Archives For Fleming Rutledge

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesScot McKnight, who hosts the popular Jesus Creed blog, has invited me to post a series of reflections during Lent on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of JesusFleming Rutldge BandWhite

I want to give Scot the love and force you to read it over on his site so here’s my teaser:

The spiritual intuition of god in your garden will never lead you to submit to a naked, homeless, cheek-turning, executed Jew.

Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith.

Vague spirituality, untethered from orthodox tradition, certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers.

But the cross, where Christ dies for the ungodly, demands exactly that, as offensive and counter-intuitive as it is to all our natural religious and moral impulses.

Okay, whistle wetted, read the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/02/12/fleming-rutledge-and-the-atonement-by-jason-micheli/ 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

Unless you were premature preparing for the coming snowstorm by drinking yourself into oblivion, chances are you already know the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, sent students at Liberty University into a spate of self-congratulatory titters this week by flubbing his wantonly staged zeal for scripture.

“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” Trump said, not, as it’s said in nearly every congregation in North America, second Corinthians 3.17.

The verse in question says: ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’

Freedom, as in, liberty. Jerry Falwell’s school’s namesake.

Much gleeful criticism has been piled upon Donald Trump for unintentionally outing himself as an inauthentic evangelical, for so clumsily attempting ‘to close the sale’ among fundamentalists.

That all of the critique of Trump’s citation has centered around his mis-speaking a verse from Corinthians and exposing his pretense at piety speaks volumes, not about him but about the compromises American Christians make in order to have access to power (or normalcy).

Never mind for a second that the distinction between second Corinthians and two Corinthians gets at every thing I hate about the Christian subculture, who cares, really, whether Trump says ‘two’ or ‘second’ Corinthians? Its like laughing at him for not knowing how to hold his hands for communion or not knowing when to clap during ‘Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.’

I’m not usually sympathetic for The Donald but shouldn’t it be more cringe-worthy that so many political candidates, who aspire to lead the most powerful nation in the world, feel the need to speak at a school founded after a savior who was executed by the most powerful nation in the world?

What’s worse, really, a candidate who mis-states an epistle (that means letter) from the New Testament or a candidate whose surface gestures at Christian discipleship go unchallenged?

Snickers follow Trump’s profession of Presbyterianism, after all Trump is wealthy, pompous, possibly racist, and thrice married. But nothing- silence- follows those candidates who court Christians even though those candidates’ positions in no way correspond to the larger Church. Hillary supports both abortion in contradiction to her United Methodist faith. Marco, Kasich, Christie, and Jeb support the death penalty contrary to their Catholic Church. Don’t get me started on Ted, whose entire ‘carpet bomb ‘em,’ see-the-worst-in-everyone tone is dissonant to every strain of the gospel; meanwhile, all of the candidates minus Bernie and Rand espouse a preemptive militarism at odds with all of the Christian just war tradition.

I’ve read many conspiracy theories about how Trump is really a trojan horse for the Democrats, undermining the Republicans from the inside when, truly, his are just exaggerated versions of the falsehoods and pretenses that Christians accept from all candidates of both parties.

The giggles induced by Trump’s ‘Two Corinthians’ reveals more about us than it does The Donald.

rp_faith4.jpgStanley Hauerwas says the privatization of Christian faith, the reduction of it to belief and feeling, leads to absurd, unintelligible comments like:

‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’

More cringe-worthy than The Donald’s mispronunciation is how we expect little evidence other than the personal opinions of those candidates who cater votes by claiming Jesus as their Lord.

The thin veneer of discipleship with which we’re satisfied in candidates reveals much about the depth of our own.

Sticking to just the text in question, the back-patting cackling and self-satisfied criticism shouldn’t be about how Donald introduced II Corinthians 3.17 but about the fact that any politico in a place like Liberty would cite any verse from those 2 letters of Paul.

In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul sees a serious threat in the way their life and faith are oriented to what Fleming Rutledge calls ‘the wrong center.’ The verse Donald cited sounds nice and probably it did to Jerry Falwell too, but in that larger letter Paul is critiquing two states of mind.

On the one hand, Paul rails against the religiosity of the church-going Christians in Corinth. Paul accuses them of preferring religious experiences, sentimentality and kitsch, uplifting spiritual teachings, and practical, reasonable faith-based lessons. In other words, Paul chastises them for making discipleship about privatized feelings and beliefs rather than a contrary way of life.

On the other hand, Paul critiques the secular Corinthian culture, in which the church found itself, which privileged materialistic values, common-sense demonstrations of fact and the proofs of science.

