The Gospel, On Repeat

Setting Our Gaze on the Crucified and Resurrected Christ

Guest Contributor / 7.13.21

This review comes to us from Joshua Simpson:

Why read a book of sermons? Devoid of live delivery, separated from requisite scripture readings, absent the ornately carved lectern and vaulted ceiling, it’s the kind of reading that benefits from some imagination. Beloved pastor-theologian Fleming Rutledge finds pulpit material consumed for individual devotion a “curious exercise,” but hopes that for her newly published sermon collection “sacred fire might still emerge from the page.” For me, Rutledge’s prayer came true — not because I am particularly imaginative — but because deep and heartfelt reverence for God permeates each and every page.

Means of Grace is an accessible collection of Rutledge’s sermons edited by Laura Bardolph Hubers, organized thoughtfully by the liturgical calendar, and accompanied by prayers from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I found myself receiving many of these sermons not so much as an individual in a comfortable reading chair, but more like a member of an invisible congregation, alert to the weight of the message, made uncomfortable by reminders that Sin is serious and death is coming for each of us. 

Rutledge does not dwell on the negative, so to speak, but she is absolutely a Christian realist. She is not bashful in admitting that life can be hard and cruel and full of sorrow. Prayers are not always answered in our earthly lives. Astounding atrocities are continually enacted, despite the narrative of human progress. The power of Sin is on display every day. Even within the Church, we are lured by “the gospel of prosperity, the gospel of success, the gospel of happiness in this world, the gospel of answered prayer …” rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Her candor about the state of the world and the resulting questions about God’s involvement in it are refreshing, but so too is her expression of hope. 

Rutledge repeats a cycle of sober assessment and hope — a hope that is expressly found in Christ. Readers of The Crucifixion will observe that her magnum opus really was the result of a lifelong, cruciform ministry. She reiterates Paul’s exhortation that all are unrighteous and that we must be saved by a power outside of ourselves. 

[Jesus] is willing to die even for such poor specimens as you and me, covering our unrighteousness with his righteousness, offering his life to save us from death, victorious over the old Adam, the Judge judged in our place. He has compensated for our too-short list of good deeds by his one great deed.

The sermons are varied and based upon an array of scripture readings, yet more often than not Rutledge sets our gaze on the crucified and resurrected Christ. As I read through Means of Grace, I realized why I am drawn to the writings of Fleming Rutledge: she can’t stop talking about the core event that changed the history of the cosmos. My soul needs to hear the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and future coming over and over again. I’m not sure that another self-help sermon will change my life. I am not convinced that a preacher will provide five steps to resolve my anxiety, improve my self-esteem, etc. But the problems I face, and perhaps the problems you face, seem far less daunting when nestled within God’s bigger story.

If you know that God the Creator and Judge of all things is truly sovereign over all of human and cosmic history, then your small concerns will begin to become part of a great pattern, and they will worry you less as your commitment to your fellow Christians means more and more. If you know that the reconciliation of all things is the grand design of the Creator of the universe, then your own individual and communal acts of faithfulness to one another become signs in this world of the world to come.

The reconciliation of all things, of course, is not only a private affair. While the current events referenced in Means of Grace occurred before more recent news cycles, Rutledge’s occasional critiques of society will unfortunately have a long shelf life.

We are much less likely to admit the ill effects of powerlessness than those of lovelessness. After all, giving love doesn’t sound threatening. Granting power is another matter. All around the world, Christians on the top of the socioeconomic heap have talked endlessly about love while preventing people of a lower bracket from having any power. Power to the powerless is an infinitely threatening idea because it might mean that you and I have to give up some of it.

As I reflect on this collection of sermons as a whole, I am drawn to several recurring themes: the Bible is first and foremost a book about God; God’s redemptive work is both for the individual and for our shared life; the power of Sin is serious; and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has forever changed the world. It may strike you that these themes are impeccably orthodox, which seems to be exactly what Rutledge intends. Do we really require a new method, a catchy metaphor, or an elaborate personal example to understand the grace of God? These are not bad, per se, but Rutledge implies that what we really need is the Good News administered on repeat.

In Means of Grace, we are reminded that God is the active agent in pursuit of humanity and that his grace is sufficient. This aptly named collection by Rutledge will be a trustworthy companion throughout the year, inspiring the reader to notice more frequently the countless means of grace, seen and unseen, bestowed by God every day.