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Fleming Rutledge on Preaching the Cross of Christ

In this episode, Fleming Rutledge talks about her 2015 book "The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ," a life-long work which encourages preachers to proclaim the full gospel message: God is at work, helping us listen for Christ's living voice, enabling us to believe and hope in the midst of pain and suffering.

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Episode transcript:


Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching, interviews Fleming Rutledge, priest, theologian, preacher, and author of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, her lifelong work published in 2015. Rutledge insists preachers proclaim the full gospel message: Jesus is alive, and the terribleness of his death corresponds directly to the terribleness of sin, but God is at work, helping us listen for Christ's living voice, enabling us to believe and empowering pastors to preach hope in the midst of pain and suffering.

Scott Hoezee: 

We're happy to be talking to Fleming Rutledge today. She's an Episcopal priest and a well-known author of numerous books on preaching and sermon collections. She came out recently with a book on Advent, Advent articles and sermons, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. But what we want to talk about today is a landmark book she published several years ago, an award-winning book on the crucifixion, and it's called The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus. And we want to be talking about that today about preaching in general, but ultimately, we're going to talk a little bit about what preachers have been doing and maybe what they need to do in this COVID-shaped world after this strange year of 2020. So Fleming, it's good to welcome you to this conversation.

Fleming Rutledge: 

Scott, I'm not doing much in the way of podcasts right now, but I care a lot about Calvin College, and I care a lot about its connections, and I care a great deal about preachers. So to all who may be listening, greetings, and may the Spirit guide the conversation.

Scott Hoezee: 

Thank you. So we'll begin a bit generally on this book on the crucifixion--talk a little bit about the genesis of the book, where it came from, why you wrote it. I know it incubated in you for many years, and I know it took a lot of work to write it. It's a very significant volume. So talk about where it came from, what led you to write it?

Fleming Rutledge: 

Thank you. I'm always glad to talk about that. First I'd like to interject that the name of the book is Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. And that's important to me, to give him not only his name, but his title. So Jesus Christ. And I say that, and we may get back to this, because I think the Christology of the mainline churches has become very weak. And I think we need to give him his title as well as his name.

So now in terms of the genesis of the book itself, I can honestly say that I've been working on it all my life, and I'm 82, really 83, because even as a very young child, I had a deep sense that the cross meant something very important. And as I got older, I became concerned--I was fairly intent upon theological matters even as a young teenager. And I began to notice that in the Episcopal church where I grew up, we were not really being told very much about what exactly the crucifixion signified, what exactly happened, if anything, and why was it that the cross is the central symbol of Christian faith.

Then when I got older still, I'd be in my twenties by then, but I was always very active as a layperson in the church. I began to hear august figures in the church from the seminaries and leading clergy say, "Well, we don't really believe in substitutionary atonement," or they would say, "We don't want to talk about sin so much. People are turned off by that." Such utterances as that began to bother me a lot, because I felt very strongly as a young person, that Jesus Christ had died for my sin and for the sin of the world. Now that's important to say both those things, not to just say my sin as an individual, but the sin of the world, the whole world, and all the people in it, and indeed for the cosmos and for its vulnerability to an enemy. And so that's the framework that I found myself working with even when I was very young.

Then came seminary and priesthood and work in the church. And the more I thought about it and the more I was invited to preach on Good Friday--which I was for 35 years in a row, which in itself is pretty remarkable because we don't have that many Good Friday services available anymore, but in my younger days, they were, the three-hour services with preaching--and you can't preach 35 Good Fridays with several sermons each without having to give a lot of thought to what is happening on the cross.

