Bishop Will Willimon: Cruciform Preaching--Inglorious Talk

It's Lent, season of the Cross. In your own Lenten devotion 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.

Cruciform Preaching: Inglorious Talk

A cruciform faith in the God who reigns from a cross requires a peculiar way of preaching that is foolishness to the world. When the speaker points to Jesus hanging helplessly on the cross and says, “Jesus Christ is Lord!” the predictable audience reaction is, “Why? How?”

Then the speaker is tempted to offer assorted evidence for such a patently ridiculous claim: citations from religious authorities, illustrations from everyday life, personal experience, and connections with the presuppositions of the audience. Classical rhetoric said that there were three means of persuasion of an audience: reason, emotions, and the character of the speaker.

Note that Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the folly of his preaching 1 Cor. 1), rejects all of these classical means of persuasion, perhaps because there is no way for a speaker to get us from here to there, from our expectations for God to God on a cross, by conventional means of persuasion. When asked, “What is your evidence for your claim?” Paul simply responds, “Cross.” What else can he say? The cross so violates our frames of reference, our means of sorting out the claims of truth, that there is no way to get there except by “demonstration of the Spirit” and by “the power of God.” The only way for preaching about cross to “work” is as a miracle, a gift of God.

To underscore the miraculous quality of cruciform Christian proclamation Paul said that he spoke “in weakness and in much fear and trembling” – hardly what we would expect from an adept speaker. Yet Paul says he preached thus to show that nothing – neither the eloquence of the speaker nor the reasoning powers of the hearers – could produce faith in a crucified savior except the “power of God.”

Martin Luther was fond of contrasting a “theology of glory,” in which the cross was seen as avoidable, optional equipment for Christians, a mere ladder by which we climb up to God with a “theology of the cross” which, according to Luther, calls things by their proper names and is unimpressed with most that impresses the world. A theology of glory (the current “Prosperity Theology”?) preaches the cross as just another technique for getting what we want whereas a theology of the cross proclaims the cross as the supreme sign of how God gets what God wants. The cross is a statement that our salvation is in God’s hands, not ours, that our relationship to God is based upon something that God suffers and does rather than upon something that we do. To bear the cross of Christ is to bear its continual rebuke of the false gods to which we are tempted to give our lives. Autosalvation is the lie beneath most theologies of glory. When self-salvation is preached, reducing the gospel to a means for saving ourselves -- by our good works, or our good feelings, or our good thinking – then worldly wisdom and common sense are substituted for cruciform gospel foolishness and blasphemy is the result.

I’ve spent some time with a young person who is not a Christian, not a follower of the cross. I have these conversations with her because I’ve found it to be a salubrious spiritual exercise. Almost every conversation she reminds me of the oddness of the Christian way of salvation. The cross continues to be the strangest, most countercultural, truthful and ultimately life giving thing that the church has to say to the world.

--Will Willimon

[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," March 1, 2010, from the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]