Review: Three Hours

Three Hours

Three Hours: Sermons for Good FridayFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: Short messages on the “seven last words” of Christ on the cross, preached on Good Friday of 2018.

One of the ways churches have remembered the death of Christ on the cross on what is called Good Friday is through a three hour service from noon until 3 pm, usually organized around the seven “words” of Jesus from the cross, interspersed with liturgy, hymns, prayers, and silence.

Fleming Rutledge gave seven meditations on these “seven last words” at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City on Good Friday, March 30, 2018. These meditations were published, with little alteration earlier this year, and served as my own Good Friday meditations this past Friday.

Each of these short meditations left me with a thought for reflection. This may or may not have been Rutledge’s focus, but I share these as much to capture them for myself, as well as to give you a taste of what is here. There is much more to each short meditation than my summary thought!

Luke 23:32-34. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What about those who know what they are doing, as is the case for all of us at times? Christ is the one who died to justify the ungodly!

Luke 23:39-43. “Verily, I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” We speculate much about the afterlife. We focus little on what it means when Jesus says that it will be “with him.” “In his presence is fullness of joy!”

John 19: 26-27. “Woman, behold thy son!…Behold thy mother!” Two unrelated believers become kin. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” (p, 32).

Matthew 27:45-46. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus “steered toward the pain” and plumbed the very bottom of despair and alienation as he “became sin” and surrendered to Death. This is the one who has defeated Death and Hell, whose love, nothing can separate us from.

John 19:28-29. “I thirst.” Water is life. Living water is nothing less than real water–the water from Jesus side along with his life-giving blood. The one who thirsted now says, “come to the water.”

John 19:29-30. “It is finished.” Rutledge writes, “The crucifixion is not just an unfortunate thing that happened to Jesus on his way to the resurrection. It is not a momentary blip on the arc of his ascent to the Father. John tells us otherwise. It is precisely on the cross that the work of Jesus is carried through to its completion” (p. 67). Tetelestai!

Luke 23:44-46. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In Flannery O’Connor’s words quoted here, “The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ.” We each may commend our lives to the Father through this Son.

It was the reading of Rutledge’s magnificent study on the crucifixion (review) that prompted me to buy this book. In much briefer form, I found the same depth of thoughtfulness, and elegance and economy of words. More than this, I was led to meditate through the Seven Words on the meaning of the cross–who Christ died for, the community Christ established, the hope of being “with him,” and the cross as the consummation of Christ’s work. I found myself stopping again and again and saying, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

This review comes too late for you to read this on Good Friday in 2019. But it is far from too late to acquire and read this book, particularly if you rushed through Passion Week preparing for Easter, or to have on hand for next year. This book will bear multiple readings and I look forward to returning to it again and again.


The Cross and Our Enemies


Christ on the cross, Diego Velazquez, 1632

“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”   Luke 23:34, ESV

He was betrayed into the hands of his enemies by one he had allowed into his inner circle, one who, even at the last, he singled out for favor in offering bread. The religious teachers he had met over table fellowship and openly debated, indicted him in a twilight trial that made a mockery of even their idea of due process. A brutal Roman governor caved to political pressure, sentencing him to death. He was mocked, spit on, crowned with thorns, and brutally flagellated, where his back was turned into hamburger (Mel Gibson’s The Passion was no exaggeration of the brutality he endured). He was forced to carry a heavy cross piece to the place of his execution, weakened though he was. He was stripped of clothing, utterly humiliated. Nails were driven into wrists and ankles. What was brutal about crucifixion was that the way one hung made it difficult to breath. To get a good breath mean raising oneself against the spikes through one’s ankles and wrists.

Crucifixion was a political act to terrorize subject populations. Words alone struggle to capture the brutality of all that Jesus underwent. So many kinds of human evil from betrayal to cowardice, to cravenness, to banal delight in torment, to the executioner’s efficiency come together in the last twenty-four hours before the death on a Friday afternoon.

And then the prayer pleading for their forgiveness. We may wrap this up in our atonement theology that Christ died that all may have the possibility of forgiveness, which is utterly, and unbelievably true, as I read it. But to say these words in the midst of such agony, in the face of such brutality and mockery, injustice and betrayal, when to all appearances the people who put Jesus to death knew very well what they were doing, were utterly culpable for their acts–this staggers my imagination.

