Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the US, Canada, and parts of the UK. She is the author of eight books, all from Eerdmans Publishing. Her most recent book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, is the product of the work of a lifetime and is being described as a new classic on the subject.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Ruminations: June 2018
Saturday, June 30, 2018
Plenary Address, Barth Pastors' Conference 2018
(all quotes are from CD I/2 unless otherwise noted)
Almighty God, the giver of all good things, without whose help all labour is ineffectual and without whose grace all wisdom is folly: grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others....in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
—A prayer of Samuel Johnson, cherished by my father
In the year 1962, Karl Barth came to the
Last month, before the present crisis about the immigrant children held hostage to a political cause, the New York Times published a report about the support for Donald Trump and his policies among so-called evangelicals. Indignant letters to the editor appeared in the paper a couple of days later. Two or three of them were from self-identified Christians expressing dismay in terms that I imagine most of us would agree with. However, there was a predictable problem. One of the well-meaning letters begins this way: “If Jesus were alive today…” Someone on Twitter responded that Jesus would be rolling over in his grave.
Will Willimon has said that the foundational problem with the Jesus seminar was that its members conducted all their deliberations out of the basic assumption that Jesus is dead. But the Jesus seminar is not the only place that we meet this assumption. We find it in the church all the time. I assume that most of you preach on a regular basis so you don’t get around the church and hear as many sermons as I do. I have heard many hundreds of sermons in the mainline churches in the past couple of decades and a great many of them seem to assume that Jesus is alive only insofar as we follow a particular version of his commandments. This leads to a fatal homiletical outcome: the congregation is reminded of the correct attitude concerning the presenting issues of the day and is then exhorted to get busy addressing them. Therein, it is implied, lies salvation. Therefore the living presence of the Lord is not felt in these sermons. I have come to believe over the years that the power of the living Christ is so little known in many of our congregations that they might not know it if they beheld it…which might indicate to the preacher that she should shake the dust of that church off her feet. That thought has occurred to me quite a few times in my travels around the churches.
You can see the Time magazine cover of Barth in the display in the library. His portrait is very stern and off-putting, but in the background there is a depiction of the empty tomb. Today, more than 55 years later, seeing that old-fashioned cover design still made an impact on me. The Lord whom Barth served is risen from the dead and powerfully at work among us. You’ll see also in the display cases several recent volumes (mostly edited by the prodigiously productive George Hunsinger) about Barth and radical politics—one of the areas of his thought that interests me most, though I know it mostly at second hand. Along the lines of radical politics I’d like to salute the fondly remembered journal called Katallagete, long defunct but, I’ve recently learned, not altogether dead. Phil Ziegler of the
It was in the process of negotiating my way among these claims that I met Barth for real, not in person but in print. A doctoral student whose name I don’t remember told me to read “The Strange New World of the Bible.” It was like the nameless little servant girl telling Naaman the leper to go to the prophet Elisha. Whoever it was saw me floundering about and directed me into the current that carried me into the river of life. That short early essay was the first thing of Barth’s that I actually read. If anyone here wants to introduce someone to Barth, “The Strange New World of the Bible” is a good place to start.
I discovered a long time ago that once you get to know the way Barth thinks, you can pick up his work just about anywhere and find something you can build upon. This is one of the remarkable aspects of living with Barth all of your life. Christopher Morse taught me this in my first year at
Of course there are some difficulties reading Barth in today’s climate. For one thing, speaking of identity politics, you have to get used to the constant use of the word “man” used in a generic sense—and it’s not so easy to solve this in translation. Accustoming oneself to his terms, however, is well worth the effort. For instance, further along in the same early essay collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man, I found a sentence that breaks several rules of contemporary communication, not only in form but in substance. Here it is in all its offensiveness: “Man condemns himself to death by the question about the good, because the only certain answer [to the question about the good] is that he, the human being, is not good, and from the viewpoint of the good, is powerless” (167). How does that sound to the average reader? Wouldn’t you think that this line of reasoning would sever the nerve of action for once and for all? On the contrary, I’ve found, when you’ve met God, this gospel message frees you from the tyranny of the thought that everything depends on you. As Pascal wrote, “Be comforted: it is not from yourself that you must expect it, but on the contrary you must expect it by expecting nothing from yourself.”
