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At the recent Festival of Faith & Writing here at Calvin College and Seminary, I had the great privilege of interviewing pastor and author Fleming Rutledge on her recent award-winning book The Crucifixion. I highly recommend the book. It is definitely Rutledge’s magnum opus after a life of literary output–the text plus notes run to nearly 670 pages. Throughout Rutledge is insistent that we simply cannot forget about the shame, the ignominy, the accursedness of a death on a cross. No other form of death for Jesus would have succeeded in dealing with the realities of sin and evil than this kind of death.
It is also true that no other event in all of Scripture makes plain God’s penchant for using surprising means to attain his salvific ends. All along God had taken the low roads, chosen the least likely folks. To start a whole new nation? How about picking a pair of childless senior citizens? Need a spokesperson for your people Israel? Choose the one who stutters. And on and on it goes with God until finally even the prophets foresee that when God’s Chosen One shows up, it will be more like a shoot emerging from a dead stump than the arrival of some flashy military or political figure. It will be the one from whom people would just as soon hide their faces than the beautiful people gracing glossy magazine covers. And indeed, when the Son of God advents into our time and space, he’s just another baby born to poverty-stricken parents and who gets laid in a goat’s feed trough for his first crib.
But the cross crystallizes this M.O. of God. It also brings into focus just how bad sin is, how deeply entrenched evil is, and how seriously we need to take that realm of what the Apostle Paul calls “the powers and principalities” of this age. It takes a bloody instrument of execution even for God’s own Son to start taking all of those dark forces head on.
We forget, of course. The cross long ago lost its raw power to offend, to shock, to sicken. Crosses are now earrings, necklaces, steeple decorations, bulletin cover art. The lines are clean, the blood and the gore long ago squirted away. But what happened to Jesus on that cross must never fade away finally for the church. We lose too much. We forget even the very nature of the Gospel we are called to embody and to proclaim.
In one searing passage in her book, Rutledge recalls the terrible death of the gay man Matthew Shepard. Rutledge writes, “Perhaps we can gain further understanding [of the cross] by examining a horrific incident that occurred in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 and soon became emblematic of the ongoing struggle against the persecution of homosexuals. A young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was beaten within an inch of his life by two other men and was then tied to a fence and abandoned. Eighteen hours later, in near-freezing weather, a passerby discovered the comatose figure and for a moment mistook it for a scarecrow. Matthew Shepard died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. The particular cruelty of this death left people groping for words. He was tied up and left dangling ‘like an animal’ said one spokesperson, recalling the Old West practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to intruders. The emphasis here is on the de-humanization of the victim; declaring another person less than human is the well-attested first step toward eliminating that person or group of people. The phrase ‘like an animal’ is therefore apt. The strongest of all statements, however was this [as written by someone in the New York Times]: ‘There is an incredible symbolism in being tied to a fence. People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion’” (p. 80).
This is what happened to our Savior Jesus. He was stripped of his very humanity so that, in the paradox of the cross, our own humanity could somehow be restored to us.
This is the “weak power” Paul liked to ponder in his letters (cf. especially 1 Corinthians 1). The Gospel always comes this way and the cross is supposed to be our constant reminder of that. But . . . we forget.
This past week the news has featured some disheartening things that tie in with the church forgetting that we don’t serve our Lord best when we grab worldly power or its perks or its accouterments. A high profile megachurch pastor has stepped down amid multiple allegations of sexually inappropriate speech and sometimes touches. That saddens but what troubles me even more is that most of the alleged encounters happened on the pastor’s private yacht, private jet, and in expensive overseas hotel suites paid for by his church. Whatever did or did not happen between this pastor and those women, the fact that these trappings of the rich and powerful were somehow mixed in with ministry works against the humble weakness of a cross-based message.
At Wheaton College last week a number of evangelical leaders gathered to lament the church’s recent sacrifice of so much Gospel integrity in order to gain access to the highest reaches of political power in the U.S. Fuller Seminary President Mark Labberton’s speech was released and at one point Labberton said, “In much of the last century, American evangelicalism has had a complex relationship with power. On one hand, it has felt itself marginalized and repudiated, defeated and silenced. On the other, it has often seemed to seek—even fawn over—worldly power, mimicking in the church forms of power evident in our culture. (I remember being at a conference where it was announced we should all be back after dinner for ‘an evening of star-studded worship.’) An evangelical dance with political power has been going on from the time of Billy Graham, through the Moral Majority and the religious right, to the Tea Party, and most recently with the white evangelical vote . . . A Faustian pact between evangelicals and power—even when claimed on behalf of the kingdom—cannot be entered in the name of Jesus Christ without betraying the abdication of power inherent in the incarnation. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . . .’ (John 3:16) Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.”
Labberton is right at how at variance this lust for power is with the incarnation. Fleming Rutledge would remind us that the real variance is in one of the most important things that incarnation made possible: the crucifixion of God’s own Son.
I know it is Eastertide right now but I think for all of us–starting with myself–sustained meditations on the meaning of that horrid cross is perhaps what we need.