Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (6) cross and incarnation

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015). In this post we are finishing chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

Marx said that religion was ‘the opiate of the people’ – a drug designed to keep reality, and the political task of reforming the world, at bay.

Along these lines, Rutledge refers to Feuerbach (‘theology is anthropology’ – ultimately it only tells us about ourselves) and Freud (religion is wishful thinking, developed to help make existence tolerable) (57).

If these thinkers are right and the goal of religion is to avoid suffering, then it is no wonder that the cross is repulsive and unnecessary to many people today.

And there are other ways the cross is rejected – Rutledge discusses these:

Islam: has no place for a crucified Christ in the Qur’an.

Buddhism: Rutledge refers to John Stott standing respectfully before a great statue of Buddha, legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, a ghost of a smile on his lips … and turning away contrasting in his mind the image of the crucified Son of God who laid aside his immunity to pain and suffering, embracing it out of love ‘for us’.

Here is the God who suffers.

Modern liberal theology – as exemplified in the Jesus Seminar

The ringing statements of the apostle Paul about the world-transforming significance of the cross/resurrection event are written off by these reconstructionists as theological accretions. Paul is construed as a mythmaker whose theological writings have no truthful relation to Jesus .. (59)

And Jesus himself is reimagined as well. None of the Jesus Seminar’s theories about Jesus ‘ascribe any transcendent significance to his crucifixion.’ (59)

In contrast to all of this, the Christian gospel proclaims the saving significance of the cross – a radical in-breaking of God into the world through the incarnation of his Son.

It is vital, the author argues, not to separate incarnation and crucifixion.

Incarnation without crucifixion will not do the job by itself. The cross can never be merely assumed but must always be interpreted and re-placed at the center. There is a centrifugal force at work in human nature; we want to spin out and away from the offense of the cross. (61)

Embracing the incarnation on its own leaves the world, and ourselves, unchanged. This is a form of ‘creation-only’ theology. But incarnation linked to crucifixion is powerful and speaks of Jesus as a real man who at the cross reveals the very heart of our loving and self-giving God. And so Rutledge can conclude

The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord. (63)

How does this encourage you in the midst of worry, illness or suffering? What hope does the crucified incarnate Lord give you in the face of your inevitable death?

And so the job of a preacher today is to hold up Christ crucified as God’s scandalous way of confronting and overcoming the powers of sin, the devil and death. Without a robust preaching of the cross, we will have Christianity-lite, a religion of smugness and self-satisfaction, at ease with ourselves and the world.

This is why, Rutledge argues, the cross must not be set over against the resurrection as if Easter Sunday is all celebration after the lament of Good Friday. This fosters a triumphalist theology where the cross is put behind us.

It is precisely this sort of triumphalist theology that Paul is so concerned to combat in 1 Corinthians. Easter is both cross and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is both cross and resurrection.

Rutledge’s point – an exclusively celebratory message in the Eucharist or at Easter Sunday promotes an unreal ‘already achieved immortality of the faithful’ (68). So we meet the Risen Lord at the Eucharist, ‘but the resurrection did not occur independently of the crucifixion’ (69) – and so believers have the task of ‘proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11:26).

The New Testament writers see no competition between the incarnation and the cross. Vigilance is needed by the church, however, to see that the ready appeal of the incarnation is not allowed to take over from the wrenching difficulties of preaching and living the offense (skandalon) of the crucifixion (70).

So what do you think it means in practice to live under the cross today? To participate in the death of Christ in light of his resurrection?

Where does contemporary Christianity tend to drift into an unreal triumphalism that, in unspoken ways, move the cross to the periphery of teaching, preaching and experience?

Next, we begin chapter 2 and ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’

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.

A Christmas 2017 reflection: four stories

The Gospels are richly theological accounts of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. They are, in other words, not only telling us ‘what happened’ but also why it happened.

Think of it this way:

The Gospels tell us all about ‘the story of Jesus’. That story, of course, begins with the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas.

But the story of Jesus only makes sense if set within 3 other broader stories that, together, frame the story of the Bible.

The story of Jesus is the innermost or climatic story of the 4.  We need to appreciate how it fits within the wider framework if we are to understand the ‘why’ of the incarnation.

  1. THE STORY OF GOD

At the broadest level, there is the ‘Story of God’ himself. This story encompasses all the others for the Bible is, in effect, the story of God ‘s redemptive action in the world in response to sin, death and rebellion.

That response is trinitarian: Father, Son and Spirit, working in love to bring life, forgiveness, restoration – to form a covenant people bearing his image and to redeem all of creation.

2. THE STORY OF THE WORLD 

The second story is of the world we live in – a world of beauty and of ugliness; of hope and despair; of love and of hate. A wonderful, awe-inspiring creation disfigured by sin, death, grief and injustice. It is God’s love for this world that is the divine motive for the incarnation.

3. THE STORY OF ISRAEL

But before the incarnation of the Son, we must not skip the third story – the story of God’s elect people through whom salvation comes. So much Christian theology tends to do this – to jump from creation and fall to the coming of the Christ. The Old Testament takes up most of the story for a purpose! The story of Christmas only makes sense within the story of Israel. Jesus is first Israel’s Messiah – who is also the saviour of the world.

4. THE STORY OF JESUS

This is the story that, in effect, is the focus of the entire New Testament. The Gospels and the rest of the NT is a theological explanation of the story of Jesus (Christology) in light of the story of Israel, the story of the world gone wrong and the story of God. Pretty well every page of the NT is this sort of dialogue being worked out in hundreds of different ways. Jesus fulfils the Story of Israel. Father, Son and Spirit together work to effect salvation.

It is the story of Jesus and the Spirit that broadens the story of Israel to welcome in the Gentiles. It is in Jesus’ death that victory is won over all forces that oppose God’s good purposes – sin, death, the Devil and the powers.

THIS CHRISTMAS

But, most relevantly for this Christmas week, it is in the story of Jesus that we see who God is most clearly revealed. See how the four stories are interwoven in Colossians 1. 1-15 and especially its focus on the unique identity and authority of the Son.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

So, this Christmas we celebrate the Lord of creation, in whom dwells all the fullness of God himself, come to earth as a real man who can shed real blood. No greater act of self-giving love is possible to conceive.

And in doing so, we look forward to Easter, for it is this God-man who dies on the cruel wood of a Roman cross to bring reconciliation and peace to this world and all of creation.

So, whatever your circumstances this Christmas, may these four inter-connected stories give you joy, thankfulness and hope. For being a Christian, is to join our own story in with the story of God (by God’s grace), the story of the world gone wrong (owning our own sin), the story of Israel (a Christian becomes a member of the new covenant people of God) and the story of Jesus (by turning to him in faith and repentance).

Best wishes for a joyful and peaceful Christmas!