happened.
So I say, thanks, Donald, for considerably expanding my limited notions about Presbyterians. But thanks most of all, dear Donald, for NOT being a Methodist!
I’m a thoroughly institutionalized, liberal, mainline Protestant leader – United Methodist. Be warned – I’m a prejudiced observer of American religious life and the world’s judgment upon my church.
While the reasons for church decline are many, a major reason is: too many churches have not taken care of business.
Over the past few decades a score of sociologists of religion like Wade Clark Roof, Penny Marler, and Donald Miller have noted that “mainline” (now sidelined), “liberal” (or, as it now prefers to be called, “progressive”) churches decline because they neglect the intellectual purposes of the Christian faith. Churches are in the business of meaning-making and meaning-bestowing. As Jack Carroll put it in his church book, As One with Authority, congregations help people “reflect on and interpret their lives in light of God’s purpose in Jesus Christ.” That’s the one thing churches do that’s not done by any other institution.
Too many congregations in my denomination act as if we were in a 1950’s culture that’s still at least vestigially Christian; the culture serves as a prop for the church. Being Christian is synonymous with being a thoughtful, caring, sensitive American, only nicer. People become Christian by drinking the water, breathing the air, and being lucky enough to be born in America.
Not much thinking required to make sense from a peculiarly Christian point of view when everybody is already Christian, sort of.
So, having forsaken the task of meaning-making, many liberal, mainline churches attempt to justify themselves by flailing around, searching for something socially acceptable to do with themselves. They form therapy groups, work with a few homeless, dispense advice to Congress, or urge people to get out and vote.
A church I know just spent eight sermons on sex. Alas, people who want to hear a Methodist preacher talk sex are few.
Sometime ago media observer Mark Silk noted that newspapers run only ten stories about the church, tropes that are repeated again and again. A favorite is “Suburban Church Helps the Homeless,” another is, “Church Makes Backpacks for Needy Kids.”
It’s as if these news stories say, “We all agree that the church is out of date and irrelevant but, Surprise! Here’s a church that is actually doing something useful!”
The Pew data suggest that for many Americans the line between church and Rotary has become thin. (At least Rotary meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch.)
My late friend, novelist Reynolds Price, explained that he left church in the Sixties not only because it was racially segregated but also because it had forgotten what people need most.
“I’d go to church,” Reynolds said, “and they would ask me to coach kids’ basketball, help in the church kitchen, or attend a fellowship supper. Church is supposed to be where God lives. If a church doesn’t make the outrageous assertion that God is a Jew from Nazareth who rose from the dead and makes our lives much more difficult and demanding, it’s intellectually uninteresting.”
As a former church member said recently, “At my church we get advice from the pulpit — how to have a happier marriage, how to have a purpose-driven life, how to vote. Sometimes it’s good advice, but it’s no different than I would have gotten from my daily Huffington Post.” (ouch) “Why bother with all the church baggage when there’s nothing said that fundamentally challenges who I am and where I’m headed?”
There’s ample evidence that Americans need help thinking truthfully about our lives. At its best the church helps us think sub specie aeternitatis (Spinoza), under the guise of eternity, looking through the lens of God. That’s the most useful thing we can do for this society, though the church’s value is not merely in its social utility. Church is where we go to talk about sin and death and God, and dare consider the possibility that more is going on in us and the world than we can adequately comprehend with our socially acceptable, governmentally subsidized modes of explanation.
For decades I was Dean of Duke University Chapel. In order to prepare for my annual graduation sermon I gathered a focus group of graduating students, asking them, “What are some hot topics for your generation?” They half-heartedly suggested a list.
Then one said, “Graduation weekend, we are bound to get lots of advice, ’cause that’s what old guys like to force on people like us. We’ll be hammered by platitudes from psychology, economics, and politics.
“Talk about God. That’s not only what you are most qualified to do but also what scares us shitless. I’m not sure I believe that God exists, but it’s weird that you think he does. I hope you’ll have enough guts to try to change the conversation.”
I hope that guy, who graduated years ago, has found a church that knows how to stick to the main business of the church. If not, I’m sure he’s part of a growing number of those who look at the lives of many mainline Protestant churches, yawn, and ask, “Why bother?”
