Gospel of Grace

In a forthcoming review essay in The Christian Century on a reclamation of gracious preaching as the core Protestant practice, my friend Jason Micheli includes the following friendly words about Accidental Preacher:

Will Willimon, in his highly theological memoir Accidental Preacher (Eerdmans), exemplifies the self-effacing humor and playfulness of someone whose life down here on earth has been hijacked by the presence of a talkative God.

Accidental Preacher—accidental in the sense of fortuitous and serendipitous—illustrates the way the loquacious God of Protestant theology is also necessarily a living God at work in the world. A God who gives Christ to us through proclamation must also be a God who works by vocation, electing and grabbing hold of conversation partners called preachers. And because the only candidates God has available are reluctant sinners like us, God has no choice but to be a God of grace.

Willimon weaves together memories—from his episcopacy and preaching ministry, but also from his growing up with a con-artist father and as a white boy amid the unfettered racism of the Jim Crow South—so that together they present a kind of coda to Mark’s cliffhanger Easter story. God is alive and at work in the world, the memoir shows, just as in Willimon’s own life God has been on the prowl. “My curriculum vitae is a string of incursions,” Willimon observes, “when unexpectedly, often belatedly, I discovered that I was being pursued by a God who refuses to take no for an answer.”

If Forde helps preachers to reflect on the nature of their craft, Willimon demonstrates how ordinary Christians might go about theological reflection. Writing about a Methodist youth retreat he attended as a teenager, Willimon sees that he was, fortuitously, paired with a black youth from his own town. “Does it bother you that there are laws that separate us, keep you in your place and me in mine?” the teenager, Charles, asks Will one night. Willimon, in his context of unexamined racism, hadn’t been bothered by it until that moment. About their ensuing night-long conversation, Willimon confesses, “I had my world skillfully cracked open [by God], exposed, infinitely expanded and disrupted.”

In just this way, Accidental Preacher is a gift not only for those who proclaim the gospel but for those who receive it. It models with wit and humor how we all might go about discerning the cracks the living God creates in our world. Once we’ve been exposed and infinitely expanded, there is still the question of how this divine disruption reorients us toward our neighbors.

If the gift of Christ makes God’s forgiveness ours, as Martin Luther so compellingly showed, then we should be freed to love our neighbors as our neighbors rather than as the objects of our anxious quest for enoughness. But does this Protestant piety of the word actually lead to works of love, or does it provide an attractive rationalization for believers to avoid them?

If the latter, perhaps the deficiency is less in Protestant theology than in its reliance upon the writings of the apostle Paul.

The Christian Century, 5/20/20, pp.28-29


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