I don’t think I’m off-base in suggesting that the former corresponds to Liberty’s civll-religion ethos while the former more pretty well captures the worldview of both Trump and his critics in the media.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteBoth rub against the grain of the cross. Against both, Fleming Rutledge suggests, Paul puts forth his argument that the word of the cross is a stumbling block (standalone) and foolishness to both the religious and the secular way of seeing the world,

Says Rutledge:

‘The cross is not a suitable object of devotion for religious people, and the claims made for it are too extreme to be acceptable to secular people.

It is the paradox of present-day American culture to be both religious and irreligious. We are secular and materialistic most of the time, but also so pious that candidates for president must stage photo-ops of themselves coming out of church. Paul’s word of the cross opposes all of this.’

cake_topper_c-445x287-300x193This past weekend I said ‘dearly beloved…’ to a small gathering in our hot, stuffy church library (ac wasn’t working/sanctuary was closed for roof repairs) as a couple who’d already been married in the Caribbean took the vows again before God and God’s gathered church.

They bothered with the trouble of planning yet another wedding service and they suffered the weather and the unromantic decor because it was that important for them to have an overtly Christian ceremony celebrated in their church by their pastor.

Do I have to connect the dots? …… They are NOT the bride and groom norm.

Among pastors, I’m hardly alone or prophetic in arguing that the partisan debate over DOMA and homosexuality obscures a far more troubling and seismic shift happening in plain sight, in black and white font, on the pages of the NY Times wedding announcements.

Namely, the waxing of secular wedding rites and the waning of liturgical ceremonies officiated by a genuine clergy person who wasn’t credentialed via the internet.

Many Christian conservatives bemoan with biblical fervor how quickly the culture has shifted on homosexuality.

Far fewer seem to have even noticed that, just as quickly, the culture has shifted to the point where a non-religious friend getting vested online by American Marriage Ministries to perform your wedding ‘event’ is no longer considered a joke.

While Christians battle over sexuality, secularism- which doesn’t dissipate with age and libido- takes ever deeper root.

Fleming Rutledge, my paramour in another life I’m certain, observes:

Setting aside the discussion about same-sex weddings, let’s take a look at what’s happening on the male-female front. The New York Times for Sunday, June 2, 2013, has notices of 34 such weddings. The overwhelming majority of them were held at “event spaces.” The Roman Catholics are holding their own, as usual; three of the weddings were held at a Roman Catholic church with a priest presiding. Several rabbis presided at weddings held in various secular “venues.” There was only one wedding held at a church with the church pastor presiding, and that one–wouldn’t you know–was held in the South.

Most remarkable, though, is the long list of non-denominational officiants. They include numerous “Universal Life” ministers and “American Marriage Ministries” ministers (“a friend of the couple became a Universal Life minister for the event”), 2 ministers of the Church of Human Spiritualism, and a minister of the World Christianship Ministries (Google that one to get a shock).

Granted, the list of couples chosen for the New York Times is hardly representative of the rest of the country–or even the city itself. But given all the beautiful New York City churches that used to be the scenes for weddings, and all the hard-working clergy of this city, one would think that we could do a better job.

Such is the power of the cultural trends.

How did these Universal Life “ministers” achieve this status all of a sudden?

How can anyone take that seriously? Wouldn’t you think that would be a joke?

During the 14 years that I was on the clergy staff at Grace Church in New York (1981-1995), I started counting the number of married couples who had met at the church. I stopped counting at 50. Most of them were married at Grace Church and all of them at a church somewhere. All were married by a member of the clergy (need I say legitimate clergy). Most–though, granted, not all–are still married. Am I bragging? not really, since the circumstances at Grace in those years were truly remarkable and God-given. However, I think a case can be made for the help given to couples by a strong grounding in the church.

This business of do-it-yourself weddings speaks volumes about the unmoored, self-created ethos of the institution of marriage today. This is a very serious matter for families and for our society as a whole. May God bless all those who are working hard to strengthen marriages in the context of religious faith and Christian community.

My Crush On Older Women

Jason Micheli —  January 23, 2013 — 2 Comments

Yes, shameless title to get you to click on it.

We’re nearing the end of a sermon series, Razing Hell, that’s tackled topics like heaven, hell, purgatory and the second coming. I’d be remiss if I didn’t post these thoughts from Fleming Rutledge, the best damn preacher in the English language. I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…fleming-portrait-2008

Here’s a sermon on heaven from her.

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There are a lot of apocryphal stories about the great theologian Karl Barth, but this one sounds just like him. A well-meaning lady asked him, “Dr. Barth, will we see our loved ones in heaven?” Barth replied, “Not only our loved ones!”

When I was at Union Theological Seminary in the early 70s, I was very fortunate to have a tutor named Christopher Morse. He was a lowly graduate student at the time. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is on the cover of Time magazine. Well, not exactly…but there was a cover story on heaven at Eastertide, and it featured not only the work of the well-known English bishop and scholar N. T. Wright, but also the new book by Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes.[1] I thought about his book right away when I looked at the Psalm appointed for today.

