Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday (Fleming Rutledge) -- Review

THREE HOURS: Sermons for Good Friday. By Fleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. Viii + 83 pages.

                It is common for Good Friday services to focus on the Seven Last Words of Christ. Traditionally, this is a three-hour series of reflections, accompanied by some form of liturgy. This task might be shared by a group of clergy, perhaps in an ecumenical fashion, or it might be undertaken by one person. For much of the past twenty years I have participated in Good Friday services featuring the Seven Last Words of Christ, but we have attempted to fit the service into a one-hour time-frame. That way, one can hear the entire series of reflections without taking the entire day. I have found these services, which I share with other clergy to be meaningful (our services have been designed to last one hour).

Not only have many preachers taken up the Seven Last Words on Good Friday, but many have published reflections and sermons. I even published one set from my days in Santa Barbara under the title A Cry from the Cross (CSS 2008). We can now add Fleming Rutledge to that list of authors who have chosen to share sermons and reflections on the Seven Last Words of Christ. Three Hours brings to us seven sermons preached by Rutledge at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue Episcopal Church of New York. As I have not tried to preach for three hours, even on Good Friday, I must commend Rutledge for having the stamina to take this on. What we have before us in this small book is an insightful and hopefully inspiring set of sermons for reflection.  

Good Friday services are a rarity among Protestants, though Episcopalians and some Lutherans do make a habit of offering them. While Maundy Thursday services are common, it is common for congregations to skip from the Triumphal Entry to Easter. When we do this, we lose sight of the Cross and the reason for Easter. Therefore, there is need of Good Friday to be observed, and The Seven Last Words seem to be an excellent vehicle for doing this.

The Seven Last Words of Christ draw from statements made by Jesus while on the cross. Three statements are drawn from the Gospel of John, while three more come from Luke, and one from Matthew. Rutledge offers a sermon on each of these statements, and comments that “for me, this occasion felt like the culmination of all my preaching over the past forty-five years” (p. vii). She notes as well that what she offers in brief here, is developed in great depth in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans).

The sermons begin with Rutledge’s reflection on Jesus grant of forgiveness in Luke 23 to those who "know not what they do." Most likely the word is directed at the soldiers who are tasked with executing him. While Jesus may have had this rather small group of soldiers in mind, we have taken this to speak more broadly of divine forgiveness. Interestingly, Rutledge suggests that when it comes to the ungodly, which would include Christians, perhaps forgiveness is too weak a word. She offers the word justification for our consideration. Forgiveness is not enough. One must be justified, which is “to be remade in the image of the new Adam, who is Jesus Christ, the great Defender of the defenseless” (p. 11). She closes the first word with reference to the hymn "Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended."

The Second word also comes from Luke 23. With this word were invited to consider Jesus' response to the one hanging on a cross next to him. His neighbor on Golgotha asked to be remembered by Jesus when he enters his kingdom. Jesus' response is the promise that "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." Rutledge makes the good point in noting that the focus here is not on the word paradise, but the words "with me." Yes, the invitation is to join Jesus in entering the realm of God. We tend to focus on the word paradise, but the true invitation is to be with Jesus.

The third word is the one I will reflect on this year in my Good Friday meditation (2019). That word takes up Jesus’ conversation in John 19 with the Beloved Disciple and his mother. Rutledge notes that John never names his mother, who appears only at Cana and here in the Gospel of John. What Jesus does here is create a kinship relationship between two unrelated believers. The message here is that Jesus does the same thing in the church.

For many the fourth word is the most powerful word. That is because it's the one many most identify with. This is the cry of dereliction, which is found in the Gospel of Matthew (as well as the Gospel of Mark). In this word from the cross, the Gospel acknowledges the feeling of abandonment and divine silence that Jesus experienced on the cross. We take note of the fact that Jesus experiences a sense of hopelessness or despair at this moment. Rutledge notes that “on Good Friday, we are summoned to place special focus on the apparent sense of abandonment that Mark and Matthew place at the heart of their passion narratives” (p. 43). This word also is a reminder that Jesus was fighting a spiritual battle on the cross, in which he faced the forces of hell, that sense of absence of love, light, and God.

The fifth word asks us to return to the Gospel of John, where we hear the words of Jesus "I Thirst." Rutledge places this cry from the cross in contrast to Jesus' conversation in John 4 with the Samaritan woman, in which he speaks of the living water. Living in Michigan I appreciated her reference to the poisoned waters of Flint. What is the relationship between living water and natural waters?

The sixth word, the penultimate word again from John, in which Jesus cries out "It is Finished." Rutledge brings out the question of what Jesus is saying here. Is he simply giving up the battle to live? Or, as she believes, he is declaring that he has finished his vocation. He has brought his life calling to completion. Referring to the Resurrection, it doesn't cancel out the cross, it vindicates the crucified one. In other words, this declaration in John is one of victory.

Finally, we come to the seventh word, which takes us back to the Gospel of Luke. Thus, we begin with Luke and end with Luke. Here Jesus commends his spirit to God. I will admit that I felt like Rutledge ran out of steam in this sermon. It seemed more like a summation, which didn’t address as deeply the statement Jesus makes from the cross. Of course, this might simply be my own reading of the situation.

All in all, this is what one would expect of a book focused on The Seven Last Words. It reflects Rutledge’s concern that the cross is taken seriously. It offers an opportunity to delve into the meaning of Good Friday. Preachers will find it useful if they find themselves called upon to reflect on one or more of these words. It is also a good reminder that Easter has no meaning without Good Friday. Since the sermons were preached in a three-hour block of time, as the book title reminds us, one could easily read the sermons in a couple of hours, perhaps on Good Friday. If we do this then we will imbibe the message that Paul believes is foundational to the Gospel—that Christ died, was buried, and then raised on the third day.


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