Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
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.
God On Our Side (Franklin, Virginia)
Emmanuel Church, Franklin, Virginia
GOD ON OUR SIDE
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge February 1, 2004
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us...
[So] as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
Whenever there is a war, the universal human tendency to divide up the world into “we” and “they” becomes even more pronounced than usual. “Our” side is good, “their” side is bad. Therefore other nations become, by extension, good or bad depending on whether they come over to our side. We measure everything by ourselves, by our own assessment of what is important. This inability to see things from any perspective other than our own, is a universal human trait. Learning to see an issue from several different points of view is part of what it means to be educated. Unfortunately, education can only take us so far. We can study the Muslims or the Arabs or the Chinese as much as you please but the moment they encroach upon our perceived interests they become the Enemy.
Abraham Lincoln perceived this as clearly as anyone ever has. During the Civil War he wrote an essay called “Meditation on the Divine Will” containing these words: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” Lincoln struggled with this, knowing that there were deeply religious Christian soldiers and leaders on both sides of the conflict. Lincoln was not popular in the South; not every one is aware that he was a truly great and profound theological thinker. One reason for this is that he was able to see several perspectives at once, including the perspective of God¾insofar as God has revealed himself in the Bible. I don’t know if Lincoln had anything to say about the story of Joshua before the walls of Jericho, but he certainly internalized its message. You will remember how Joshua, the commander of the Israelite forces, brought his forces into Canaan with the Ark of the Covenant and encamped before Jericho, hoping to conquer it.
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man stood before him with his drawn sword in his hand; and Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but as commander of the army of the Lord have I now come.” (Joshua 5:13-14).
Sometimes the angel’s word is translated “Neither,” but just plain “no” gets the meaning better. God’s messenger rejects not only the idea of being on either side but rejects even the question itself, and the assumption behind the question. God does not take sides the way we do. And so Lincoln went on to write that since God cannot be on both sides at once¾and here is the real depth of his thought¾”in the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”
I read an op-ed article a few days ago by a professor now teaching at Wellesley who objected to the depiction of the college in the Julia Roberts movie Mona Lisa Smile. She did not agree with the movie’s patronizing attitude toward students of the 50s and its assumption that students of today are more enlightened. She wrote of her discouragement when she tried to get her students to see the complexities in the European films that she showed in class. They kept identifying the characters as “good girls” and “bad girls,” when she was trying to show them that human beings are a mixture of each. Last fall I took my granddaughter to see Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera. It was her first opera, so I was telling her the story ahead of time. I found myself in a bit of a pickle; I think Dabney was a bit shocked to learn that one of the greatest characters in all of opera is a thief and a liar who uses up men like Kleenex, and chain smokes as well.
Recently I have been preaching in a number of Presbyterian churches and I have learned of a favorite hymn that does not seem to be in our hymnal. It’s called “Be still, my soul,” and it’s sung to the familiar Finlandia tune. It was written by a woman in Germany in the early 18th century and translated into English by another woman in the 19th. It has a lot of wonderful words, but the ones I’m going to quote today are from the very first line: “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side.”
Is there anyone who does not know what it is like to have someone powerful on your side? This is what our life is like from earliest childhood when we look for teammates on the playground. The first thing that a newly elected President must do is appoint the best people he can find to be at his side to advise him and on his side to support him. When someone is faced with a legal problem she is going to want a good lawyer to be on her side. When a loved one is in the hospital, we want to be there with them to intercede for them if necessary, to be on their side. When someone has a problem at work or in his extended family, he needs someone who understands his point of view and is on his side. So I think the words, “The Lord is on thy side” resonate very deeply with us. “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side.” But then we remember what Joshua asked the angel, “What side are you on? Ours, or the enemy’s?” and the angel’s response, “No.”
“The Lord is on thy side.” But which side of me is he on? Is he on the generous side or the selfish side? The envious, mean side or the kind, gracious side? The fearful or the confident? The violent or the gentle? The arrogant or the humble?
