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.
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!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thinking Resurrection

In a curious passage, Paul links the resurrection with preaching and preaching with resurrection:

Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved….. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared….Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that three is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corin. 15:1, 3-5, 12-14)

Some at Corinth are denying the resurrection. What proof do they have that Jesus truly arose from the dead and appeared to his first followers? In response, Paul says that they know that Christ is raised because that’s what Paul preached to them. Is that all? Listen to Paul's logic, "I have preached to you that Christ is raised from the dead. Now if I preached that how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?"

Paul goes on to say, in effect, "Now if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised and that would mean that, when I preached, I lied and that your faith is in vain. But I did tell the truth in my preaching and just to prove it, I'm going to preach it to you again. Christ has been raised from the dead.'" There.

Tom Long asks, What sort of circular, merry-go-round logic is this? We want proof of Easter and all Paul gives us is more preaching? “I told you about the resurrection. You don't believe in the resurrection? Let me tell you about the resurrection," [1] Logicians says this is an "if this-then this" sort of logic. If X is true, then Y must be true. Such arguments are dependent upon their ability to touch down somewhere in irrefutable human experience. The first proposition must be true. If not, the second proposition is false. If X is not irrefutably true, then there is no way that Y can be true.

This logic moves from what we don't know for sure back to what we know for certain, rippling back toward affirmation.

Thus reasons Paul:

If there is no resurrection of the dead...
...then Christ has not been raised.
And if Christ has not been raised...
...then our preaching was a lie
And if our preaching was a lie...
...then your faith is futile.

At this point, I think Paul expected the gathered Corinthians to shout in unison, "But our faith is not futile." The Corinthians may have had problems with love (I Corinthians 13), with getting along with each other in the church, but they had faith -- spoke in tongues, worried about eating meat offered to idols, had knock down drag outs over baptism. They were just chock full of faith. Nobody could argue over their experience of Easter. Paul implies that the Corinthians were so full of faith, so dazzled by the resurrection that, when he preached to them, he was forced to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified in an attempt to get them back down to earth for a few moments. Anybody who worshipped at one of their Sunday evening free-for-alls might go away thinking that Christians were weird, out of control, but nobody could deny that some life-giving power had been unleashed among them.

So let's reverse the order:

Because your faith is not futile,
Our preaching was not a lie,
Christ has been raised,
There is resurrection of the dead.

"Because your faith is not futile....There is resurrection of the dead." It's an important truth. Easter begins to dawn, not in the preacher’s assembling alleged "evidence" from history. The dry reconstruction of historians will not get us to resurrection. Easter begins in the recognition that our faith is not futile, in our present experience of the Risen Christ roaming among us. It is the testimony, not just of preachers like me, but of countless believers like you, that is the evidence. When bread and wine touch your lips and you see, feel the real presence. When you thought your heart would break in disappointment and pain, but it didn't because He was standing beside you in the dark. When you didn't know what to say and there were just the right words, words not of your own devising, being spoken by you. When you dragged into the church, cold at heart, skeptical, and distant, yet at the hymns, your spirit rose to greet His, your faith is not in vain.

This is the logic of Easter.

Will Willimon

[1] Thomas G. Long, The Senses of Preaching, pp. 92-93.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Foolish Preaching

We're in the appointive season. As a bishop, sometimes it’s quite an achievement to converse with my fellow clergy about things more important than appointments, budgets, and numbers, though all that is important. Here are some thoughts about the task of cruciform preaching, from my earlier book, A Theology of Proclamation (Abingdon).

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 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 that is so much more interesting than mere servility to the wisdom of the world. Every time someone is confronted by the cross of Christ and hears, believes, responds, every time someone is liberated from enslavement to the world’s false promises, then the preacher can take great satisfaction that the promises of God are indeed true, that God graciously continues, in us preachers and our sermons, to choose and to use “what is foolish (moria) in the world to confound the wise" (Rom. 1:27).

Will Willimon

On March 27th, I'll be meeting with the Central and South Central Local Pastors and the Key Lay Leaders to discuss the amazing growth of God's church. Hope you will join us.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

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

Monday, March 01, 2010

Cruciform Preaching: Inglorious Talk

It's Lent, season of the Cross. In your own Lenten devotion you might be interested in a couple of my previous books, Thank God It’s Friday: The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross and Sinning Like a Christian: The Seven Deadly Sins for Today, both published by Abingdon, both available from Cokesbury.

Cruciform Preaching: Inglorious Talk

A cruciform faith in the God who reigns from a cross 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 1 Cor. 1), 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.”

Martin 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 (the current “Prosperity Theology”?) 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.

I’ve spent some time with a young person who is not a Christian, not a follower of the cross. I have these conversations with her because I’ve found it to be a salubrious spiritual exercise. Almost every conversation she reminds me of the oddness of the Christian way of salvation. The cross continues to be the strangest, most countercultural, truthful and ultimately life giving thing that the church has to say to the world.

Will Willimon

I continue to be amazed by the outpouring of aid from Methodists in Alabama to Haiti. Ray Crump and his team of volunteers have now shipped about two million dollars in supplies to our missionaries there!

We also are now lifting prayers for the people of Chile as they begin recovery from a devastating earthquake. UMCOR has already begun working with our partners in Chile to be a part of this disaster response. Rev. Matt Lacey has reported that our North Alabama Conference missionary serving in Chile John Elmore is safe.