Many know Wolfhart Pannenberg for his careful and prolific work as an academic theologian, but he was a preacher as well and published two volumes of sermons (I am still searching for a copy of the second volume, Freude des Glaubens). No published English translations are available, and this is unfortunate considering the fascinating window they offer into his thinking on subjects ranging from the human person, pneumatology, the Church, and Christology.
The following is from a sermon on Jesus’ invitation to imitate the cross delivered in 1972 in Tutzing.
Whoever freely hears Jesus’ word to imitate the Cross must be startled by the cold severity of it. This severity stands alone, and just so it binds the community to Jesus for readiness to martyrdom and the readiness to go with Jesus on his way to the bitter end of a criminal’s death.
In the Gospel Jesus issues a warning to all who would consider imitating the Cross, but who would do so, like Peter, without understanding. Peter attempted to hold Jesus back from his way to Jerusalem when it would lead Jesus to the cross. And Jesus responds to Peter’s attempt with extreme sharpness; he calls Peter a satan who would tempt him. “Get behind me Satan; you are a hindrance to me; you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” The word to imitate the cross follows immediately after this, and, like Peter, seeking to protect and preserve yourself from suffering will be judged as the thinking of men and not of those who would imitate the cross.
By the wisdom of God, Jesus’ mission led in another direction. It consisted not in self-protection, but required self-abandonment. Jesus declared with his invitation to imitate the cross that this was also a necessity for his disciples, yes he even gave it the form of universal force. The tendency toward self-protection leads to the loss of oneself; only through self-abandonment will one become themselves, preserve their life, and, in fact, gain life (“Das Kreuz Jesu und das des Christen (1972),” in Gegenwart Gottes: Predigten [München: Claudius Verlag, 1973], 176ff).
I corresponded with his secretary at the University of Münich recently and was disappointed to hear that Pannenberg’s health has not improved. In this his eighty-second year of life, I continue to pray that his years of retirement will be rewarded with good health and the enjoyment of his remaining time on earth.