And so the book began to take shape probably 30, 40 years ago. I started working on it in an official way 20 years ago, or 22 years ago, give or take a year or two. All of this is in the introduction to the book, but I'm always glad to go back over it because I think I have, by God's grace, a very deep background not only in the Episcopal church, but in more recent years in the larger church, many of the denominations of the larger church, many. And I've seen the problem from one end of the spectrum to the other: a failure, to my mind, of preaching the full gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Now I go into some detail in the book about what's been called Protestant orthodoxy. I'm not sure that's a very good handle to put on it. But in the 19th century, the whole scheme of penal substitutionary atonement became the watchword in certain so-called conservative denominations in the church, particularly Presbyterian, but that thinking still pervades certain corners of the evangelical community, and it became a litmus test, and that disturbed me and still disturbs me because it shouldn't be a litmus test. It should be part of the whole picture. I profoundly believe that Jesus Christ died for me and in my place, substituting himself for me and for the entire, afflicted human race.

And because I believe both those things I began to see, through the courses that I took and the reading that I did later and then the preaching that I was called to do, I began to see that the biblical images used to proclaim what Jesus is doing on the cross, those images were numerous and multifaceted and deep, and that they called for a much more wide-spectrum presentation than we had been hearing. When the so-called Protestant orthodoxy of the 19th century, the penal substitutionary atonement is an alternative handle to put on it, when that began to be the test for legitimate Christian preaching of the cross, it crowded out all the other images that one can put under the overall heading of Christus Victor. And having done that, we inherited, the church inherited, an individualistic picture of the crucifixion and what is accomplished by Christ on the cross, individualistic and apolitical, highly focused on what Christ is doing with single individuals, one by one, and taking no account of his victory over the demonic conquest of the principalities and powers.

And as I say that, I feel a surge of contemporaneity here because the demonic takeover of the principalities and powers is prevalent throughout the globe today--always has been, but it's so important now because we have social media and the internet, which has connected us all around the globe, and that was supposed to be such a wonderful thing. And it has turned out to be pernicious as well as a wonderful thing. It has connected my daughter with her old friends that she hasn't seen in 30 years. And it has connected terrorists with one another in nanoseconds so that the white supremacists can marshal their malicious in nanoseconds. I always think about the Black church women in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement down in the basement of the church, rolling out the mimeograph machine all night to hand out the flyers the next day for the church, for the bus boycott. And that was the church working against the principalities and powers to reclaim them for human freedom. They were doing it on a mimeograph machine and handing them out by hand. And it worked.

Now those messages go out to repeat in a nanosecond for good and ill alike, and we have unleashed something that's equivalent to the unleashing of the hydrogen bomb and Satan loves it. So if we're only talking about penal substitutionary atonement, in which . . . I think we should be totally wedded to the substitutionary theme. I think that substitutionary theme is indispensable. But if it's not held in tension with and in companionship with, and in productive interaction with the Christus Victor themes and all the other themes that feed into it, then I think we have lost the gospel and are preaching something less than the gospel, which is not useful for us in the crisis we're in today.

I really am worried about the soul of America. I deeply believe in the Puritan vision, which is so often reviled. Marilynne Robinson is doing a good job of recalling us to a better picture of the Puritans. I believe that if we hold the Puritan vision as being equal to the more secular vision of, say, the Jamestown colony, I think we will have something significant for rethinking the whole "American idea" in our time because I think it's in great danger. And I think that the "evangelical churches"--and I'm a self-confessed proud evangelical--the evangelical churches, and I don't mean this in an unfriendly way because I consider myself at least partly part of that community, I believe that evangelical churches have turned us in precisely the wrong direction. And many people are writing about this and calling our attention to this now, right now. So I think preaching the cross in all of its wholeness is a crucial calling for the church now. And I'm very grateful to be able to play a small part by making this podcast.

Scott Hoezee: 

What if---I mean, maybe it's not possible to target the top two or so reasons, but what do you think primarily accounts for the atrophying of preaching the cross in some church circles? What made preachers and others shy away? Was it merely because they thought penal substitution was too narrow. I mean, there's a sense in which the cross has always been a scandal, right? But usually it's been a scandal to those outside of the faith. How did it sort of become a stumbling block for people ostensibly inside of the faith, such that they didn't preach the cross robustly for a long time? We'll talk in a couple of minutes about how in this COVID-shaped world, and with all the racial reckoning going on, it may be important, but how did mainline churches particularly, but others too, drift away? What turned them off? Was it an embarrassment? Did it seem barbaric? Was it a relic from a former age? What would you think would be a top reason or two to account for that?