You might not have noticed it, but Psalm 48, which we just read, is about heaven.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised

in the city of our God!

His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,

is the joy of all the earth,

Mount Zion, in the far north,

the city of the great King.

Throughout the Bible, heaven is identified as a city which, in God’s own time, will come from heaven to be established on earth. That comes as a great shock to many people. Heaven is in the clouds, isn’t it? To be sure, Jesus is repeatedly said to have “come down from heaven,” and gone back into heaven at the Ascension, so it’s logical that we might think of heaven being somewhere in the stratosphere. But that’s not the way the Scriptures present it. The theme of Christopher Morse’s book, which Bishop Wright is also working on, is that heaven is not a place where God lives so much as it is wherever God comes to us and acts among us. Therefore heaven is not only in the future, but, as Jesus said many times in many ways, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Wherever the activity of Jesus Christ is, heaven is already impinging upon this world.

The world that we now see, which seems so real to us, is passing away.[2] Think for instance of Jesus’ important saying,

Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

This isn’t a difficult passage to understand, and it’s well known. It means a lot more than meets the eye, however. It’s not about what we’re going to take with us into the afterlife, as though we were some pharaoh or warlord piling up grave goods. It’s about the life we live now, and what’s important. Earth and heaven are not so much contrasting locations as they are present priorities. When we dispose of our money and goods by giving them away, we are acting on the conviction that this world is not our home. As St. Paul says in Philippians, “our commonwealth is in heaven” (4:20). This is a major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We read that Abraham left his home, and went out by faith alone, “not knowing where he was to go,” trusting in the promise of God; “he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). This chapter in Hebrews is the famous roll call of the Old Testament saints, who lived in this world according to the world to come, because “they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).

Now this has been seriously misunderstood to mean that this world doesn’t count. On the contrary, it counts very much. It is this world into which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to be with us and to live and die for us, not simply to carry us off into the sweet by-and-by, but to show us how to live here, now, in such a way as to testify to the reality and power of who God is and what he is doing among us. After Christ’s ascension, his disciples are told in no uncertain terms by angelic visitors that they are not to stand looking up into heaven but to look instead for what heaven holds for them here, right here in the age that is passing away on earth. They therefore return to the city of Jerusalem, and behold! the Holy Spirit comes upon them with the powers of heaven and sets them in motion to change the world with the news of what God has done (Acts 1-3).

We only have one life in this world which is passing away, so the kingdom of heaven is already at hand in the way we live our lives in the present. It is at hand, not because we are journeying toward God in the familiar conception, but because God has journeyed to us and continues to arrive by the power of the Spirit. Wherever that happens, that is the kingdom of heaven taking shape even now. As Professor Morse writes,

Whatever comes from God is said [in the Bible] to come “from heaven”…References to heaven as God’s dwelling place emphasize not a place of confinement but the direction from which God…act[s] in relation to the earth.[3]

So the reality of God is the reality of heaven. Heaven is not just where God lives off in the clouds. Heaven is where God is working through human beings to make his loving purposes known. For instance, a little piece of heaven takes shape when a church building that might have been abandoned suddenly finds itself full of new life. Your vicar Betsy Fisher would be the first to say that she is not doing this. God is doing this.

But now what is all this about a city? If heaven is a city, what are we doing up here in Dutchess County? How did we get the idea that heaven is a garden in the sky? It’s interesting that the two most prominent gardens in the Bible are the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, and you know who pops up in them both, don’t you? Satan, that’s who. I suppose we like to think of going back to the Garden of Eden the way it used to be before Satan got hold of Adam and Eve, but that’s not the biblical vision. There isn’t any suggestion in Scripture that we’re “closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” The biblical vision is that God “has prepared for us a city.” The city is sometimes called Mount Zion, sometimes Salem (city of peace), sometimes the heavenly Jerusalem.

Now I’m a city lover, but not everyone is. There are many people who think that living in New York City would be hell. Here’s where we really have to be open to poetic imagination. The description of the City of God in Revelation is not a literal description. It’s meant to invoke awe and wonder. These passages tell us about the majesty and glory of God and of God’s ultimate purposes for us.

In the book of Revelation there are two cities. One is evil and one is the kingdom of God. Babylon is the symbol of all that is wicked in the world, and Babylon is doomed to destruction. There’s a very powerful description of this in chapter 18:

…the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for Babylon, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen…wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls…The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from [Babylon], will stand far off, in fear…weeping and mourning aloud,  “Alas, alas, for the great city that was…bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste.” (18:11-13, 15-17)

That is a picture of the world that is passing away.

But now wait a minute. We like the part about nobody buying slaves any more, but what about all that other stuff? Will there be nothing beautiful in Zion?

