Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon, edited by my friend Dr. Robert Ratcliff. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I thought I would share some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.
I was having a difficult time in my previous congregation. A stormy board meeting was followed by a poorly received sermon, which was then succeeded by a none-too-pleasant public confrontation with the chair of the church trustees. What had I done to so badly manage the congregation? I sat in my office, going over the events of the past week, attempting to take appropriate responsibility for the administrative mess I was in. Could I have been more discreet? Why had I felt the need to bring things to a head now? Had I abused the pulpit in last Sunday’s sermon?
Then I returned to my preparation for next Sunday’s sermon. Year B of the Common Lectionary, Mark. Another story of Jesus’ teaching and healing. Another story of rejection. Then it hit me. Why was I so surprised that our congregation was full of conflict? Was the conflict a sign of my failure to skillfully manage congregational differences, or my skillful pastoral telling of the truth? I heard Mark ask, “What’s the problem? You think that you are a better preacher than Jesus?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
At that moment I recalled that just about 99 percent of Mark’s Gospel encompasses the preparation to crucify Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion, or the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross, it appears, is not optional equipment for a faithful ministry. The cross, the self-giving, emptying of God in the crucified Jesus—God’s great victory over sin and death through divine suffering—is the primary ethical trajectory of the New Testament.