Fleming Rutledge: 

Scott, you know, I get asked that all the time and you would think by now, that I would have an answer or at least some ready answers. And I still don't. I'm looking for someone else to help me to understand why that happened and continues to happen. And it happens across the board. It's significant. I don't know what the significance is, but there must be a significance to the fact that for the first thousand years of the church, Paul's insistence that Jesus Christ and him crucified was the center of the gospel. Not even in Augustine, not even in the other church fathers, do we find what I would call a full-blooded proclamation of the work of Christ on the cross, not until Anselm. And I adore Augustine, of course, and there are definite references to the power of the cross in the Fathers, and I've quoted some of them in the book, but there isn't a fully worked out biblical theology of the cross until the Reformation.

Anselm focused on one aspect of the crucifixion, or one or two aspects of the crucifixion, and the famous line from Anselm, "You have not yet considered the gravity of sin." That's part of the reason that preaching the cross has been so weak in recent decades and maybe centuries because since the Enlightenment and its influence on the church, people don't want to talk about sin--and certainly not in the apocalyptic terms that Anselm talks about it or that St. Paul talks about it as a Power with a capital P and guided by, imprisoned by, usurped by an actual capital A Adversary who has many names--Satan, the devil, Beelzebub--Jesus clearly was in conflict all of his life, his human life, with this Adversary. It would be ridiculous to say Jesus believed in the devil. Jesus didn't believe in the devil; Jesus was in hand-to-hand combat with the devil all of his human life, face to face, beginning with the temptation. And for the church to ignore that, it seems to me, has been a terrible mistake.

But the problem is that the church, when it did think of the devil--and this became particularly true in the 19th century--began to think of the devil as inhabiting one person at a time, not inhabiting the entire human project. And until we can understand the entire human project that's problematic because of sin, we're never going to understand the magnitude of what Jesus is doing. That's why he was tortured to death. That's why the death was so terrible. Now that's one thing I've done in my book that I don't think anybody else has ever asked. Why was the death so terrible? Well, actually that's not quite true, because I don't--I have trouble with names now at my age--a very well-known book by a German theologian about the crucifixion which does ask this question [of] why such a terrible death--it may come to me before we finish. But mostly I would say that I don't think much has been written about this.

And my conclusion, which I try to work up to in the book, is that the terribleness of the death has to correspond to something. What does it correspond to? It corresponds to the gravity of sin, what Anselm called the gravity of sin and St. Paul, in Romans 7, describes this, how Sin (capital S) took hold of God's Law (capital L) and used it to take the entire human race and the creation into bondage. And that's why the planet is suffering. It's not just human beings that need to be saved. The planet is suffering. If we don't preach about this, and I don't mean--now, I'm going to be snarky, but I don't mean just talking about climate care and the beauty of God's creation; it's very sentimental, a lot of what I hear is, "We have to take care of the beauty of God's creation." The beauty of God's creation is under a death sentence right now, and all the human beings in it, and the ones who are first to be destroyed are the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. The rich are up on the hills, safe, we think, but the poor being flooded out, hurricaned out, volcanoed out, drowned, buried, ignored, forgotten. It cries out to heaven.

So this is the kind of preaching--I'm sorry I'm preaching, but I think that little lessons about creation care, I'm not going to do it because that doesn't take account of the principalities and powers. The people who are trying to take care of the creation are also in bondage. All of us are in to sin and to selfishness and to blindness and to ignorance. And we get tired. I'm tired. The pandemic has worn me out. I don't have any energy left. This is the first time I've done anything energetic in several weeks. I read in The New York Times yesterday, there are a lot of interviews with people who have lost their jobs, and one lovely woman who has all these great hobbies that she likes to do, she's so exhausted from being jobless. . . . She said, I want to get back to my hobbies. I love my hobbies, but I don't have any ambition for them anymore. Satan is at work there. Satan is at work in the constricting and the depression of culture and life. And if we're not talking about that as preachers--and this is an Advent subject, you see, because the principalities and powers are right at the heart of the Advent message that Christ has come as the sword of St. Michael destroying the works of the devil.