Expecting by not expecting! This is very much like the paradox that Barth loved from II Peter 3:12—“waiting and hastening.” I’ve just finished putting together a new sermon collection for Advent, and I’ve noticed once again that the paradoxical themes of Advent are everywhere in the Church Dogmatics—the Now and the Not-Yet, the Whence and the Whither, the once and the future. None of it makes any sense if Jesus is dead. The radical gospel depends on the truth of the liturgical confession: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Otherwise we are thrown back on ourselves with only the memory of a dead Jesus and delusions of human grandeur to keep us going. I don’t always remember where I read stuff but just the other day I found something right on target—the writer complained that the church was always talking about building the kingdom, but it seemed to be a kingdom without a King.
If Jesus isn’t alive and coming again, then who is going to be the king of the kingdom? Ah, yes, that’s the nasty little secret. We harbor the notion that we ourselves are going to be the kings and queens of the kingdom through our own efforts. Here’s what Barth says about that: If the promise of Jesus that he will be with us always even to the end of the aeon is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but “a human community which is puffed up with the illusion” that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that “works its own revenge” upon the church (CD I/2, 544-5).
This illusion is dramatized with considerable effect at the conclusion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Many readers of the saga miss this point, because it comes after the great climax in the action, and it’s entirely absent from the movie. (By the way, if you’re thinking of buying just one of my books, I recommend my Lord of the Rings book.) In Tolkien’s private letters, he explains that, to the end, Frodo was profoundly affected by the allure of the Ring. Long after the victory over the demonic power of Sauron, Frodo continued to suffer from “a last flicker of pride…[he was] not content with being a mere instrument of good.” He was not content to be solely God’s servant, with all that implies of his own diminishment. He needed to undergo a cleansing, a “truer understanding of his position in littleness and greatness.”  He was not able to accept himself as a “mere” agent or vessel of
“Be comforted…It is no doing of yours. You are not great...Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”
“God lays no merit on you.” I first read that forty-five years ago and it has been a great comfort to me ever since. I think Barth in his own person sometimes exemplified this; he was of course famously irascible about those who disagreed with him, and he fully understood the magnitude of the task he had set for himself, but in his letters and late writings his humorous self-deprecation has the ring of authenticity. The angels laugh, he says, at old Karl with his wheelbarrows full of Church Dogmatics. There is so much freedom in that! Barth’s humor and joy are among the greatest benefits of reading his letters and conversations.
So. All these thoughts arise out of the revelation that Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive. It is not for nothing that the central thing remembered in the Christian community about Martin Luther King is the “kitchen epiphany” when, close to total despair, he sensed Jesus promising him that he would always be with him, that he would never be alone, “no never alone.” There are many areas of theology that Dr. King left unexplored, but whatever doctrinal deficiencies there may have been, in the story of his life we see the presence of a Lord who is not dead, but living—the Lord who guarantees his own promises. The African-American church is presently experiencing some of the same attrition as the mainline white churches, but it still preserves its traditional emphasis on the God who “makes a way out of no way” and redeems the unredeemable. That is what undergirds black people’s astonishing offers of forgiveness for the unforgiveable, redemption for the unredeemable. All of our churches could use a lot more of what Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “God did not come to love the loveable and improve the improveable, but to raise the dead.”
How curious to reflect upon the idea of a dead Jesus raising the dead! When I was a young preacher I learned a lesson. I was invited to preach to a congregation in a very liberal church. I was relatively innocent of such contexts in those days and I preached on the text about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. It was reported to me afterwards that people were scandalized that the preacher appeared to believe what she was preaching. I made up my mind that day that I would always preach a Lord who raises the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4) and that I would trust him to do the same in my preaching even when what I was saying seemed impossible. Living with Barth for decades enables us to believe and to trust that the Holy Spirit has not gone missing from the living Word of the living Lord.