Indeed there will. The description of the City of God is clearly meant to stun us with its magnificence. The city walls have twelve wide-open gates meant to welcome countless myriads of people from every tribe and nation on earth. The gates are built of every kind of precious stone, while the buildings of the city itself are “pure gold, clear as glass” (Revelation 21:18). We may ask, how can gold be “clear as glass”? Phrases like this should tip us off that this is not “realistic,” at least not in terms of this passing-away world. The vision is meant to open the doors of our imaginations to a world that is coming into being from a realm far beyond our capacity to describe. It’s a way of reminding us that God is infinitely larger and more unexpected than our paltry ideas of God. You might remember the line from the hymn, “Holy, holy, holy” where we sing “all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”[4] What’s that all about? Well, the image is in Revelation 7. Before the throne of God is a crystal sea, and the 24 elders (who represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles) “fall down before…the throne and worship;…they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…’” (Revelation 4:10-11). So we aren’t supposed to be asking dumb questions about how the elders can keep on throwing down their crowns over and over ad infinitum. The idea behind the image is that all glory and honor and power belong to God—and the kingdom of heaven means being free, even now, from all pretense that we can construct it ourselves.

The twelve gates will be large enough to bring in all the wealth of the passing-away world. These treasures will no longer be hoarded or sold, but will be brought in to adorn the dwelling place of God with his people. The Revelation to John continues:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb [of God, who is Jesus Christ]. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light…By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it…they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:22-26)

So you see, there’s a place for all the art and culture and riches and diversity of the nations of the earth in the city of the kingdom of heaven.

But now I bet that some of you are not so happy with this city idea. It’s hard to let go of the notion of a garden of paradise. What is it that God is doing with this city? Well, this, too, calls for imagination. There isn’t enough time in one sermon to do justice to the resplendent description of the city in Revelation, with the ramparts and towers that we read about in Psalm 48—Mount Zion, “beautiful in elevation”—but just listen to this passage (John is speaking):

Then [the angel] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit…and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

A few years ago you may remember “The Gates” in Central Park. The artist who calls himself Christo filled the park with huge orange banners designed as a network of passageways that you could walk through. Having lived and worked downtown, I didn’t know a thing about Central Park until “The Gates” occurred. I walked the entire route from 110th Street to 59th Street under the banners. The whole population seemed to be there, in all its incredible ethnic diversity—that is what cities are supposed to be, filled to the brim with people of “all sorts and conditions.” It won’t be just our loved ones in the city of God, but all the ones we didn’t love and who didn’t love us, either. Something else will be going on.

Anyway, in Central Park during “The Gates,” there was an atmosphere of reverence—there was very little noise. People talked in hushed tones if they talked at all, and even children seemed awed. The “healing of the nations” seemed, just for a few weeks, to be possible. In recent years Central Park has come to be the most beloved urban green space in the world. And it is right in the middle of the city.

Now of course Central Park is not the Kingdom of heaven. There are still robberies and muggings occasionally. I would feel a bit nervous walking through the “north woods” section alone. Satan has not been banished. But there are reminders, here and there, of the river of life that flows from the throne of God. I was in the Conservatory Garden last week, and in the late afternoon I sat down beside the Secret Garden fountain, with its lovely statue of a young boy and girl. The atmosphere was almost worshipful. The water dripped into the pond. The sun slanted through the leaves. Many varieties of birds came to splash in the fountain, throwing spray into the air. A few children wandered through, very quietly. Opposite me sat two women. One of them was in her eighties—not much older than I am. The other was probably fifty-something. They sat quietly, without saying a word, looking at the scene, lost in thought. I observed them discreetly for a long time.

I am not a sentimental person, but I thought I could detect a narrative. The older woman was well groomed, but she seemed frail, perhaps ill. The younger woman, I thought, was her daughter, or perhaps a niece or devoted younger friend. The two of them did not look isolated from one another, as two people sometimes do when they are not speaking; they looked connected.  I noticed particularly that the younger woman was not taking the opportunity to look at any electronic device. The two of them seemed to be drawing something from the scene that was mutual between them both. After a long time—perhaps 45 minutes or more—they seemed to decide without words that it was time to go. Arm in arm, they very slowly departed—very, very slowly, as if reluctant to leave, yet carrying away with them something of what they had shared together in the garden in the middle of the city.

 Then I [John] saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard [an angelic]…voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with human beings. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And [God] who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

(Revelation 21:1-5)

Amen.


[1] The article is not very good. Time and Newsweek used to have excellent religion editors, but those times are long gone. Christopher Morse’s book, however, is very good indeed—though not for the faint-hearted.

[2] “For the form of this world is passing away”—I Corinthians 7:31

[3] Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes, New York: T & T Clark, 2010,  p. 10.

[4] Hymn, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!” Reginald Heber (1783-1826).