Preaching Atonement: Are We at One with Our Preaching?

Michael Pasquarello III

On its way to the fullness of God’s kingdom, as a people whose calling is conformity to Christ by the wisdom and power of the cross, the church requires exemplars of transformation. It is significant that the apostle Paul, in addition to the deep affection and anguish he felt for his communities, regularly appealed to the dramatic change he had undergone to demonstrate his identification with the wisdom of the message he proclaimed: the weakness of crucifixion and the power of resurrection (much of the following is indebted to J.W. Thompson’s Preaching Like Paul: Homiletic Wisdom for Today [Westminster John Knox, 2001], and Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision [Baker Academic, 2006]).

An indispensable aspect of Paul’s preaching and an important means of persuasion for that preaching was his ethos, or character, which provided a visible way of instructing his communities and answering his critics. For example, in 2 Cor 2, Paul describes himself as a captive to the One whom he proclaimed, as a participant in a victory processional by which he was continually being led toward suffering and death as a living sacrifice to Christ. While this is indeed a startling characterization, it was necessary for Paul to distinguish himself from preachers, who by the apostle’s accounting, “peddle” the word of God by accommodating consumer demand in the competitive Greco Roman marketplace of religion. He writes, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence” (2 Cor 2:14-17, NRSV).

Paul defends his ministry by declaring that the congruence between his method and message is both an expression and effect of the message of the cross. Likewise, the end or purpose of his pastoral work is to build a community on the message of the cross, a concrete, visible people, who by standing against the challenges of worldly power and wisdom bear witness to the wisdom of salvation in a crucified Savior and Lord.

The qualities of pastoral leadership embodied in Paul’s speech and life present a stark contrast to popular, culturally conformed characters in Corinth who prized the effective mastery of words a means for obtaining power and control. What was at stake in Corinth was more than an argument over homiletic method or style. It was the God-given means and ends of pastoral work, the transformation of the church by the Spirit into the image of God’s incarnate Son. Paul’s practical wisdom, shaped by the end to which the church has been called by the preaching of the cross, also sheds light on the manner in which the church is called to be a communal proclamation of the cross to the world. He thus argues that while his ministry is characterized by suffering and hardship, the work of his opponents is marked by impressive displays of eloquence and power. Paul makes the startling claim that authority to speak and to be heard is found in the visible reconciliation or “atonement” between the mode of speaking, the example of the messenger, and the cruciform nature of the message.

For Paul, then, an essential part of preaching atonement is that the content of preaching cannot be separated from the character of the preacher—that is, an atonement that is articulated in and by the reconciliation of the preacher to Christ, atonement that is embodied in the reconciliation of theology and practice, and atonement that is manifested by the reconciliation of the church’s faith and life. According to his own testimony, the apostle presumably would not be a good example of the “effective” communication that is popular in our day—that is, the abstraction of Christian language from Christian life for use in serving agendas that contradict or undermine its nature, and the reduction of the scriptural witness to principles, formulae, and expressions of “bumper sticker” religion that is marketed to stimulate and satisfy the needs of religious consumers. Yet the message of the cross is neither a tool in our evangelistic toolkit nor a weapon in our ideological arsenal. Nor is it a commodity that can be packaged and sold to the highest bidder. The cross is God’s self-gift in Christ to the world which determines Christian identity and shapes its character.

Faithful preaching of atonement requires authentic preachers: those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their message in a manner that is consonant with that message; those who believe the message of the cross is the power of God that effects what it announces; those who believe the results of preaching are not dependent on the preacher’s effectiveness, eloquence, personality, or style. For if the message of the cross is true to reality—that God has chosen to save the world through the foolishness of preaching that does not depend upon human ingenuity or skill for its results—then proclaiming atonement will be an intrinsically delightful and joyful affair, an act of praise that directs attention away from both preacher and people, a public announcement that calls the world to know, love, and enjoy the One who speaks with such power that his voice can raise the dead. In Paul’s time, as in ours, preaching that aims to be true to its source rather than successful will be an essential part of proclaiming atonement.

The work of R. Greer demonstrates how the early church maintained a steady conversation between theology and the life of the church. Those who were charged with elaborating technical theology were also preachers in the church whose aim was to articulate and shape the experience of ordinary Christians. Thus doctrine and life were one. Moreover, the church’s worship was not simply an appropriation of the past but a present, corporate experience of God that was articulated in the church’s faith. The preacher’s task was to put into words what the church was being given to apprehend and know—its present appropriation of the Savior and his saving work in and for the world (Broken Lights and Mended Lives [Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991] 1-20).

