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Fleming Rutledge – Epiphany [Feature Review]

EpiphanyFleming Rutledge Upends Another Season

A Feature Review of

Epiphany: The Season of Glory
Fleming Rutledge

Hardcover: IVP, 2023
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Reviewed by Alex Joyner

There’s a temptation in churches to use the season after Christmas as an accessible on-ramp for people prone to life hack their lives in a new year. Alongside Dry January, a preacher might offer a sermon series on ‘6 Ways to Up Your Spiritual Game in 2024.’ I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds…productive. Inconveniently for such well-intentioned attempts to enter the marketplace of resolutions, the calendar of the Christian year gives us Epiphany, an obscure season that puts the glory of God in Christ on full display instead of our soon-to-be-well-toned arms.

“In most religious (or “spiritual”) approaches, our human capacities are at the forefront. Contrarily, in biblical theology God is the subject of the sentences about himself. He is not an object of our perception. He originates our perception, guides our perception, corrects our perception” (33-4).

Leave it to Fleming Rutledge to overturn the apple cart on another church season. Rutledge, who has quickly become the patron saint of Advent in many mainline Protestant churches following her 2018 sermon collection, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, has gained prominence for her thoroughgoing apocalyptic reading of scripture. As outlined in her magisterial work, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, the theological worldview of Paul and the early Church was shot through with the language of spiritual conflict and the ultimate victory of God over the forces of sin and death. That conflict is always in the background, providing dramatic energy that is often glossed over in our soft lights and sentimental music approach to the Christmas season.

In Epiphany: The Season of Glory, the latest entry in the Fullness of Time Series edited by Esau McCauley, Rutledge lifts up Epiphany as a season ripe for reclamation. “This special emphasis of Epiphany [on deliverance and translation to the Kingdom of God] is needed by the church right now as a drowning person needs a lifeboat,”(44) she says. Far from needing one more program to achieve peak efficiency, what we receive from this season is the knowledge that “there is no road to the glory of God through human seeking; it cannot be summoned by human endeavor.” (38)

Instead, between the Day of Epiphany on January 6 and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we get a primer on Jesus Christ. The season “offers an opportunity to focus for several weeks on the glory of Christ as the second person of the Trinity, in all his intrinsic, immutable, inestimable glory, which can never pass away” (28).

Putting the focus where it belongs doesn’t mean that our lives aren’t transformed. The traditional readings of the Epiphany season—the visit of the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan, and the water-to-wine wedding at Cana—all result in people’s lives being turned around. As Jesus is manifested, humans find their own vocation as those who give God glory.

Near the end of this pocket-sized book, Rutledge turns to the question of a faithful observance of Epiphany. What shall we do in response to this encounter with God’s glory in Christ? Perhaps we wouldn’t be so caught up in the apparatus of church if we were more about the wonder. As Rutledge says, “Instead of training its members to be on committees, [Richard Lischer] writes, the pastors and leaders of congregations would be training the congregation to be pastors, ‘caring for one another in the stress and conflict of daily life’“(115).

It’s hard not to be caught up in the self-improvement industry that rumbles back to life this time each year. We dream of being the efficient, accomplished people that we’re told we can be through our own efforts. But perhaps we’re not that able and God doesn’t depend upon us to be ready before acting. “God is not dependent upon us,” Rutledge says, “but—amazing as it may seem—he rejoices in us”(143.)

Welcome back, Fleming. You’re welcome in every season.

Alex Joyner

Alex Joyner is a pastor and writer currently serving First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the editor of Heartlands [ alexjoyner.com ] co-author of Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, (Abingdon, 2019), and his most recent essay “The Silence of No-One’s Land” was published in Streetlight Magazine.

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