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.”
Those who would preach cross are forced to live with the homiletical implications of a crucified God:
- 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 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.
- The cross is a reminder that there is no eloquent, rhetorically savvy way by which we can ascend to God. All of our attempts to climb up to God are our pitiful efforts at self-salvation. 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).
- 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.
- The cross is a story about the obedience of Christ, obedience even unto death. A faithful preacher’s life will be characterized by obedience to the task of proclaiming a foolish (by the world’s standards of wisdom) gospel. Preachers must discipline their lives so that there is no time in the pastoral week when a sermon is not in process, when the pastor is not wrestling with the biblical text and the demands of the congregational context. Preaching is hard work, requiring the cultivation of a host of skills that are difficult to develop. If we are called to preach (and who would take up this task without being called to do it?) then we must be obedient enough to the vocation to work at it. I believe the roots of clerical sloth are theological rather than primarily psychological. We become lazy and slovenly in our work because we have lost the theological rationale for the work.
Yet to take up the cross of Christ, to be willing to assume a yoke of obedience upon our shoulders, oblivious to the praise or blame of our congregations, this is also the basis of what it means to have life and that abundantly, to live one’s life in the light of true glory come down from heaven in the person of Jesus the Christ. As gospel preachers, preaching in the shadow of the cross, we get to talk about something and someone more important than ourselves. We get to proclaim Christ and him crucified, a rebuke to the world’s means of salvation, the great promise to a world dying for the truth. We get to expend our lives in work more significant than the lies by which most of the world lives. Working with a crucified God is a great adventure, a risky, perilous, wonderful undertaking and so much more interesting than mere servility to the wisdom of the world.
— Will Willimon, Theology and Proclamation, Abingdon, 2005.