Greer’s discussion of the intimate connection of theology and life in the early church helps to illumine the modern separation of theory and practice, of content and form, since in patristic wisdom Christian lives are the best apology for the truth of the gospel. In our time, these divisions have contributed to the abstraction of theology from the life of the church and to pragmatic action by the church that is untested by theological wisdom. Preaching atonement requires and aims for the reconciliation of theology and practice as truthful witness to the reality of God’s life taking form in the life of the whole church. As Greer comments, “The Christian vision is meant to be translated into virtue: the faith that apprehends God’s gratuitous forgiveness in Christ must be translated into radical obedience to him” (12).

A short homily preached by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, in AD 412, “On the Lord’s Passion,” demonstrates how in preaching atonement, the message of the cross, the church is conformed to the crucified Lord who is its source and goal (Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, III/6, trans. E. Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century [New City, 1993] 194-97). Augustine begins by affirming the reality of God’s grace in sending his Son to be born as a human being and to die at the hands of human beings. This is the incredible news that forms and sustains Christian memory and hope, “that God died for the sake of human beings” (194).

This assertion is grounded in the truth of the Incarnation, the “Word which was in the beginning; that was with God and was God; this Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Speaking in a manner shaped by the reality of the incarnate Son of God, Augustine calls attention to the self-sharing of Christ, the great exchange by which he assumed our humanity, including our death, in order to bestow his life upon us, “Accordingly, he struck a wonderful bargain, a mutual give and take; ours was what he died by; his was what we might live by” (194).

For this reason, Christian people should take pride in the cross, placing maximum trust in it, since by his death, Christ fully engaged himself with our humanity in order to give us life in himself, thus showing how much he loves us through a great act of divine justice. In believing this to be so, Christians should live gladly and joyfully, without fear or shame, publicly proclaiming and confessing their pride in Christ’s cross (195). Augustine turns to the ministry of Paul to demonstrate the source of such odd and strange-sounding wisdom.

The apostle Paul saw [Christ crucified] thus, and claimed it as a title of pride. He had so many great and divine things to remind us of about Christ, and yet he did not say he took pride or glorified in Christ’s miracles, or in his creating the world as God with the Father, or in his giving orders to the world even as a man like us: “but, far be it from me,” he says, “to take pride in nothing except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). He could see who had hung on what for whom; and it was on that humility of God, that abasement of the divine majesty, that the apostle has the presumption to rely. (195)

Augustine’s wisdom on the message of the cross speaks powerfully to our time. He preached to Christian people in North Africa who were living just a few years after the sack of Rome in AD 410, and were thereby witnessing the end of a familiar, known world. As their pastor, he was responsible for encouraging a Christian community that was presumably taunted and mocked by pagans and educated despisers for “worshiping a crucified Lord” (195).

Like Augustine, we too have been called to preach atonement, gladly, joyfully, and thankfully announcing and living by the message of the cross. And we are called to do so during a difficult time in the history of the West as the presence, authority, and influence of the church continue to decline. In our temptation to either desperation and/or despair, we face powerful cultural forces, forms of worldly wisdom and power, voices that speak both within and without the church to pull at us and persuade us, just as they did Paul, Augustine, and countless other preachers since urging us to tamper with, dilute, and water down what we believe and how we should we act and speak, peddling God’s word to the highest bidder for either survival or success.

Perhaps what we need for our preaching is not more theory or technique. Perhaps what we need for preaching atonement is to be made at one with our message, to be strengthened by God’s gifts of courage and conviction to speak the truth in love for the good of the church and the salvation of the world. It is not insignificant that Augustine concluded his homily on the Lord’s passion by calling to remembrance the gift of baptism as the sign of Christian identity: “So let us take pride in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world may be crucified to us and we to the world. It was to save us from being ashamed of that cross that we placed it right on our foreheads, that is, on the dwelling place of shame” (196).

The message of the cross is both a promise of glory and an example of hope for a pilgrim people. Because God in the ministry of Christ teaches humility not only by word but by example, so too, should the church, through is words and deeds, humbly share itself and its Lord with the world. Augustine affirms, “Accordingly, since the apostle urges us not to have big ideas, but to go along with humble folk, we should consider, as far as we can, over what precipice we human beings may tumble if we do not go along with a humble God …” (196).

Posted Feb 01, 2008