Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (1)

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddDuring this season of lent this blog will focus on pretty well one thing – the cross of Christ.

We are going to do so by working our way through a magnificent book – The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge (a wonderful name). Published in 2015, it has rightly garnered rave reviews from all quarters of the Christian spectrum.

I can’t say that I have enjoyed reading a book as much as this one for a long long time. It is 659 pages long but a gripping read from start to finish.  Rutledge writs with verve, passion and scholarship in service of the Church. It is probably the most significant book on the cross since John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

Rutledge is a retired American Episcopal priest and writes from within that context, but this is a book for the church as a whole. This is no pale liberal telling of the cross in abstract psychological or ‘spiritual’ terms, it is a robust theological tour de force designed to envision, challenge and inspire the church to recover the central place of the cross in preaching and the Christian life.

Here is a flavour to get us going

This devaluation of the preaching of the cross is, I believe, a serious deprivation for those who seek to follow Jesus … it is quite possible for a pastor to go through an entire year of Sundays and never once preach Christ crucified in any expansive way. The skandalon (offense) of the cross of which the apostle Paul spoke, and the serious and controversial issues surrounding the interpretation of the cross, have gone missing from the heart and center of our faith. This is a grave deprivation affecting not only evangelism but the shaping of the Christian life.

… It is the living significance of the death of Jesus, not the factual details concerning it as an historical event, that matters … the declaration of the apostle Paul that the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation (1 Cor. 1:18) is not a statement about a mere historical event. The preaching of the cross is an announcement of a living reality that continues to transform human existence and human destiny more than two thousand years after it originally occurred.

The cross reveals its meaning at it takes shape in the experience of believers. In the final analysis, then, this is a book written “from faith for faith”. (xvi-xvii)

… the signs of seemingly invincible evil are unusually pronounced around the world … anyone occupying a pulpit these days needs plenty of fortification. If our preaching does not intersect with the times, we are fleeing the call to take up the cross. (xiv)




How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?

The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.

It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.

But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.

Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.

Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.

Does this sound surprising?  Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?

Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.

So I want to agree and disagree with May.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.

But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.

What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.

It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.

The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.

It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.

What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).

It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!

Comments, as ever, welcome.



A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.

Good Friday: what does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?

A reflection on Mark 10:32-45 this Good Friday

Monasterboice High Cross

As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.

Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.

The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with would mean in practice.

So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:

– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect

– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.

This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.

The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.

Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.

Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,

Until now.

Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.

Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.

How we are living them and who we are living them for?

If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.

And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.

Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”

Comments, as ever, welcome

How does the cross trouble you?

The CrossThis Good Friday Christians remember, reflect upon and celebrate the death of Jesus, the Messiah.

Christianity is nothing without the cross. (And the cross is nothing without the resurrection – but that’s for another day).

Paul would only boast in the cross (Gal.6:14). Christians are baptised into the death of Christ. The share the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim Christ’s death. The gospel begins with ‘Christ died for our sins’.

But to boast about or celebrate the cross would have been utterly bizarre for a first century person, especially a Jew. It should strike us as pretty weird too but we are inoculated by over-familiarity.

A positive assessment of a barbaric pagan execution method? Impossible. A crucified Messiah? Grotesque.

If Good Friday reminds us of anything, it is of the shocking ‘otherness’ of God. His ways are not predictable or nice or neat.

The life and mission of Jesus began and ended in violence and bloodshed. His ministry was shaped by increasing conflict that climaxed in a solitary,  brutal and unjust death at the hands of Empire.

And yet the united witness of the NT writers is that this was no accidental or insignificant event,  but God’s dramatic confrontation of sin and death and evil in his Son made flesh.

No-one imagined that this would be the identity and calling of the Messiah until Jesus burst on the scene, healing people, announcing the coming kingdom and uttering dark predictions about his voluntary, sacrificial and substitutionary death (Mk 10:45).