Yet isn’t this how it is with all the evil we and others do? We know what we are doing, and yet we don’t fully grasp what we are caught up in, whether it is the web of our own hidden motivations and fears, or the external natural and supernatural powers of evil into which our acts play.

Those who follow Christ believe the dying act of forgiveness indeed broke the power of evil, a power that exacts a punishment or a vengeance for every wrong. The Forgiving One in word and act takes punishment and vengeance upon himself and bears it to death.

Do we believe the word of forgiveness and “they know not what they do” for the ISIS bombers in Ankara and Brussels and their compatriots who even now are likely plotting further evil? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for those closer to home who may have deeply hurt us? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for ourselves, who in our most honest moments wish we could erase many deeds from the record of our lives, and perhaps have done more ill than we know?

The forgiveness of enemies is hard. None of this mitigates efforts to prevent someone from causing further harm. Nor is forgiveness the same as reconciliation which involves a truthful and genuine admission of wrongdoing. Forgiveness is hard because it means bearing the wrong done against me on myself and putting it away, dying to the option of obtaining either judgment or vengeance against the other. Forgiving ourselves is hard because it means giving up on either justifying ourselves, or trying to pay back what can’t be repaid, to undo what can’t be undone.

For Christ followers, forgiveness has been done before us, for us, and in us. And the Christ who died and rose wants to forgive through us. The scriptures tell us that we have a choice between living in a forgiveness world and a world of vengeance and punishment. The world we choose for our enemies is the world we choose for ourselves as well. I know the choice isn’t easy. Perhaps all we can do at times is acknowledge the challenge and ask to be helped to begin on the road to forgiveness, and even to the love of our enemies. A former colleague of mine just posted an article that included this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that may help us take the first step on the road:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Perhaps there is no better day than today to begin praying that prayer.

What Would Bring Them Together?

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

What would bring together a Libyan, at least two criminals, urban natives, provincial dwellers, and diaspora people, women, children, the religious and cultural elite, and forces of an occupying army? On the first Good Friday it was the execution by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. If you don’t believe me, read the narrative of Luke 23:26-56:

  • Soldiers lead him away (v. 26) and mock him (v. 36).
  • Simon of Cyrene (a town on the coast of Libya) is impressed to carry the cross (v. 26).
  • A crowd of people including women follow (v. 27). Likely this included both residents of Jerusalem and diaspora Jews in town for the feast of the Passover. From Jesus’ words in v. 28, living and children yet unborn might have been there as well.
  • Two criminals were executed, one on each side of Jesus (v. 32).
  • Rulers of the people join in mocking Jesus (v. 35).
  • A Roman centurion (the officer leading the group of 100 troops garrisoned there and probably participating in the crucifixion) praises God and says “surely this was a righteous man” (v. 47)
  • Joseph, a Judean member of the religious elite, secures Jesus’ body and lays it in a grave (vv. 50-51).
  • Women from Galilee, a provincial region from which Jesus came, followed Joseph and noted the location of the tomb so they could return with spices and perfumes (which would mask the smell of the decaying body).

Only recently did I reflect on the wide array of humanity that the crucifixion brought together–people who otherwise would not associate. Different social classes, urban and rural dwellers, Jews and Gentiles, people from Palestine, Africa, and Eurasia, men and women, oppressed and oppressors, criminals and those who sentenced them all were at the cross.

This was not a “kumbayah moment” by any means. And yet this gathering in a strange way pre-figured the new humanity, the “beloved community” that would arise from the death of Jesus on a Roman gibbet. It didn’t happen all at once, but within fifteen years or so there was a community like this in Syrian Antioch consisting of both Jews and Gentiles that reflected this kind of diversity–so much so that outsiders coined a neologism to describe them–“Christians”–and it stuck.

Diversity and inclusion is a big thing in the university context in which I work. And yet I’m struck by the stark contrasts that I’ve witnessed this week in the realization of this vision. On one hand, I listened to the newly invested first African-American president of the university where I am engaged in ministry speak of “inclusion with excellence.” It was a moment not unlike the inauguration in 2008 of President Obama. In the same week, I listened to the news reports of a university campus in Kenya with students with aspirations much like those with whom I work that was turned into a killing field.

It is hard to be flung back and forth between such high aspirations and such virulent hatred. Yet Good Friday reminds me that the followers of the crucified One, when most faithful to their calling become a community drawing together all the polar opposites and scattered peoples found at the foot of the cross and more. The apostle Paul wrote about this saying, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16, NIV).

