Cross in Preaching: Thoughts on Lenten Preaching

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.  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)

Cruciform Preaching

A cruciform faith 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, 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.”

From Will Willimon, Theology and Proclamation, Abingdon, 2005.

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