And this is the kind of red meat--pardon the expression, but we need as preachers right now to reenergize our congregations, and to arm ourselves with the fullness of the armor of God, to take hope, to seize hope in the midst of despair and depression, which is even worse than despair, in some ways--just depression, lethargy, lack of ambition, lack of energy, inability to perform even basic tasks because of just this overall feeling of being sapped. Every preacher I know says that he or she is tired: tired of Zooming, tired--well, that's not true of everybody. Some people actually like Zooming, but I don't know any preacher who doesn't say that it's very tiring to preach to an absent congregation.


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Scott Hoezee: 

I've talked to a lot of preachers, and this goes to what you're saying, across 2020. And some of them--one of the things that I think we've observed in preaching in North America in recent years, particularly in more evangelical circles, . . . preaching has shifted from proclaiming good news to dispensing good advice, right? You get all these preachers with sermon series on how to raise successful children or grow your business or spark your marriage. And so they're less Billy Graham and more Dr. Phil. But some of those preachers are discovering in this COVID moment not just the challenge of preaching into a camera lens or in the absence of people or with socially distanced people, but they're discovering that good-advice preaching isn't cutting it. All of a sudden it doesn't seem to meet the moment of a pandemic and also of the political tensions and the racial reckoning after George Floyd in particular.

So what would you say to preachers like that who are saying, I wonder why this isn't working, and what would work better? I think you've already been pointing to it, but a robust engagement with the cross, perhaps, and with recognizing that people aren't grappling with unsuccessful lives; they're grappling with the powers and principalities, right?

Fleming Rutledge: 

Amen to everything you've said, but what is the answer to this? Let's say I'm back in the pre-COVID days, and I'm preaching to a very large congregation in a cathedral or a great city church, and I'm preaching my heart out and I'm completely exhausted because I have poured myself into this sermon, which I think every preacher should do every single time he or she preaches. And I, at the end, and weeks later or maybe even months later, one or two people will say, that sermon really got to me or changed me or meant something to me. Two thirds of the congregation said, "Oh, that was nice" or something, . . . and were unmoved by it. So we have to recognize that our preaching will only reach the people that God has already prepared to hear it. And many will not be touched by it. And I think we always have to think about that and not let ourselves be discouraged. God's Word will never return to him empty. That's his promise to us. And it may seem to return empty, but we as preachers can trust that God is up to something even when we don't see it or feel it.

However, when you're worn out and when you're not interacting with living faces out there, which I find so crucial--I find it so crucial to engage with eye contact with people that it's hard to get worked up, but I find even as I talk to you---actually I'm looking out of the window at the autumn leaves, but I'm feeling as I'm saying these things, I'm sensing once again, that not that words have power, but that the Word has this unique power because it is of the living God. And if there's one message that I would like to give to everyone who might hear this podcast, it's three words: Jesus is alive. He is not dead. He is alive, powerfully working through the Spirit to use you, preacher, as his messenger to give life.

Now I've had an interesting exchange on Twitter. Twitter is about the best I can do these days, I'm sorry to say. It's very embarrassing, but at least it's something. I've been listening to a lot of sermons, including sermons by my favorite preachers all around the country, but I began to notice that, from my perspective, at least, I was hearing a lot more three-point sermons than I used to hear. And I said, has the three-point sermon come back or what? I don't care for the three-point sermon for reasons that I could go into. And I got some fascinating responses on Twitter. One person said that the reason he sometimes did a three-point sermon was that it was easier. It was easier than doing a narrative sermon. And by a narrative sermon I don't mean a story, I don't mean a sermon that tells stories. I do not mean that. I do not mean the kind of sermon that begins, "Let me tell you what my 12- year-old said last week." That is not what I mean by a narrative sermon.