My sermon text today is the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s long and complicated but I think we can grasp the main ideas. Paul is talking about Adam and Christ. In Paul’s day everyone knew what he meant, but today we might need a little help. Paul writes that “Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin.” “One man” means Adam; Paul is referring to the story in Genesis 3. We don’t have to believe in a literal man named Adam to understand this. The point is that God created the human race to be without sin but we wanted it our own way, so we (represented by the figure of Adam) rebelled and disobeyed. As a result, Paul goes on, “Death spread to all human beings because all human beings sinned.” This, in case you want to know, is where the doctrine of original sin comes from. Human beings no longer have any choice about being born into the condition of sin; it’s already there. Paul’s name for this situation is “Adam.” We are stuck in this cycle of Sin and Death, and it goes round and round in a never-ending, out-of-control spiral that produces more wars and more corporate greed and more family breakdowns and more selfishness. Therefore, Paul says, billions have died because of the primordial sin of Adam: Many died through one man’s trespass.
But as all followers of Christ can testify, and as Paul continues, “If many died through one man’s [Adam’s] trespass, how much more have the grace of God...in that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Notice that play on the word “many.” No matter how “many” billions have died on our planet since the creation, the grace of God in Christ has abounded for them all. “If, because of one man’s [Adam’s] trespass, death reigned through that one man [Adam], much more will those who receive the ...free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Sin and Death reign through Adam, life and righteousness reign through Jesus Christ.
Each of us, Paul is saying, is two things: we are both the old man, Adam and the new man (human being), remade in the image of Christ. Left to ourselves, all we can do is live Adam’s life over again and again, with its sorry story of disobedience, rebellion against God, Paradise lost, struggle and sorrow, disgrace and disappointment, disease and death. All those things in us that make us enemies to one another¾those things are from Adam. Old-timers used to say, when someone behaved badly, “That’s the old Adam in him.” Left to ourselves, humanity would have no hope of extrication from this condition.
But we are not left to ourselves. Here is what Paul says:
Even as one man’s [Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all human beings, so one man’s [Christ’s] act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all human beings. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous...
where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is what God has done. Seeing us at war with others and at war within ourselves, God has come in the Person of his only begotten Son to enter into the life of Adam and relive it, only this time he relives it right. Jesus Christ relives, or recapitulates, the life of Adam¾the life of sinful humanity¾in the right way, and he brings us along with him. Jesus the Son of God faces all the temptations of Adam, all the choices of Adam, and he resists the temptations and makes the right choices. Where Adam (and Eve) disobeyed the Father Creator, Jesus obeyed. Where Adam tried to deceive God, Jesus was the embodiment of truth. Where Adam found himself cast out of paradise into a violent and unstable world where his older son Cain ended up killing the younger one, Abel, Jesus entered that world of his own free will, voluntarily becoming the one who would absorb that murderous violence into himself.
Every time I try to put this story into new words for our time, I am simply overcome by the unique astonishment of it. God has done something. There is nothing else like this in religion. Most religious thinking says something like this: God is a spirit who can respond if we pray. God can reward us if we do the right thing. God is a source of comfort and strength, God provides hope for peace and eternal life, but there are various things we must do, disciplines we must embrace in order to find God; we are on a spiritual journey toward God. But this is not the Christian gospel at all. The Christian gospel, and the story of God and Israel that goes before it, is a story unlike any other. God has done something, and what he has done is unthinkable by any ordinary religious standards. He has entered history. He has not remained in the spiritual realm waiting for us to find him. He has come down into the world that has been spoiled by the sin of Adam. God the Son has been born into this violent and disordered world¾ And he did it all, as Paul makes plain in this chapter from Romans, without our help. Chapter 5, verse 8: God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
So indeed, God is on our side in a way that we could never have imagined. He is on the side of sinners, and that means every one of us. He came to us before we could think of coming to him. As Martin Luther wrote in his own famous hymn, Did we in our own strength confide, the striving would be losing¾were not the right man on our side.” He is on the side of the new man, the new person that he is creating in us. He is on that side and he is against the old Adam in us. As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. This means that everything about you and everything about me that is not right will be made right. God’s NO to our way of choosing up sides is God’s YES to the whole world of human beings gone astray. He is FOR everything about you that is good and he is against whatever is wrong. While we are busy dividing up the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” he is at work on the “bad guy” in us all, remaking each of us in his own image, purging us of the old Adam. God is doing that. And he does it before we can help ourselves, as Paul makes plain in this chapter from Romans, Chapter 5, verse 6: While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly
The novelist Richard Price said in an interview, “I wanted to create people [in my novels] who wind up tripping all over themselves because they have unexpected empathy for the other. I just wanted to do a story where people cannot hold to their sides.” Yes. Talk about unexpected empathy. God did not hold to his side. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
“Meditation on the Divine Will,” September 1862.