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Christ The Cornerstone (Willimon)

William Willimon Christ the Cornerstone Program #4401

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The Rev. Dr. WILLIAM WILLIMON is Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, he has played an active role in that denomination, but also across denominational lines. He is the author of more than fifty books and writes for many journals and periodicals. He is an Editor-at-large for The Christian Century and his Pulpit Resource is used each week by over eight thousand pastors.

A reading from Ephesians:

So you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is jointed together and grown into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Can you believe it? They can’t find the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in Washington. But back in the early days a cornerstone was laid, and then, over the years, with the sinking of the building, and the surrounding alterations, nobody can recall exactly where it is.

Now, a cornerstone is laid at the beginning, in the foundation of a building. You build everything else upon this one cornerstone. And the letter to the Ephesians, using an architectural metaphor, says that Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church. Everything is built upon him. More to the point of Ephesians, a cornerstone is where two intersecting walls meet. In Christ, the walls between Jew and Gentile have been pulled down, and now the two meet in the cornerstone, Jesus.

Now at the Chapel at Duke, where I usually preach, the chapel is built in the style of true gothic buildings, with no structural steel, with each stone resting upon stone in the fashion of true medieval architecture. High above the crossing there is something that’s called a capstone. All the soaring arches thrust their weight upward and meet right up there in the center at the capstone. If that capstone, which I’m told weighs over a ton, were removed, the whole building would collapse. To expand Ephesians’ architectural metaphor, if you were to remove Jesus, the capstone of the whole Church, it would collapse.

Awhile back I traveled across the state to speak to a big gathering of clergy. I took a Duke student with me who was thinking about going to seminary. Our meeting began with worship and then I spoke. Now, on the drive back home the student said, “Ah, did you note that, if it hadn’t been for your sermon, Jesus’ name was never mentioned in that whole worship service?”

“Really?” I said. It was true. The prayers and contemporary hymns all talked about “God,” then talked about the Creator, the Redeemer, and so on, but they never actually mentioned Jesus.

Now why is that? Well, dear, you’ll see that way we can make God over into anything we like if we don’t have to deal with Jesus. In the 1930’s, for instance, in Germany, distinguished theologians said, “We can’t have God Almighty constrained to a Jew from Nazareth. No, God is the highest and the best of all human aspirations. The Superman. Big!”

And the whole house came a tumblin’ down.

Having been made in the image of God, we human beings have, ever since, been attempting to return the favor, making up gods in various images of ourselves. So we make God large, and big, and vague. But then there comes Jesus. Jesus, with his nasty little specificity and peculiar particularity. Jesus, who is not as pliable as we would sometimes have him to be.

You know, sometimes folk say: “Well, look, after all, I may be Buddhist, you may be Christian, somebody else is Moslem, but the important thing is that we all believe in God, right?”


Christians are those who believe that when we look at this Jew from first century Nazareth, we see as much of God as we ever hope to see. We believe that when he looks at us, he sees us as we really are. Our life is known only in his light. So the whole Church, your faith, your relationship to God rests upon this foundation, this cornerstone. All the upward thrust of our spiritual aspirations meet at this capstone.

You can worship Jesus as the Son of God, or you can reject Jesus as crazy, but you can’t make Jesus over into anything you like. Though sometimes we Christians wish we knew more about Jesus, more of what he said, more of what he did, I tell you, there are times when we wish we knew less!

For instance, this past year, my church met for its quadrennial General Conference. During that gathering, my church debated a number of controversial issues, one of them was whether or not Methodists ought to own handguns. Well, during one of the coffee breaks during the debate, I was discussing with a fellow delegate how he voted on the resolution. He said, “Well, I voted in support of the ban against handguns.”

“Well, how did you decide to vote that way?” I asked.

“Jesus,” he replied.

“Jesus?” I asked.

“Well, sometimes I really wish,” he continued, “when those soldiers came to arrest Jesus that night, he’d pulled out a gun and defended himself, or at least he would let his disciples defend him with their swords, but you know, he didn’t.”

Well, that’s how it is. As Christians, we’re just “stuck” with Jesus. You want a definition of who is a Christian? To be a Christian is to be about Christ, listening to Jesus, judging ourselves by him, asking for the grace to see him more clearly, follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly, day by day. But without him as that cornerstone, the very capstone of what we’re about, then church degenerates into a kind of sanctimonious form of Rotary, and at least Rotary meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch!

Jesus is the content of Christian character. The words and deeds of Jesus determine the contours of this faith, the parameters of our life together, the substance of what we believe and who, by his grace, we hope to become. Without those troublesome particularities of Jesus Christ and him crucified, what we call “spirituality” sometimes just fills with hot air and floats off into never-never-land, never touching ground anywhere, never making demands upon us.

In a TV show about Jesus awhile back with Peter Jennings, a Professor N. T. Wright, when asked about the possibility of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, pointed, as evidence, to us, the Church. If you don’t believe that God vindicated Jesus, his life, his teaching, by raising him from the dead, well then how do you explain us, the Church? Lots of great teachers left us some great books, a gaggle of admirers, but who left us something like the Church? We believe in the resurrected Christ, said Professor Wright, because we keep meeting him-in word and in worship on Sunday, in those dark nights when we cry out in misery for help and he is there.