If you don’t share my Christian convictions and have read this far, I thank you for extending such grace to my words. Truthfully, I’m writing more to speak to myself and perhaps to those who share my convictions. Against all the polarities we are tempted to create, God’s story is one of surprising us again and again by turning the “other” into a brother or sister, the despised “enemy” into my neighbor, and the criminal or oppressor I consider beyond hope to one with whom I’ll share paradise.

And it all began one Friday afternoon at a crucifixion…

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Holy Week

Entry Into Jerusalem by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320.Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti" by Pietro lorenzetti - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Entry Into Jerusalem by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320.Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti” by Pietro lorenzetti – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I write on the eve of Holy Week. And because Youngstown was a city of churches, I’m reminded that Holy Week observances shaped the growing up years of many of us, whether we continue to embrace the beliefs behind those observances or not.

Holy Week began with Palm Sunday. In many of our churches palm branches were distributed that celebrated the triumphal ride of Jesus into Jerusalem in which the crowds made a carpet of cloaks for him to ride on and everyone waved palm branches and threw them down before him crying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” I often wondered (and still do) how a city could give him such acclaim and then crucify him five days later.

We lived in the tension between Palm Sunday and Good Friday throughout the week. My wife describes how each year, she would take the palm branch she received and plait it into a cross. Holy Week was the final week of Lent and the fasting of this forty day period continued. In my wife’s house, it was lots of pierogies and boiled cabbage, especially on Wednesday and Friday. In my Protestant household, we abstained from meat on Good Friday. My wife recounts taking time out from classes to walk the stations of the cross, remembering the events and encounters of the Via Dolorosa and the cross itself.


A Station of the Cross, Cenacle Retreat House, Houston, TX (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

Many of our churches had a Maundy Thursday service or Mass. Thursday evening was the night of the Last Supper. After the homily, some churches would have a foot washing. At the end of the Mass or service, the altars would be stripped to prepare for Good Friday.

Then came Good Friday. I often wondered at the name “Good”, considering the focal point of the day was the crucifixion of Jesus. The only thing that seemed good was that we had the day off from school. My mother commented that often the skies would cloud over during the afternoon of Good Friday, reminiscent of the darkness that descended over Jerusalem as Jesus died. Many churches had services at 3 pm commemorating the hour of Jesus death. I also attended services where “the seven last words” of the cross were remembered. In some churches, the cross was draped with a black cloth.

I think for many of us from Youngstown, this space between Palm Sunday and Good Friday reflected a tension in which we lived. We celebrated whenever we could because we were aware that life brought suffering (“crosses”). Lent ideally kept any of us from an inflated view of ourselves as we were reminded of our flawed and finite existence on this earth and that there was a hope of redemption for all of us. Even the criminal who died at Jesus side would be with him that day in Paradise.

As Good Friday came to an end, the waiting and anticipation of Holy Saturday began. As kids we looked forward to Easter baskets, but also to new clothes, and the celebration of Easter. More on this next week…

Interested in reading other posts in this “Growing Up in Working Class” series. Just go to my home page and click the “On Youngstown” link under “Categories”.

Review: A Glorious Dark

A Glorious DarkSummary: An exploration of living in the tension of the glorious hope of Christian faith and the dark, unsettling realities of our lives through reflections grouped around the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the Triduum of Holy Week. A great book to read reflectively during Holy Week.

A. J. Swoboda opens this book with the image of a frozen river, apparently dead and still on the surface, but beneath the ice, flowing and alive–“a glorious dark”, he calls it, which he sees as an image for our faith, lived in the tension between our surprising and glorious hope and the struggles and questions and failures of our own lives.

The book is organized around the three days of the Triduum: Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Friday is the time when we are faced with the reality that “the monster at the end of the book” (reprising his childhood hero Scooby Doo is us. He explores our struggles with God’s “Fatherhood” and how Jesus discloses something of the kind of Father we have in God. He explores how God journeys with us in life, making the map as we go. Perhaps the most striking chapter in the Friday section is titled “Numb” where he describes his own struggle with alcoholism and the striking moment where Jesus refuses to numb the pain of the cross with alcohol and myrrh. And he concludes with the striking moment where God seems to forsake God on the cross.

