Bishop Will Willimon: Words About the Cross

We're entering the season of Lent, time of focus upon the cross, so this seemed to me a good Lenten exercise for us preachers. During Lent you might be interested in a couple of my previous books, Thank God It's Friday: The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross and Sinning Like a Christian: The Seven Deadly Sins for Today, both published by Abingdon, both available from Cokesbury.

Words about the Cross

Imagine being asked to stand before a grand gathering of the good and the wise and being asked to make a speech about goodness, beauty, the meaning of life, the point of history, the nature of Almighty God or some such high subject and having no material at your disposal but an account of a humiliating, bloody, execution at a garbage dump outside a rebellious city in the Middle East. It is your task to argue that this story is the key to everything in life and to all that we know about God. This was precisely the position of Paul in Corinth. Before the populace of this cosmopolitan, sophisticated city of the Empire, Paul had to proclaim that this whipped, bloody, scorned and derided Jew from Nazareth who was God with Us.

As Paul said, he had his work cut out for him because preaching about the cross "is folly to those who are perishing," foolishness and stupidity. A cross is no way for a messianic reign to end. Yet what else can this preacher say because, whether it makes sense to us or not, "it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe." (1 Cor. 18, 21)

Tailoring his manner of speech to his strange subject matter, Paul says that he chose a foolish sort of preaching that was congruent with his theological message:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that our faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corin. 2:1-5)

This is probably our earliest, most explicit statement on the peculiarity of Christian preaching, and one of the few places in the New Testament where a preacher turns aside from the task of proclamation to discuss the nature of proclamation now that God has come as a crucified Messiah.

A crucified Messiah? It is an oxymoron, a violation of Israel's high expectations for a messianic liberator. In order to bring such a scandal to speech, Paul eschewed "lofty words or wisdom," the stock-in-trade of the classical orator. Rather than avoiding the scandal of the cross or attempting to sugar coat its absurdity in order to make it more palatable, he limited his subject matter so that he knew, "nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." His manner of presentation, his delivery was "weakness," "fear and trembling," a rather peculiar demeanor for a public speaker. Why? So that nothing might move his hearers, nothing might convince them but "the power of God."

For God the Father to allow God the Son to be crucified, dead and buried is for God to be pushed out beyond the limits of human expectation or human help. The cross is the ultimate dead end of any attempt at human self-fulfillment, human betterment or progress. Hanging from the cross, in humiliation and utter defeat, there is nothing to be done to vindicate the work of Jesus or to make the story come out right except "the power of God."

Paul says that he attempted to preach the gospel to the Corinthians in just that way. Rather than base his proclamation on human reason, common sense, or artful arguments, he spoke in halting, hesitant "fear and trembling" so that if they were to hear and to understand, to assent and to respond, it would have to be solely through "the power of God."

Paul says to the Corinthians that the cross is moria, moronic foolishness:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (I Corin. 1:18-25)

When Christians are asked to say something profound about ourselves, to say something about the nature of God, this is what we say - "cross."

Will Willimon

[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon" enewsletter of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]