The Cup of Death (I Cor. 10 : 16a)

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 31, 1982, p. 359. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Without the cross, our faith wouldn’t be a comfort to anybody. What would you say to the terminal cancer victim? The mother of a starving child in an Ethiopian desert? The 80-year-old resident of a shoddy nursing home? “Smile, God Loves You!”

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ. [I Cor. 10:16a].

THEY HAD ASKED him before; they would ask him again. “Grant us to sit,” said the sons of Zebedee, “one at your right hand and one at your left hand, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Surely this was not too much to ask. After all, they had “left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11).

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. Then, as they gathered around the table in the Upper Room, with the cross only a few hours away, there was the “cup” before him, the blood of his death. The disciples looked for glory; Jesus led them toward death. And so Thomas à Kempis says:

Jesus now hath many lovers of His celestial kingdom:

but few bearers of His Cross.

He bath many who are desirous of consolations:

but few of tribulation.

He findeth many companions of His table:

but few of His abstinence.

All desire to rejoice with Him:

Few wish to endure anything for Him.

Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread:

but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion.

Many reverence His miracles:

few follow the shame of His Cross.

[The Imitation of Christ]


We are like that. We have signed on for the glory of it all, not the humiliation. We want healing, comfort, reward, success. Like me, the folk at First Church, Corinth, had signed on with Jesus for the glory of it all. They expected to eat the heavenly food and live forever, to achieve power; glory, exotic gifts of the Spirit. But Paul takes them back to the Upper Room, back to the dark night of the cross. He reminds them that it was “on the night when he was betrayed” that the Lord took bread. On the night he was forsaken by God, defeated by Caesar and humiliated by his friends, he took the cup in hand. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor. 11:23, 26).

Paul countered the Corinthians’ Risen-Christ triumphalism by referring them to the historical Jesus and to the cross. The real Jesus was rejected, says Paul. His obedience to God ended upon a cross. Why should the Corinthians expect some magical bypassing of this scandal? Paul counters their self-serving religion by reminding them of the selflessness of Christ. He preached to them not about healing, immorality, rewards, church growth, exotic spiritual gifts, the things that so infatuated them. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Cor. 2:2).

On Maundy Thursday as we take up the cup, we too proclaim that the cross is not optional equipment for Christians. The way of faithfulness invariably leads to Calvary. If we would follow this Lord, we must go his way, not ours. Evil must be confronted rather than masked by grinning platitudes. Injustice, oppression, famine, the everyday big and little cruelties which we inflict upon others must be fought.

Our Lord confronted evil on its own turf. He yoked himself in solidarity with this whole, suffering, sinful mass of dying humanity. He “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).

We, like the Corinthians before us, seek to fill ourselves, cure our aches and pains, live forever. Too often, American evangelical Christianity presents the good news of Christ as the solution to all human problems, the fulfillment of all wants, and a good way to make basically good people even better.

The cross suggests that this good news is the beginning of problems we would gladly have avoided, the turning away from the quest for self-fulfillment, the ultimate mocking of our claims for goodness. The principalities and powers tremble only before the cross. Nothing less than death will do -- painful, full-scale conversion, letting go, turning from ourselves and toward God.

This meal is not some magical mystery medicine we take to exempt ourselves from the hard facts of life in this world. It is a way of confronting those hard facts. No prayers of a TV evangelist, no prayer cloth from Arizona, no holy oil or water, no holy food, no technique for self-betterment, no sincere social program exempts us from this death.

But at the table, with cup in hand, even our most painful times are redeemed because this Savior saves through suffering. Without the cross, our faith wouldn’t be a comfort to anybody. What would you say to the terminal cancer victim? The mother of a starving child in an Ethiopian desert? The 80-year-old resident of a shoddy nursing home? “Smile, God Loves You!”

No, you can say that our God has been there before. Wherever a cross is raised in the world, our God is there with the crucified. Our God does not flinch in the face of evil. In a hurting world where injustice still sends the good ones to the cross, we do have something to preach. We, like Paul before us, boldly lift the cup and daringly preach Christ and him crucified. If we would follow this Lord, we must follow him down this narrow way of Passion.

The cup had been poured for communion. I stood behind the Lord’s table with my arms outstretched to pray the Prayer of Thanksgiving. “Look, Mommie,” one of our younger members exclaimed. “He’s trying to look like Jesus on the cross.”

It’s not a bad thing to say about a Christian.