Follow Will Willimon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/willwillimon
John and Charles Wesley sought to renew the Church of England by having Christians take seriously that they were called to live holy lives. The Wesleys stressed that every Christian should be sanctified. Sanctification is the term used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit to free our lives from sin. Accordingly John and Charles sought to discover modes of life — holiness — that would aid Christians in their desire to be freed from sin and on the way to salvation.
Because John and Charles Wesley were so earnest and organized in their desire for holiness, they often were subject to derision and ridicule. At Oxford those who gathered around John Wesley were given the nickname Holy Club. Methodist was originally a name meant to ridicule Wesley for being too “methodical” in his understanding of how Christians should live. Methodists were labeled by many in the Church of England as “enthusiasts.” That was not a compliment; an enthusiast was thought to have a dangerously emotional, nonintellectual understanding of the faith.
Yet John and Charles Wesley were convinced that holiness was what it meant to be a Christian. Influenced by Eastern Christian theologians, John Wesley appropriated their accounts of “divinization” into his idea of “perfection.” There is no stronger expression of this emphasis on holiness than Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:
Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
We are so familiar with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” that the extraordinary claims of this hymn can be missed. Was Charles Wesley serious when he asked God to make us “pure and spotless”? He was quite serious. Like his brother, John, Charles desired for himself and for all Christians that as far as possible we lead lives free of sin. Each of us should want to be the “humble dwelling” in which the Spirit makes a home. Accordingly Charles Wesley hoped that we might in this life “serve thee as thy hosts above,” which implies that the communion the saints enjoy in heaven is possible here on earth below.
One of the words John Wesley used to describe the holiness characteristic of the Christian life was perfection. He did not think that Christians could be free of ignorance or mistakes, but he did think that through the work of Christ made present by the Holy Spirit, Christians could be freed from “outward sins.” According to Wesley, “the fullness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is brought unto men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.”
Note the last line of Charles Wesley’s hymn — “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.” To be sanctified is not to try very hard to achieve some impossible ideal. That misconception of holiness can lead to narcissistic self-righteousness or to perpetual guilt. “To be made perfect” from a Wesleyan perspective is to be caught up so completely in the life of the Holy Spirit you are not burdened by constant self-doubt. To be sanctified is to be drawn into a way of life so compelling that our worry that we may not be doing enough for God is lost. The saints never try to be saints; it just turns out that way as a gift of the Holy Spirit.
That many people doubt perfection is possible Wesley attributed to mistaken ideas about the Holy Spirit’s perfecting work. Wesley argued that in scripture perfection is “pure love reigning alone in our heart and life.” Perfection so understood means our hearts are so filled with love that all our words and actions are accordingly governed. Yet Wesley warned that simply to “feel” we are free from sin is inadequate. We should never believe that the work of love is finished “till there is added the testimony of the Spirit, witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification.”
Wesley understood justification and sanctification to be intertwined; you could not have one without the other. For Wesley justification names what Christ has done for us in gaining pardon from God for our sins. Yet at the very moment of justification, sanctification begins. According to Wesley, real change is worked in us by the Holy Spirit:
We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” [cf. Rom. 5:5], producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God, expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the “earthly, sensual, devilish mind” into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus” [cf. Phil. 2:5].
Wesley’s extravagant sanctificationist claims may sound as if he has a too-sanguine view of human nature. Is it realistic of Wesley to claim that our spirits are so sweepingly transformed that all “love of the world” is expelled from us?
John Wesley had a robust, orthodox view of human depravity and sinfulness. But he had an even more exuberant assessment of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives warped by sin. Grace for Wesley meant not some saccharine view of human nature (God says, “I love you just the way you are; promise me you won’t change a thing”). Wesleyan grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working in us to give us lives we could not have had without the Spirit’s work.
Wesleyan sanctification is a “gradual process” that begins as soon as we are “born again.” As Jesus told Nicodemus, the “Spirit blows wherever it wishes” (John 3:8), making us as if we were newborn, dead to sin and alive to God. We should, therefore, desire “entire sanctification”; that is, we should want freedom from pride, self-will, anger, and unbelief. We should want to “go on toward perfection” (Heb 6:1 NRSV) so that love takes over our lives, excluding the hold sin has over us. To be sanctified is to have a kind of “spiritual light” in the soul supplying an evidence of “things unseen.” Faith, for Wesley, was the assurance that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the same dynamic of cross and resurrection that characterized the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus characterizes us.
This article is an excerpt from The Holy Spirit by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
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.