Eerdmans, 96 pages
In this remarkable set of brief sermons on the traditional seven last words of Jesus, Fleming Rutledge muses that it may be the culmination of her preaching life. Having read her sermons and essays for nearly 40 years, I agree, though the same might be said of her magnum opus “The Crucifixion,” which these sermons echo. Preached on Good Friday at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City, each contains an astonishing compact display of biblical theology, precise exegesis, cultural commentary, political criticism and, above all, evangelical passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is this combination that makes Rutledge a rare preacher — one from whom preachers can learn a great deal about their vocation. She demonstrates how one can declare without embarrassment the radical saving significance of the crucifixion of Jesus for a contemporary audience. Her array of skills and command of knowledge is breathtaking, primarily because it is delivered with such pastoral warmth and accessible language.
In each of these sermons, she makes clear her concern for the listener. And that is what makes these sermons accessible for everyone. We hear clearly that something is at risk when the gospel is preached and she lets you know it in the most emphatic way. Rutledge informs her listeners – all of whom wandered in from the streets of New York – how each of the four Gospel writers have a unique way of telling the story of Jesus. She artfully shows how Matthew and Mark emphasize the cry of dereliction, while Luke focuses on forgiveness and John highlights the role of community of disciples born at the foot of the cross.
Rutledge writes that each Gospel writer “wants to tell us in the most convincing way possible that the crucifixion of the Son of God is the most important thing that has ever happened and that it reveals the true and complete destiny of humanity and the creation.”
Preachers know how demanding it is to preach on Good Friday. They know the gap between the desire for sentimentality among many Christians and the actual gospel truth of the torture, abandonment and unspeakably horrifying death of Jesus on the cross. These sermons teach us how to stay focused on the truth of the gospel and the life-saving significance of the incarnate God being crucified for the salvation of the world. Jesus’ famous words, “Father forgive them,” becomes an occasion to reflect upon the limits of forgiveness, the demands of justice and the righteousness of God which leads to a powerful declaration of God’s justification that is beyond mere forgiveness. “I thirst” opens up a profound meditation on living water, including commentary on the injustice rendered to the people of Flint Michigan forced to drink poisoned water. Rutledge’s gift is the skill to do this without ever losing focus on the main subject of Jesus’ saving death. Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple meet at the foot of the cross. Here we gain insight into the nature of the community of Christ’s disciples born in this tender encounter that goes far beyond sentimental notion of family.
After 40 years, I came away from these sermons with new insight, awe and gratitude for the gospel so precisely rendered.
Roy W. Howard is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and the book editor of Presbyterian Outlook.