Joni Sancken, Assistant Professor of Preaching at Eastern Mennonite University
Learning how to claim and proclaim the cross and resurrection may be the one thing needed to lead the church to renewed hope, clarity of identity, and purpose. In his letter to the young congregation at Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes about the challenge of the cross. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing… 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” (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24). While it has clearly never been easy to preach and teach about the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the difficulties today are particularly challenging. Today, people ask tough questions of the church and the Christian faith, and they are not satisfied by formulaic answers. People are often suspicious of doctrine and are attracted to a broad, but vague or pluralistic spirituality rather than the classic claims of Christianity.
One of the tough questions asked of the church is how to understand and relate to God in the midst of suffering in our lives and world. Here the cross and resurrection are instructive as they show God’s deep understanding and experience of suffering and provide the dominant Christian narrative of hope that suffering and death are not the final verdict on human existence. Thoughtful Christian proclamation that honestly names suffering and trouble in our world will sound authentic to those struggling through difficult and heart-rending situations. Jesus’ own suffering and death on the cross means that God has experienced suffering and deeply relates to on-going experiences of human pain and suffering. But our God is not content to allow suffering to continue. In the resurrection Jesus overcame the power of suffering and death. In the same vein, church leaders should also foster hope by naming experiences of resurrection life—concrete ways that God is breaking into our lives and world. While it is relatively simple to find situations of brokenness and struggle to lift up for healing, it can be deeply challenging to see how God is already at work. One of the insidious ways that sin works in our world is to make us blind to God’s presence. When preachers and church leaders cultivate the spiritual discipline of looking at our world with “God goggles” and testify to God’s resurrection activity among us, the church experiences renewed hope and is better able to join God’s healing actions as agents of grace and good news.
Another challenge for the church is navigating and cultivating interfaith relationships. Here proclamation of the cross and resurrection can also bring new possibilities. A couple of years ago, an Iranian Muslim graduate student studying theology of peace-building petitioned to take a preaching course at the seminary where I was teaching. This student had come to the United States in part to learn about Christianity and he visited 20 congregations of varied denominational background, attending worship, engaging in fellowship, and speaking with clergy. Yet, no one clearly articulated Christian particularities and focused instead on points of commonality with Islam. While I was glad to have him in class and the whole class was enriched by his presence, the Christian students and I were also deeply troubled and saddened that the church had let him down and missed an important opportunity for renewed growth and learning. Teaching and preaching about the cross and resurrection forms congregations over time so that they are attuned to the particular theological rhythms that drive our faith and are able to talk about Jesus in honest ways to those from different religious traditions.
Many congregations limit explicit teaching and preaching about the cross to Holy Week. However, when we neglect regular teaching and preaching that forms believers according to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, other values and beliefs seep into our congregations. Cultural values of consumerism are seductive and form a deep cultural narrative that shapes us and our congregations. We are habitual creatures, deeply influenced by the narratives and cultural liturgies in which we are immersed. The narrative of the cross and resurrection serves as a powerful counter-narrative, a true and life-giving narrative for our lives, but unless we experience this narrative on a regular basis it is easy to give our lives over to self-centered, consumer-driven narratives that lead to death rather than life. We don’t need another generation of shallow sermons that reduce the gospel to self-improvement and individual achievement. We need a renewed sense of preaching and teaching that gathers the community around the cross. Preaching and teaching about the cross and resurrection has the potential to transform and renew all of congregational life.
This site is a resource for church renewal offered by United Theological Seminary.