The cross announces to all that our lives and this world are so broken and distorted by sin that absolutely nothing else can begin to set things right except the death of the Son. For if there was any other way to effect forgiveness and avert the wrathful judgement of God, then the cross would indeed become a symbol of an unjust and unloving Father who allows his Son to suffer unnecessarily.

This death is the decisive event in God’s saving purposes for individuals and for all of creation. It is a place where something so deep and mysterious happened that the Bible talks about it in multiple ways. For centuries Christians have wrestled with what happened at the cross – how atonement ‘works’ – and it’s remarkable how no one explanation can ‘capture’ the atonement, it is simply too big and rich and breathtaking to tie down in one image or idea.

But, however understood, it calls each and every person to worship of the self-giving God who in himself and out of love atones for sin, enacts just judgement, defeats sin and death and overcomes evil.

Too often, Christians can think of the cross as only a ‘past event’.

But the cross is never an end in itself – it is only the beginning of a whole new life within the bigger picture of salvation. Consider Titus 2:11-14

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

The self-giving Messiah dies to redeem his people from something to something else: from a life lived for the self in this age, to a life shaped by the age to come.

All of the Christian life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross – the Christian life is nothing if not cruciform. To follow Jesus in living life for the good of others; in putting to death the old and putting on the new; in being willing to face suffering.

As I think about Good Friday I am troubled by how comfortable and untroubled I am by this God.

This cross confronts my self-sufficiency – it announces to you and me that there is no human way of salvation for if righteousness could be gained in any other way then ‘Christ died for nothing’.

The cross confronts my theology of God himself. I fear that in studying the big picture unfolding narrative of the Bible and being able to see something of how it fits together, God can be all too easily boxed away; his present and future actions fitting safely within the boundaries of an already written story that we, as NT Christians, now have a much fuller understanding of than in the OT.

But at the cross, God exploded his people’s understanding of who he was and what he could and would do. I wonder how and where he might do the same for his people today?

Comments, as ever, welcome.





An unexpected meeting in Monasterboice

IMG_0443The vast international readership of this blog may not quite appreciate the emotional and physical sense of well-being that impacts Irish people when that elusive yellow orb shows itself unhidden for a few days.

Last Friday was one such day – the end of a beautiful week. After a couple of day’s work up North, I was driving down the MI from Belfast to Dublin on a glorious Irish summer’s evening. Fields of rape seed would come into view, their incandescent yellow blazing incongruously alongside modest green pastureland.

As I passed the sign for Monasterboice, I felt prompted to turn off and go visit the monastic site sitting within view a half mile west of the road. It didn’t make sense. It was getting late, I had a way to go, I was tired.

I could see the broken top of the Round Tower poking up out of verdant chestnut trees, surrounded by a carpet of yellow. There was no-one around. Tourists had long since departed to their hotels. I climbed over the stone steps in the wall and wondered into the deserted graveyard.

Suddenly, now out of my comfortable isolated capsule of a car (and upbeat Springsteen anthems), I could feel the warmth of the setting sun, hear the mournful croaking calls of the rooks in the trees, smell the scented clean air, and, most of all, hear the gloriously peaceful silence of a sacred place.

The sun was setting, casting its longitudinal rays over the IMG_0482surrounding fields and onto the crucifixion scene on the extraordinarily tall and elegant 10th century West Cross. Nearby, Muiredach’s Cross (also 10th century) stood in the gathering shade; perfect, enigmatic, imposing – stories captured in stone. Also at the centre of its West face, a crucifixion panel – the cross in the middle of the cross. But the cross was not the end of the story – resurrection and future judgement are etched on the other side. Those Christian artists knew their stuff.

I had to wait about twenty minutes for shadow slowly to clear from the West Cross as the sun moved clear of the Round Tower to shine unimpeded on to its face.

Time, a short period beforehand, had seemed so compressed, urgent. Now, it didn’t seem to matter at all.IMG_0461

As I waited, sitting on the stone steps of the Round Tower, I heard a fluttering of wings, not once but twice. I could only have heard it when still and quiet. A pair of blue tits were zooming in and out of a tiny hole in the mortar of the monument, often perching on a handy gravestone with food in their mouths, before dashing straight into the crack, almost too fast to see.  Then they would poke their heads out before pelting for the cover of a yew tree.