Saturday is about waiting in uncertainty. We want to move right from suffering to triumph. In some sense, our whole lives right now are lived between Good Friday and Easter in Holy Saturday and it is there we must sit. Saturday tells us we can’t pick and choose our life in some kind of “faith boutique”. We must learn to rest in this day which for the Jews is “sabbath” before the Sunday of new creation.

And then there is Sunday–beginning for Swoboda with the amazing vindication of Mother Mary in the Resurrection–the woman who as a pregnant teen, claimed she was yet a virgin, visited only by an angel of the Lord. If resurrection is true, then all the other incredible things in the narratives of Jesus beginning with this virgin conception make sense and Mary can say, “told you so!” It confronts us with surprise, a different kind of super-hero, and gives us a community that eats together, even as Jesus ate with his disciples on the shore of Galilee before being taken from them.

What I so appreciated about Swoboda was his ability to “tell it slant” (in the words of Emily Dickinson)–to help us see afresh the surprising and wonderful character of the Christian story as it breaks into our flawed and sometimes dark existence. In place of stories that have become routine and seem not to have the power to keep us awake let alone raise the dead and transform life, his writing helps capture the startling character of what we call “the good news”. One example of this comes early in the book when he writes:

“Certainly God is holy–holy beyond all perceivable knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. But Hosea throws us a curveball in our understanding of how a holy God deals with unholiness. Perhaps in other religions the deities deal with evil through finger-pointing, shouting matches, or even the silencing of a perpetrator. But in Hosea, God not only looks upon evil–God takes evil on a honeymoon. How does God deal with evil?

He puts a ring on it” (pp. 19-20).

I found myself pausing again and again in thankful wonder at the glory that pierces our darkness that Swoboda explores in these reflections. It has helped prepare my heart for Holy Week and I wanted to post this review today so that others might find this resource for their own Holy Week reflections.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Great Exchange

If you follow Christ this is both a sobering and wonderful day. Good Friday, we call it. It is the day we believe God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, allowed himself to be unjustly tried and convicted, scourged with whips that lacerated his flesh into ribbons, and then nailed to a Roman gibbet, in one of the most inhumane forms of execution human beings have dreamed up.

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It is a day that poses many questions. One is “why did Jesus permit it?” He told his followers repeatedly that in going to Jerusalem, this is what would happen. And his prayers in Gethsemane (“Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”) strongly suggest that this isn’t about a sick death wish or some heroic gesture. Rather, what it sounds like to me is someone facing a hard, but necessary choice involving personal sacrifice–kind of like the soldier covering the retreat of his comrades, knowing that their safety depends on his willingness to lay down his life.

And in fact, this is what is both sobering and wonderful about this day to me. It is this great exchange, that the apostle Paul speaks of in this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

What is sobering is this idea of being made “sin” for us. “Sin” in the singular refers to my basic propensity to reject and rebel against any thought of the living God being in my life. I’ve always thought about it as combination of spiritual adultery and treason–of  “going over to the other side.” In some sense, all the things we read about death and judgment are just God’s way of confirming forever the choice I make in my life. Actually, it would be more tortuous to face an eternity with a God who one spent one’s life repudiating. This is a pretty sad state of affairs that the cross of Good Friday faces me with. But it is also wonderful news because it tells me that God has provided a costly way out of the impasse–one who became sin in my place–like the soldier who lays down his life for his buddies.

More than this, there is an exchange that becomes possible because of this day–God’s righteousness for my sin. Volumes have been written about this phrase, “the righteousness of God” that I can’t even begin to summarize in a blog. But what it does signify is that I can become something I wasn’t, someone considered in right standing with God, no longer under the cloud of treason for all my petty and not so petty acts of rebellion, no longer estranged by my spiritual adultery. There is full and free pardon, and reconciliation–the healing of a broken relationship.

Someone has said that the difference between real Christianity and religion is the difference between “do” and “done”. I can’t make this exchange. But I can gratefully receive the exchange made for me. That is why the two little words, “in him” in this verse are so important. It is in Jesus, on the cross, that this exchange took place.

And so I come back to this question of “why did Jesus die?” It seems to me that either it was to accomplish this great exchange, or that it was one of the most colossal follies of history. Why would Jesus die if there was any other way to rescue an estranged humanity for God, or for humanity to rescue itself?

This is what this day means for me. It sobers me to realize what my spiritual treason and adultery cost God. And it utterly amazes me that Christ willingly took that cost on himself to effect this great exchange. I can do no more than stand in wonder at such love that Jesus himself articulated:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV)