Monday, March 29, 2010

Easter Preaching

The call of Paul the apostle was his experience of finding himself living in a whole new world. He changed because of his realization that, in Jesus Christ, the world had changed. It was not merely that he discovered a new way of describing the world but rather that his citizenship had been moved to a radically transformed world. Paul’s key testimonial to this recreation is in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed
away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to
himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor.
5:17-18)
Verse 17, in the Greek, lacks both subject and verb so it is best
rendered by the exclamatory, “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!”


Certainly, old habits die hard. There are still, as Paul acknowledges so eloquently in Romans 8, “the sufferings of the present time.” The resistance and outright rejection that preachers suffer is evidence that the church has not yet fully appreciated the eschatological, end of the age, transformed arrangements that ought to characterize the church. We always preach between the times and rejection is often a sign that the old age and the principalities and powers still run rampant.

That many of us preachers still preach using essentially secular (i.e. godless) means of persuasion borrowed uncritically from the world is yet another testimony to our failure to believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, thus radically changing everything. In so doing we act as if Jesus were still sealed securely in the tomb, as if he did not come back to us, did not speak to us and cannot, will not speak to us today, as if preaching is something that we do through our strategies rather than through the speaking of the risen Christ.

Resurrection is not only the content of gospel preaching but also its miraculous means. Where two are three of us are gathered in his name, daring to talk about him, he is there, talking to us (Matt. 18:20). All the way to the end of the age, in every part of the world, in our baptism and proclamation, he is with us (Matt. 28:20).

I once heard a church growth expert declare, “Any church that doesn’t have a pull down video screen will be dead in ten years.” But I believe that better technology does not make sermons work. Lack of technology cannot kill a church. Only God can kill a church. Only a living Christ can make our sermons speak to a new generation.

Christian preaching can never rest on my human experience, or even the experience of the oppressed, as some forms of Liberation Theology attempt to do, because human experience tends to be limited by the world’s deadly, deathly means of interpretation. The world keeps telling Christians to “get real,” to “face facts,” but we have – after the cross and resurrection – a very particular opinion of what is real. I don't preach Jesus' story in the light of my experience, as some sort of helpful symbol or myth which is helpfully illumined by my own story of struggle and triumph. Rather, I am invited by Easter to interpret my story in the light of God's triumph in the resurrection. I really don’t have a story, I don’t know the significance of my little life, until I read my story and view my life through the lens of cross and resurrection. One of the things that occurs in the weekly preaching of the gospel is to lay the gospel story over our stories and reread our lives in the light of what is real now that crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Will Willimon
Speaking of resurrection, Patsy and I joined the congregation of Alexandria UMC on Palm Sunday for a wonderful service. Rev. Paula Calhoun is leading a remarkable turnaround at this church. In an attempt to stay on the move with the Risen Christ, they are planning a bold relocation. I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus - I've seen it at Alexandria UMC!

20 comments:

patrickmitchel said...

Thank you for this urgently needed reminder. Blessings and peace

Joel Betow said...

I guess, but for years I listened to preachers share the news of the “empty tomb”, the “marvel” of new creation, of everything old passed away and of Christ's reconciling love and the words sounded more and more shallow – at least until I eventually heard sermons condemning our involvement in Vietnam, weighing in against the ban on blacks buying homes in white neighborhoods, lifting up just a glimpse of what it might mean to live in Christ. I was at least 18 before I really found any appeal in the “risen” Christ. I preferred the world's “deathly means” of interpretation to the sterility of endless, unattached words of “God.” I wanted to believe that “where two or three of us are gathered in his name, daring to talk about him, he is talking about us,” but the more we talked about him, the sillier he seemed to me, the more irrelevant to my life, and the more disconnected from anything that appeared real, beautiful, sacrificial or serving. When did God seem something to me other than mostly a quaint notion? One time was when I heard or read these words of Robert F. Kennedy, “But suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?” No preacher had ever asked me that question. Liberation theology as a whipping post, without elaboration, is rather easy for an affuent nation, but the severity with which the Roman Catholic Church targeted the movement tells me that it represents a serious threat not just to the political status quo but to Church leadership that widely equates power with authority.

Scott said...

well written. thank you, sir.

ray said...

Great post.The Gospel is simple for a reason.Paul said "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit,after the tradition of men...and not after Christ.Col(2:8).Your last several post reminds of me of Pauls letters.Amen and Amen

myth_of_Serpentry said...

I have noticed a glaring contradiction in your analysis...

"Christian preaching can NEVER rest on my human experience... because human experience tends to be limited by the world’s deadly, deathly means of interpretation" (my emphasis added).

"One of the things that occurs in the weekly preaching of the gospel is to lay the gospel story over our stories and reread our lives in the light of what is real now that crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead."

The above analysis is a clear contradiction: first you warn to "never" base sermons on human experience; then you turn right around and claim that the gospel ought to overlay our experiences so as to enrich the gospel message... Therefore, how are we to better understand the gospel text when our current cultural context ought to be, as you claim, shunned? Isn't it the other way around?

-- Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that we ought to overlay our experiences onto the foundation of the gospel, thereby testing its grounds to see if it resonates with the grounded authority Scripture?

Steve West said...

Love this one. What you said about preaching as if Jesus had not risen (i.e. using secular means) is so true. I also think this is goes well beyond worship. The way we "do church", the way we conduct business and make decisions both at the local church and beyond the local church is also so often secular, as if divorced from faith and in the realm of what we would call "practical reality." If we don't do church business differently because of the risen Christ, it is as if he didn't really come back and didn't really send the Spirit. We think it's all up to us, as if church business is something we do through our strategies. Good thoughts.

myth_of_Serpentry said...

-- I disagree Steve West, it sounds pretty dualistic to me. To say the church should never base its preaching on "secular" means is a cop out; that is not critically engaging culture, which is, well, detached from the core meaning surrounding the gospel. Christ was constantly preaching with a missional intent, utilizing parables that were based on cultural practices, and aiming is message at what some today like to call "secular"..

This is exactly why the church is dissipating into smaller, "home" based churches. Preachers preach from the pulpit with a special interest in mind, and it tends to smack of arrogance. Instead, they ought to think like Christ thought and pull from cultural practices in order to make sense of things in the everyday, while still remaining critical of the everday cultural praxis. That is a hard thing to do, but it is our mission.

foxofbama said...

Within 15 miles of your stompin ground in Upstate SC this Easter Sunday morning, your Christian Century effot on Haiti and joy in the midst of tragedy was with attribution preached to great effect.
Thought you might want to know.
I was taken by Vigen Guroian's thoughts on Holy Saturday in same issue cause it was kind of new to me; but even so as Third Day Christian, your work is not in vain and was celebrated this morning with Passion.

William H. Willimon said...

Thanks, Steve. Hope that you and your people at your dynamic church have had a great Easter Sunday.
Will

William H. Willimon said...

Myth, I am reminded by Matthew 28 that the mission of the church is not to engage culture, but to baptize them in the name of the Trinity and to convey the teachings of Jesus to them (many of which fly in the face of culture).

myth_of_Serpentry said...

-- Actually, biblically speaking, the church is to be baptized in the name of CHRIST our LORD... not the "trinity". Trinity (or "Godhead" or "divine court") is theological speculation and dogma, which is fine -- I think formalized ritual is an important facet to Christianity -- but we ought to be careful exegetes of the Bible itself, first and foremost. And so, perhaps a more accurate assessment concerning culture would be to point to Pentecost; it is outside the confines of, well, church and dogma. it is cosmic in scope. I think the scope of Pentecost is no mistake, as Christ knew well that organized religion and dogma can become a horrible evil against the people. Don't you agree Will?

As for your the mission of the church, you must have misunderstood my original post; we are to "critically" engage culture, and that includes, but does not limit itself, to flying in the face of culture with polemic. Culture is positive in many aspects, but church interpretation likes to see otherwise, sadly.

Christ came not just to give grace to an otherwise ungodly people, but rather to show us the way back on track toward our original intent; a monistic return, never a dualistic leap.

Webmaster said...

I wonder, Myth of Serpentry, if you have read Undone By Easter by Bishop Willimon. It is a book on preaching that would be helpful in your comprehension of this topic. I personally agree that there is much that is positive in "the world." I have to be reminded that even though it may look and seem "Christian," that does not mean it is always in the right and faithful.

myth_of_Serpentry said...

"Webmaster"

You have reiterated exactly what I had just said, and yet you made it sound like you were actually making a point.. -- And then you fit in a nice little plug about Will's book (which I gather was your real intent).

Nice PR work; any other recommendations?

ray said...