Without the presence of the living Christ, well, what’s the point? The whole thing collapses into a mess of rather uninteresting musings on things eternal and vaguely spiritual. Why bother? Without Jesus and his constant demands upon us the walls topple, arches collapse, and this whole temple degenerates into an archaic mumbo-jumbo. Without him, we might as well subdivide our churches into malls or gothic boutiques.

Christ Jesus, the capstone, the cornerstone, the very point of it all. He is the church’s one foundation. We grope with mere words to say what he means to us and to the world. We come to him because he keeps coming to us, he keeps giving himself to us, that we might more freely give ourselves to him and his way, his narrow way, that leads to life.

Jesus himself is the cornerstone.

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Interview with William Willimon Interviewed by Lydia Talbot

Lydia Talbot: Will, your message, “Christ the Cornerstone,” is a call to accountability, isn’t it, to Christians who may be otherwise be preoccupied with a soft form of spirituality instead of the tough call to discipleship?

William Willimon: Well, perhaps so. We’re living in a time when there’s lots of interest in spirituality and I think from a traditional Christian point of view, sometimes spirituality gets sort of vague and so perhaps my message is designed to call back to the specifics of Jesus.

Talbot: If Christ for Christians is the access to God, take us back to Yale Divinity School and, perhaps just prior to that-civil rights, Vietnam-and your own call to ministry and what you were thinking about: what it meant to follow Christ.

Willimon: Well, I grew up in the segregationist South and part of my growing up was having to confront the fact that we were wrong. It was wrong to separate people on the basis of race. And I think Jesus was probably part of those deliberations. I remember very vividly as a teenager hearing a preacher remark in a sermon that, “Every Sunday we’d stand up and pray as Jesus taught us, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.'” And he said, “It makes it all the more ironic that we call call God our Father in heaven and yet down here on earth, we don’t relate to other people as our brothers and sisters.” I remember that making an impression on me at a young age that, in a way, was an instance of my own life. Jesus was busy critiquing the way we lived just in the way he lived and the way he taught. So, I think it did make a difference in my own development.

Talbot: And so that understanding, Will, how has that shaped and sustained you since?

Willimon: Well, I think as a preacher, for instance, to be a preacher means that sometimes one stands up and says things that people disagree with or that challenge people. I remember after a sermon one Sunday someone coming out and saying “I was really offended by your sermon but I know that you really wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone by what you said.” And I didn’t say this to the person, but I thought, “Wait a minute. We’re following Jesus and Jesus was constantly offending people by what he said!” The Gospels present Jesus at the center of sort of swirling conflict. And I suppose this is meant for me as a preacher to realize there is no way I can preach about Jesus or preach Jesus without some conflict, some dissonance between what’s said and what’s heard.

Talbot: Now you preach under the capstone, as you refer to in your message in your architectural metaphor, at Duke University’s Chapel, but there are many capstones in mosques and synagogues and temples throughout the world. How do you address that issue of pluralism when you’re preaching about Christ?

Willimon: It’s fun living on a modern university campus. It’s a place of great religious diversity and so there are days that I come in contact with more Muslims or Hindus than Methodists. And it’s interesting. One thing it does, is that it keeps reminding Christians of how strange we are because we all don’t we believe the same. Different religious faiths make different sorts of people who see the world differently. And as Christians, we are those who believe that when we look at this Man from Nazareth we see the great fullness of God. Now that doesn’t mean necessarily that we go around saying, “Well, you’re wrong if you don’t look at Jesus and see what we see.” It just means that as Christians we testify to what we’ve seen. One thing it ‘s about, when you’re following Jesus, you’re also following someone who never criticized any other faiths. His main criticism was of his own disciples, his own followers. And it also means that Jesus has this wonderfully open-handed generosity toward a wide array of people, often people who were condemned by Jesus’ own religious tradition. And so that does mean that as I’m dealing with people from other faiths. I do want to deal with them as best I can in a manner that Jesus might deal with them, which is not through condemnation and criticism, but rather through love and an attempt to understand that all people are God’s people and Jesus is busy teaching us that all the time.

Talbot: You’re touching on perhaps one of the great dividing lines in Christian theology. Those who would perceive the reality of Divine Mystery in the event of Jesus Christ alone and those who would perhaps see Divine Mystery present itself, reveal itself in other events and other places as well. Where are you there?

Willimon: Well, in a sense when we say we believe we’ve seen as much of God as we ever hope to see in Jesus of Nazareth, that may sound limiting. One of the nice things is that we’re looking at Jesus. And Jesus, compared to my views, seems so much more expansive in his love and in his embrace of a lot of people that I am reluctant to embrace. Embracing God and to be embraced by God is a huge task, but we believe that in Jesus we’ve seen some of that expansiveness. It’s odd that when I compare my miserable little life to Jesus’ life, he seems so much more expansive, and broad and embracing than I do. So I don’t think of him so much as limiting my experience of God but expanding it.

Talbot: Well, you’ve expanded our thoughts and ideas on that subject. Will Willimon, thanks so much for being with us.

Willimon: Thank you, Lydia.


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