After numerous attempts, I caught one of them on camera doing his/her emergency exit – instinctively not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to the nest within the 1000 year old tower.

I wondered back to the car, noticing as I did so, how the sun was shining a spotlight on the foot of Muiredach’s Cross. I thought of Issac Watts’ surveying of the wondrous cross – the only right response IMG_0472bbeing one of thankful worship and celebration at its foot. This was what God was calling me that evening.

I drove home in no rush, Bruce stayed on mute; I felt calmer, peaceful, more aware of the spectacular glory of the Irish countryside in full bloom and more aware of the presence of God the creator.

Those magnificent ancient crosses had continued to do what they have been doing for centuries – silently telling, to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, the story that changes all other stories. A story that puts everything in perspective and makes our self-important agendas and schedules seem, if not unimportant or trivial, somehow less about us fitting him into our lives and more about us understanding our place in God’s story.

IMG_0480I didn’t plan or ‘go looking’ for an encounter with God that Friday evening; but with a little silence, attention, reflection, listening and prayer, I believe that he came and graciously met me.

How about you ? Where has God ‘turned up’ in unexpected places at unexpected times and in unexpected ways?

Sundays in Mark (70) the death of Jesus and the Temple curtain

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

This week we return to Mark 15:38 and the death of Jesus and the decisive spiritual significance of the moment of Jesus’ death as witnessed by the tearing in two of the Temple curtain.

Have you (like me), always been taught that the tearing of the temple veil was the inner veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies – and this was symbolic of the dividing wall between man and God being abolished at the death of Jesus?

Reading around this a bit, its seems that this theory is pretty shaky. There was a second, outer temple curtain separating the sanctuary from the forecourt. This was in full public view when the doors were open. And, according to Josephus, this was a magnificent thick curtain, 80 feet high and portraying the entire heavens.

The tearing from top to bottom of this curtain is dramatic and irreversible. It is a public sign, but of what? A strong case I think can be made that Mark has in mind here a parallel to ‘the heavens being torn open’ at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9). Just as the baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission, his death marks the climatic end. There is a ‘tearing of heaven’ at both.

The tearing simultaneously acts as a visible sign of judgement on the temple. Jesus’ mission has been confrontational all the way through. He had already warned of the coming destruction of the temple, a fate bound up with Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. The death of the Son of God is intricately bound up with the fate of the temple.

The story of Israel is not ending. But with the death of Jesus, it begins a remarkable new chapter that will change broaden and redefine the people of God. The temple stands as the nation’s  great ethno-centric symbol, the dwelling place of their God. But its days are numbered. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, but not only of ethnic Israel. As the resurrection is about to show, he is the Lord of ALL.

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Sundays in Mark (67) Jesus the failure unmasked at last

Continuing in a series of simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark  

Mark’s matter of fact description of the death of Jesus continues. The political and religious dimensions of the crucifixion are never from the surface.

Two enemies of Rome flank Jesus; Jesus himself is there due to Pilate’s political expediency. His fellow Jews have religious reasons for their bitter words – the man dying in agony before their eyes is a shameful failure. Great promises and, yes, some remarkable deeds, yet all now exposed as just empty rhetoric and vain hope. His life ebbing away is proof of that. At last he is unmasked as a false Messiah.

His enemies rejoice. Jesus’ brutal end conclusively proves that their mostly surreptitious campaign against this Galilean nobody was justified. Not only are they finally rid of their fiercest critic, but their religious and political positions are enforced. So now, with no fear of losing the people, at last they can publicly mock the laughable pretensions of the man from Nazareth.

God’s honour is secure. The victory is won. It’s time to celebrate.

Do you hear the irony dripping from Mark’s pen?     

The Crucifixion of Jesus

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28] 29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.