Speaking of Barth’s doctrine of the church or lack thereof, I brought Volume I Part 2 with me to
where the church is, there also we have always this church which is not the church, that is, in the church the work of sin and apostasy is always going on as well…There is no time at which to a greater or less degree the church does not also have the appearance [of] such a church…but although there is in it no lack of man’s upstart arbitrariness, it exists in dependence on Jesus Christ. And [it is] because it lives by Jesus Christ, not because it is constantly involved in upstart and arbitrary action, that it is the true church.” (214).
At this point I hear the voice of Will Campbell speaking to me many years ago when I was a young convert to socio-political causes. After listening to me complaining about racists, he said, “Fleming. We’re all racists.” I have heard him saying that every day of my life since then. We who are so proud of our enlightened attitudes need to be on our knees repenting of our self-satisfaction and self-righteousness every single day for the rest of our lives.
I remember also the words of P. T. Forsyth: “Many preach Christ but get in front of him by the multiplicity of their own works.” I wonder how your church describes itself. I’ve been collecting church self-descriptions: “We are a warm, welcoming, nurturing, diverse, non-discriminating, inclusive, embracing, affirming….(etc) congregation.” Talk about multiplicity of works! “We feed the poor, we march for justice, fly rainbow flags, recycle plastic, oppose oppression, practice radical hospitality…” You would think the Second Coming had already occurred. How about this for your church letterhead: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…and there is no health in us.” Here’s Barth’s voice again: “Man condemns himself to death by the question about the good, because the only certain answer [to the question about the good] is that he, the human being, is not good, and from the viewpoint of the good, is powerless.” The paradox is that this truth sets us free. It is the difference between “if/then” and “because/therefore.” Because in Christ we have been delivered from the world of merit and demerit, therefore we are new men and women. In the strange new world of the Bible there is a new creation. Because/ therefore! This is the source of the Christian’s “works,” which means that we can sit light to their importance in God’s cosmic, apocalyptic enterprise. In the end it is God’s work, not ours. That gospel truth is the is the subject and the object of our praise.
I want to leave you with the epistolary, conversational voice of Barth. Years ago I read a volume of Barth’s letters and found one in particular that has accompanied me ever since, particularly as I am now growing old. This is a letter that Barth wrote to John Godsey during a bout of the illness that eventually caused his death.
When you visited me in the year 1965, I still did not have the slightest idea that the most difficult part of my ordeals still lay before me. A few days afterward I had to re-enter the hospital and then remain there for four months, undergo a second operation, and take many, many kinds of medicine. Somewhere within me there lives a bacillus with the name proteus mirabilis which has an inclination to enter my kidneys—which would then mean my finish. I am certain that this monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. It has in common with sin and with the demons also that it cannot simply be done away with but can be only just despised, combated, and suppressed. That was and is still the task of the doctors, beside whom also good nurses have worked on me night and day....apart from this, however, I am getting along better, often extraordinarily well...the main thing is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis has no chance against him.
Letter to John D. Godsey, January 25, 1966
(I think this is in the collection called How I Changed My Mind. )
Barth died in his home in
 Contrast John the Baptist, who said of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
 Letters, p. 328.
 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 197.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching (
 P. T. Forsyth, quoted in Willimon, The Last Word, 62.
 I got this from Philip Ziegler who wrote a sermon or essay on this crucial distinction.
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Thursday, June 14, 2018
Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in a national crisis
I am posting this sermon, preached at the Harvard Memorial Church 18 years ago, because in the week of June 17, 2018, the Attorney General of the United States and the President' press secretary coldly referred to Romans 13 in support of immigration laws purportedly requiring the separation of immigrant children from their parents. It is the responsibility of church leaders to teach the historic interpretive discussion of the biblical witness in regard to the observance of civil laws.
This sermon was published as part of my sermon collection on Romans, The original context was the contested election of George W. Bush, which after several days of suspense was just beginning to be resolved by November 12, 2000.