By a narrative sermon I mean a sermon that has a plot. It has a beginning, and a destabilizing center, and a resolution. And the resolution should come as a surprise. It should come as a welcome surprise. Living words for life in the midst of death--every sermon ideally should be that. It should take the hearer from death to life. I'm not beginning to say that all my sermons do that, and it all depends on the hero anyway, right? And God is in charge of that. But the message is that Jesus is alive. The Holy Spirit gives life, not death. And we're in the midst of death now. With COVID we're in the midst of death. But Jesus is alive. And that's our message.

Why is it easier to do a three-point sermon? It's easier because it's reductive. It pins the text down too much. It removes the narrative flow from the text and turns it into a kind of academic exercise, almost, or a memory trick. Now that's not very nice, and I don't mean to be discouraging about--a good three-point sermon is a lot better than a bad sermon of another type, but I don't believe the three-point sermon is the kind of sermon that summons the congregation to an apocalypse, a revelation, something revealed, something new, something transformative.

The purpose of the narrative is to lead the congregation from depression, despair, indifference into an eye-opening new way of understanding what God has done. God is the agent. God is the agent. A three-point sermon tends to reduce the possibility of that happening. I could be wrong, of course. I could always be wrong about a lot of things, and am wrong about a lot of things. But I was trained to do sermons as dramas, and I believe in that. I was trained that the sermon was a drama, not a teaching. And I have had people say that my sermons had beginnings, middles, and ends, and I still believe that's the best way to do it because the gospel itself is a story. The story of Jesus Christ is a story.

Now, the reason I emphasize the Christ is that I think that the Christology of the mainline churches has become fatally weak. And there's a Jesus kerygma, and there's a Christ kerygma. The New Testament is a Christ kerygma, which we have often managed to turn into a Jesus kerygma. That means if we tell enough stories about what Jesus did and summon enough people to do what Jesus did, then that will be our job. But that's not the same thing as the justification of the ungodly, the phrase that Paul uses twice, which I think is the center of the gospel.

The justification of the ungodly is not a message about how we should try to be like Jesus. It is a message about what Jesus has done and his ongoing life. And when we preach every Sunday about the ongoing life of Jesus in the community, then we can say, "Look what we can do because of this ongoing life of Jesus." Not "Be like Jesus," but "Listen for his voice, his living voice; listen for the gospel; listen for what God is doing and has done and will do. Even through you, this little Christian congregation, God is working even through you, even in the midst of this terrible, demonic plague, God is still working through little bodies of Christians." Look at what is happening through these little bodies of Christians, not "go and do likewise," but look at what Jesus is already doing, what God is already doing, what the Holy Spirit, the Trinity is already doing. In other words, not exhorting, but enabling. Sermons on not just teaching, which is what the three-point tends to do. Sermon is not just teaching; it is enabling---and enabling not only belief, but enabling action that arises out of the belief. So when Jesus says, "Go and do likewise," he doesn't mean "Copy me." He means, "Here is my power, living in my vine, my beloved, my chosen."

Scott Hoezee: 

In a time of death, uncertainty, fear, I can't think of a better way to conclude this podcast than indeed the emphasis of the gospel, that Jesus is alive, to preach people from death to life and to proclaim that. That's what preachers are called to do. The cross is at the center of all that; it doesn't happen without that. But I think that's exactly what preachers are called to do.

Fleming Rutledge, thank you so much for being in conversation with us, for sharing your always-wonderful thoughts and making time for this. We really appreciate it. And as preachers head into 2021 now, we pray it will be a better year than 2020, but one thing is for sure: whatever happens, that power of the cross, that power of the proclamation that Jesus is alive is going to be as important as ever. So thank you very much.

Fleming Rutledge: 

Scott, thank you for inviting me.


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