Bill Flippin Jr.: Paul's Cruciform Discourse in 2 Corinthians


Early August would be "Revival Time" in the rural Baptist churches in Georgia that my father pastored witnessing some of the greatest evangelical preachers locally and nationally. The central message in this discourse was "Christ crucified" through the discourse of the preacher always taking the sermon to Calvary with a "whoop" or even a "squall" proclaiming Early Early Early. I was fascinated with such interaction among the parishioners and the preacher behind the sacred desk that in later years I am a revival enthusiast.

In recent times, however, the popularity of revivals five nights from Monday through Friday has waned with most churches adhering to a more compact three night revival or conferences with three different preachers. It is interesting that usually the last night the final preacher pays homage to the previous ones almost down playing their ability and even worthiness to be behind the sacred desk. What is more interesting to me is that although the expectation for that preacher goes down by the hearers through humiliation that it seems that they preach with power that is indescribable. I often wondered is that move that was planned or similar to what the apostle Paul articulates in a Jesus-centered spirituality that can be best described as "cruciform", a spiritual vision essentially shaped by Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.

No letter stresses cruciformity as the norm in existence in Christ more than found in 2 Corinthians. The emphasis is found in the suffering and comfort, affliction and consolation which Paul basis this letter. He gives a "lived theology" of participation in the death and new life of Christ:

"We do not want you to be unaware , brothers and sisters, of the affliction, we experienced in Asia; for we so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself, in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from a deadly peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again. (2 Cor 1:8-10).

Thus for preachers and congregants who suffer or stumble, Paul offers a compelling account of the spiritual life: reversals, humiliation and affliction offer an opportunity for identification with Jesus. To some extent, Paul suggests that abasement of the suffering on the cross will be reversed: just as God raised Jesus from death, so his failing followers encounter divine "consolation" as their own foretaste of resurrection. In Galatians, he affirms that he has been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." This implies that human identity and human agency are brought to nothing by the cross. By definition, says Paul, the message of the cross turns attention away from the proclaimer and toward the one proclaimed.

Does this go back to that revival preacher or conference convener that deliberately humiliates himself to show the power of God by proclamation homiletically through discourse? Phillip Brooks in his Lectures on Preaching delivered before the Divinity School of Yale College in February, 1877 says that success in preaching "relies both conceptually and practically on the "power of God". This relates to Jesus' own powerlessness and renunciation of violence by refusing to use coercion or manipulation. Just as Jesus moved from ministry to crucifixion, from authoritative power to helplessness, so preachers submit themselves to similar limitations.

Preachers in other words portray a strange kind of powerlessness, which finally relies on God to make effective not only individual sermons, but incarnational theology of the word made flesh.

This embodiment of cruciform is found in the dialogical discourse call call-response where the preacher participates in the voices, concerns and circumstances of the hearers. This shows that preaching is social, contextual and dialogical in the sense that it is never abstract but takes on the human "other" whom it engages. It is interesting that the cruciform model so used by the apostle Paul in his interpretation of Jesus' life in becoming a slave for our sakes as a precursor to having a name above every other name is something that the so called institutional church should revisit.

That God through Christ has spoken by means of the unspeakable in fulfilling the themes of crucifixion and resurrection alike reflected in the themes of crucifixion and resurrection. The abasement and glorification are both integral features of Christian discipleship "glory" emerges out of shame rather in spite of it; and only by embracing the death and degradation implied by crucifixion does one become the subject to resurrection and new creation.

So why is it the emphasis in the last twenty years on prosperity when the call-response of the hearers indicates that we are in the midst of an ongoing economic recession? This does not mean that those who are called to the sacred desk should be poor or not have means but it does mean that something is wrong when a preacher/pastors net worth is significantly higher sometimes sixty times higher than the average salary of the parishioners who give tithes and offerings to the congregation and ministry you serve. Did not Paul's theology use humiliation as a means of redemption just as James Cone notes in the Cross and the Lynching Tree "as a church, we keep lamenting that we are a shrinking denomination, and we think this is because we've lost our identity and missional impulse. But what if in fact we are shrinking because we are in captivity to white middle-classness? His solution is in cruciform theology the basis of his liberation theology and call-response in listening to the black experience in order to overcome our pious and faulty misunderstandings of the cross?

We can overcome our misunderstandings by listening to one another beyond the homiletical moment in together discerning God's voice. As partners in this process acknowledge that meaning and identity emerge not simply in the dialogue between preachers and hearers alone, but in the common dialogue with the word of the cross that stands over both.

Just as Jesus' suffering is for the sake of community, preachers or pastors shouldn't imagine themselves to be more important, powerful, or blessed than their congregants. On the contrary, Paul's view is that leaders may exceed their congregation neither in dignity, charisma, nor material blessings, but only in tribulation, nor only in the degree to which they proclaim the resurrection power of God. It is this experience that gives them voice, informs their theology, and grants their preaching the authenticity of lives spiritual reality.

Follow Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. on