Between the Two Thirteens
The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Benefactors and of the War Dead
Harvard Memorial Church
Sunday, November 12, 2000
Do this, understanding the present time. (Romans 13:11, NIV)
The present crisis in the Electoral College has called forth many reflections on what it means to be the
Today we remember those whose names are engraved on the wall in the Memorial Room. These Harvard men and women who died for their country have, whether they knew it consciously or not, died for more than their country. Those of us who were young in the late 60s remember what it was like to be bitterly disenchanted with
A list of benefactors—those who have given particular service to this University church—will be read today as part of our worship. The list touches me more deeply than I, being a non-Harvard person, would have expected. On that list are both parents of a close friend, and also a former rector of the Episcopal church that I served for fourteen years in New York City—as well as Dr. Ferris of Trinity Church, Copley Square, who has meant so much to me as a preacher. We give thanks today for such people, for as Dr. Gomes said in his sermon on this commemoration day four years ago, we are reminded that “we are not on our own, nor did we get here on our own, nor is that which we have ours alone, or ours forever. To give thanks, then, is [to acknowledge] that we are beholden to someone else.”
It is not always so easy, however, to figure out who should be honored in this way. The soldier who rescues a comrade from enemy gunfire may not be any more courageous than the paraplegic who is struggling to make a life for himself, or the medical missionary who knows she will be exposed over and over to tropical diseases, or the teacher in the inner-city school who fights for her students’ minds and hearts day after day, year after year. There are many kinds of wars, and there are many kinds of war dead. There are many kinds of battles to be fought, and many decisions to be made about when and whether one should enlist. We’ve all heard the common expression that something is “to die for.” This is generally said with regard to some consumer article—the latest in fusion cooking or personal electronics or Manolo Blahnik shoes—they’re “to die for.” But what really is to die for? This week’s issue of The New York Review of Books has an article by Timothy Garton Ash about the Serbian revolution. He describes his visit to one Serbian town as the mayor and various local citizens were preparing for the trip to
Another journalist, Misha Glenny, was in
This morning we have before us two Biblical texts, Romans 13 and Revelation 13. These two passages have quite a history of being brought together and allowed to speak to one another. I would be surprised if many of you didn’t flinch when you heard the Romans passage read a few minutes ago. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. This text has been used over the centuries to justify every conceivable kind of oppression and tyranny. It has also been used to stifle criticism of “the powers that be” and to resist any effort at reform. This passage has been quoted at Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King and the liberation theologians of
Discernment, wrote the Christian lay theologian William Stringfellow, “is basic to the genius of the Biblical life style.”
This gift enables the people of God to distinguish and recognize, identify and expose, report and rebuke the power of death in nations and institutions...while they also affirm the Word of God incarnate in all of life, exemplified preeminently in Jesus Christ...This [discernment] is the gift which exposes and rebukes idolatry. This is the gift which confounds and undoes blasphemy.
The juxtaposition of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 calls for discernment. At this time of remembrance, at this time of suspense in our national life, at this season of the church calendar when one liturgical year comes to an end and the great season of Advent approaches, the community that gathers around the Word of God reflects on the next portion of Romans 13: You know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep (Romans 13:11), or as the Revised English Bible translates, Always remember that this is the hour of crisis. The word for “hour” in New Testament Greek is kairos, which is distinguished from chronos, ordinary time. To discern the kairos is to see through the events of the day to perceive the activity of God in and through those events.
But what is meant by the “hour of crisis,” or kairos? There was a full-page advertisement in the Friday New York Times, paid for by media figures like Rosie O’Donnell and Robert de Niro, writers like Toni Morrison and E. L. Doctorow, academic stars like Peter Gay and Ronald Dworkin; it states that we are in an “election crisis” which threatens to become a “constitutional crisis.” Leaving aside the question about whether the present situation really is a crisis or not, is this the kind of kairos that
...you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...put on the Lord Jesus Christ...(Romans 13:11-13)
What does this mean, and what does it have to do with the earlier part of the chapter about honoring the government?
