Preaching and the Cross

Here are some thoughts about the task of cruciform preaching, from my earlier book, A Theology of Proclamation (Abingdon).

A robust theology of the cross is a reminder to us preachers that there is no eloquent, rhetorically savvy way by which our congregations can ascend to God. All of our attempts to climb up to God are our pitiful efforts at self-salvation. The gospel is not a story about how we are seeking God, but how God in Christ seeks us. God descends to our level by climbing on a cross, opening up his arms, and dying for us, because of us, with us. Paul’s thoughts on the foolishness of preaching that avoids “lofty words of wisdom” suggests that Christian rhetoric tends to be simple, restrained, and direct – much like the parables of Jesus. The Puritans developed what they called the “plain style” of preaching out of a conviction that Christian speech ought not to embellish, ought not to mislead hearers into thinking they there was some way for a sermon to work in the hearts and minds of the hearers apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes sermons work.

Christian theology has always affirmed that the cross is not only a window through which we see the true nature of God as the embodiment of suffering love but also the truthful mirror in which we see ourselves. Cruciform preaching can’t help but speak of our sin. Jesus was nailed to the wood on the basis of a whole host of otherwise noble human ideals and aspirations like law and order, biblical fidelity, and national security. Preaching offers the grace of God along with a good dose of honesty about the human condition, honesty that we would not have had without the cross. After Calvary we could no longer argue that we are, down deep, basically good people who are making progress once we get ourselves organized and enlightened. The cross is also a reminder that Jesus’ preaching was brutally rejected and if our preaching is about Jesus, then it will often be rejected as well. There is no way to talk about gospel foolishness without risking rejection. Preachers therefore ought to be more surprised when a congregation gratefully understands, receives, and inculcates our message rather than when it misunderstands, rejects, and ignores our message. “We are fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10).

Because of the cross, preaching Jesus can be a perilous vocation. One of the first great Christian sermons was that of Stephen who, for his homiletical efforts, was stoned to death (Acts 7-8). Christian preachers not only talk like Jesus but sometimes suffer and die like Jesus. Jesus was upfront in saying that the cross is not optional equipment for discipleship: “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). When this episode is reported by Luke (Lk. 9:18-26) Jesus goes on to relate cross bearing to “me and my words” (v. 26). Sometimes, the particular, peculiar cruciform burden that preachers must bear is the words of Jesus. The cross is not some chronic illness, not some annoying person. The cross is that which is laid upon us because we are following a crucified savior and, for us preachers, having to proclaim the words of this savior can be quite a burden. For Paul, the cross is not only something that God does to and for the world, unmasking the world’s gods, exposing our sin, forgiving our sin through suffering love, but also the cross is the pattern for Christian life. He could say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20, as translated in the NRSV footnote). And yet, the good news is that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, which is to say as burdensome and difficult as Jesus and his words can be, they are less burdensome and more fun than most of the other burdens the world tries to lay on our backs. Of this I am a witness.

Will Willimon

3 thoughts on “Preaching and the Cross

  1. Dr. Willimon: I got to speak in code a little and will be a little random but have been exploring the mystery, often intersecting the cross here lately. Had one conversation with a fellow where the topic turned to high and low station, Roger Milliken, the Hub City Project in Spartanburg which by implication includes Wofford College, not to mention my history was entwined in last night's Socon championship; not with Wofford who won, but Appy State. May Baxter Wynn on his pilgrimmage as the nephew of Ga. Governor Lester Maddox. Quite a story. In fact he invoked your name and the comment that all southerners are recovering racists in his presentation a few weeks ago. Like you, Baxter has been a witness. Another witness was Vernon Tyson. You know his son Tim's version of the story in Blood Done Sign My Name. I heard some of it first person just two days ago, about how the Grandfather struggled to get Vernon through Campbell college. Hope you get a chance to see the movie. Has some strong moments; good scenes of what a Methodist men's meeting with the Preacher woulda been like in the early 70's if the Preacher bore the Cross. Tim writes in the book by the World's standards, his Dad, Vernon,lost. But the book and the movie and your devotional here is a testament to a different conclusion. Hope things otherwise are well.Oh, meant to work in Pulitzer's Marilynne Robinson. Her thoughts on Puritans, original sin etc mesh well with your piece here. The blog One Eternal Day on the recent Cheryl Miller review of Robinson in Claremont Review gets to the heart of the matter. Fall 09 issue, may still be at your local bookstore. Very much worth looking for if you find yourself near one soon.


  2. Thank you for continually drawing us back to the cross—something of our North Star, I guess, that can always help us find our way home in life and in preaching. By the way, I just read Undone by Easter. Thanks for those thought-provoking words as well.


  3. our attempts of self-salvation are many and manifold in manner. it is a challenge to preach the prophetic witness of the gospel without degenerating the spoken word into self/community seeking salvation. while, at the same time, just peace and humble hospitality are with us only because God incarnate has visited the perople of the realm and has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit.


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