MYTH.I detect an agenda here,maybe I am wrong,you seem angry.Are you just trying to find someone to agree with you? This post and the comments within prove something we all can agree on.Christians agree on about 90% of thier mission,however continue to bitterly debate the 10%.The sad part is the unchurched and the unsaved look on,scratch their heads,and decide they want no part of it. What would happen if we just focused on the 90%, stopped the debate and engaged the lost,rather than each other.

myth_of_Serpentry said...

Ray,

-- Not angry; just tired. Tired of easy distinctions and glib responses to the postmodern condition that we presently find ourselves in.

The problem isn't so much the "unchurched," rather the problem is, I think, the churchgoer that thinks that others are completely lost and need churched. Instead of identifying ground with other humans, the churchgoer likes to dis-identify, so as to create room to proselytize them. The churchgoer doesn't realize the cosmic scope of redemption and salvation, and comes off as hypocritical.

Let me give you a concrete example; marriage. Marriage is an institution which not only is dwindling as a whole, but the Christian community is witnessing a larger degree of broken marriages than the so-called "secular" community.

myth_of_Serpentry said...

-- Concerning you other point, Ray, there is a differece between being critical and polemical, of engaging and critiquing ideas versus outrightly rejecting them with anger, ya?

Webmaster said...

How did we get from critically engaging culture to the tired lament of the church being hypocritical? The problem is not the "unchurched" as you state. The church must face the same sinful forces as everyone else. Wesley saw this coming: the form of holiness without the power of God. We need good preaching and leadership for such a time as this.

Might I do some more PR work? Willimon's Preaching to the Unbaptized ;)

myth_of_Serpentry said...

"Webmaster"

Baptism is an important and crucial facet of remembering Christ and his actions of life/death/resurrection, there is no doubt, but the gospel is the reason why we baptize in the first place, right? And so, announcing to the people that this creation has now been infiltrated and remade in Christ's righteousness via cross (AKA gospel) is the first crucial step. This is a tough first step though, as the Kingdom via King Christ is both here and not yet fulfilled; that is tough concept to grasp; a slow dance, as it were. Much can be said here concerning different rhetoric to employ in order to bring people to this very realiztion (creedal knee-jerks usually don't work). Then, and only then, comes baptism and maturation in the defense of faith via the body of Christ (that "body" being corporate and ordered by a critical togetherness). However, church people like to cut to the chase and skip the first and most crucial step all too often; engagement with a good creation remade, one that doesn't have the option of opting out of the scope of cosmic redemption. The rain rains on all, just as the sun shines on all.

Will, I fear, is part of this all-too-familiar crowd of quick and easy answers. We do not baptize in the "trinity" - that is absurd and glib - we baptize to remember a real event that took place in real time and space, where a human fulfilled the law and was simultaneously the exact embodiment of Godliness. We are to, most importantly, tell the story of Christ, not the story of church dogma. This is a tough and challenging task for the church, but imaginations and common sense like C.S. Lewis were closer, I think, than Augustine and Luther.

I am not against organized church, but if it continues to act in such a glib fashion, and doesn’t respond with skill and sensitivity to critiques from outside the church, then there is nothing more pressing than to situate ourselves in the humble vein of Christ and deconstruct the religious est. – no stone left atop another. As Christians, we have the right to exercise such a brutal critique, nay, the duty and obligation if said religion has exclusive VIP passes. See Mark 13; see the destruction of the temple in the Jewish War.

The God of Christianity, not the church's god needs to have room for honest discourse. Save the creedal knee-jerks for bored theologians. The church ought to be missional, but I am afraid it is paralyzed with its own self-consumed schemes of thinking.

I am sure you agree? But just in case you don't, please feel free to actually make an argument with substance behind it; though this ought to go without saying.

ray said...

Webmaster.Starting to see where Myth is coming from and its evident in your post.Being a former member of the United Methodist Church myself.I am reminded of a pastor who when someone was questioning their own faith or the mission of the church.The canned approach was "let me suggest this book and these theologins"and by the way the authors were often UMC pastors.I think theology sometimes robs the heart of the ability to discuss these questions from a faith point of view.Rather we resort to "here read this it will prove you wrong",kinda like passing the buck or passing the book if I may.Its called FAITH not FACT."Lord help my unbelief."The pass the book tacticts leave on somewhat confused and feeling rejected.

myth_of_Serpentry said...

still awaiting a real response from Will..