What Paul means is that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead and his coming in the future have overturned all previous perspectives upon human life in this world. The section in Romans 13 about the government sounds like ordinary conservative rhetoric about bowing down before the powers that be until you see it in its context. Our text is bracketed by, on the front end, Paul’s radical world-displacing call, Do not be conformed to this age (New American Bible) and on the back end by you know what hour it is...the night is far gone, the day is at hand. For most of the twentieth century, these dramatic texts have been the companions of Christians who have struggled against tyranny and oppression. Romans 13 in its context and Revelation 13 matched with it have created an extraordinary dialectic for reading the signs of the times.
William Stringfellow wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. I once heard him say that “We have been sold a bill of goods on Revelation. I don’t think it is such a difficult book.” Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of the
The present time [and by that she means any present time that we might find ourselves in] is of critical importance because a cosmic-political struggle has ensued with the death and exaltation of Christ. Revelation seeks to encourage Christians to participate actively in this struggle, the outcome of which is already known....a qualitatively new earth will be the outcome of this struggle, a world that is free from all dehumanizing oppressive powers.
In our own day and in my own denomination, the person whose life is most closely associated with this perspective from Revelation is Archbishop Desmond Tutu of
It is common to contrast Romans 13 with Revelation 13 as though they were total opposites. According to this understanding, if the governing authority is benign, then it is from God and Christians should obey it (Romans 13). If the governing authority turns oppressive, then it is Satanic and we should resist it (Revelation 13). This is the most familiar interpretation of the two texts. No better formulation of it exists than that of Bishop Oscar Romero of
As certain other commentators have pointed out, however, the relation between the two passages is even more subtle and more radical than the familiar interpretation allows. Both of the passages call government into question because both of them make clear that government is only provisional. Neither Paul nor Revelation give ultimate legitimacy to any human institution. Once we know this, it keeps us from taking any present arrangement with anything more than temporary seriousness. So what Paul is saying is that we should take the government seriously, and we should not take it seriously. It’s like that passage in I Corinthians 7 where Paul says as though not several times:
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time (kairos) has grown very short; from now on, let those...who mourn live as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this age is passing away.
(1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
That may sound like the ultimate ethic of disengagement, but it isn’t. It is the opposite. It means that we can enter into the challenges of the day with a kind of joyful confidence, knowing that the future belongs to the Lord. It is not our part to bring that future about. God is doing that. Our part is to discern the signs of what God is already doing and to take up our positions there, knowing that God’s future of human liberty and human wholeness is, truly, to live for and, if necessary, “to die for”. Wherever God is on the move, that is where we want to be.
As the whole world knows, Mr. Kostunica did appear on state television in
Thomas L. Friedman, “Original Sin,” The New York Times, 11/10/00.
Thomas L. Friedman, ”I
Peter J Gomes, “What the Dead Have to Say,” November 10, 1996.
Timothy Garton Ash, “The Last Revolution,” The
Misha Glenny, “The Redeemers,” The New Yorker, 10/30/00.
No Rusty Swords (New York: Harper & Row, 1965)
aisthesis (Philippians 1:9, Hebrews 4:14), “the power of moral discrimination and ethical judgment” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I, 188)
An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973), 139.
It is no accident that the New Testament Greek word krisis refers to a distinction, as between time and eternity or death and life, which calls for judgment and decision, and is thus related to kairos.
Paul Louis Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 37 and passim..
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Proclamation Commentaries, Fortress Press, 1991).
Told by Jim Wallis in his new book Faith Works (
Adam Michnik, ”Letter From the
Sermon, July 1, 1979.
E.g., John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus), Vernard Eller (Christian Anarchy: Christ’s Victory Over the Powers), Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway (Up To Our Steeples in Politics), William Stringfellow (op. cit.), Hendrick Berkhof (Christ and the Powers) and Jacques Ellul (The Ethics of Freedom, various other works).
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