3 Pentecost—Year B
June 14, 2015
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
One summer Sunday five years ago while I was rector of Grace Church, New Bedford, the actor Sam Waterston, in a seersucker suit, showed up to worship with us. One of our women, a respected psychotherapist, said she didn’t see Sam Waterston, an active Episcopalian with a house in Mattapoisett. Rather she saw his famous TV character, District Attorney Jack McCoy, that he plays on the long-running show Law and Order. She said she wanted to go over at the Peace and give him advice about how to solve the personal problems he has on the show.
Our culture is captivated by courtroom drama, real or imagined. We resonate with the struggle of the prosecutors to convict and punish the bad guys and with the efforts of the defense attorneys to protect the innocent.
This occurs to me because of a startling line in the second reading today where Paul says: “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”
If the judgment seat of Christ is anything like court on Law and Order then we are in a world of hurt. But it is no accident that we would think so because when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD churches were built that often imitated the courthouse with its long pews in straight rows facing a raised area where men in robes presided. (The next time you have to go to court, hopefully only to deal with a traffic ticket, pay attention to the way our set up at All Saints resembles the courtroom.)
But we may wonder why is Paul, the proclaimer of the unconditional love of God, talking about being judged by Christ and receiving recompense for our actions?
Aren’t we saved by grace through faith? Isn’t our God the covenant God who unconditionally loves us and not the contract God that only gives grace if we do the right things to earn it?
Didn’t Paul write in Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”?
Yes, and more, so whatever Christ’s judgment is it won’t be like a trial in Law and Order.
While I am no expert on these things I believe the judgment of Christ is a wonderful gift.
I believe this because I know that it is not enough to be forgiven for our sins. It is not enough to deal with the symptoms of our illness; we need Christ to deal with the disease itself. We need God in Christ to remove the malignant power of sin and death from our lives and our world, like a surgeon removing a cancerous tumor.
As Jesus says: “I have come to heal the sick, not the well.”
So our judgment is more like a medical procedure than a trial. When we were not able to heal ourselves God sent the Son to take on the illness of our humanity and heal it from the inside out.
Further, our judgment is more like a family meeting than a day in court: One of Jesus’ most famous parables is about a father who runs off the porch to embrace his lost boy and remind him that he has always been his beloved son.
In Matthew 9:2 when Jesus comes across a paralyzed man looking for healing he says, “Take heart, son…” and then he heals him. Twenty verses later when Jesus is touched by the woman with the issue of blood he says, “Take heart, daughter”… and then he heals her.
This is the image of the family of God in which through the vicarious humanity of Christ we are made daughters and sons of God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
When we stand before Christ we know first of all that this is no stranger who knows nothing about us. No, this is the One who Paul says, today: “has died for all….” The One who in love becomes as we are that we might become as he is.
As Son of God Christ is the template of what a full human being in communion with God looks like. Being in his presence, we can’t help but see where we fall short of our own fullness.
But we also can’t help but see that he became as we are so that we might become as he is.
As Son of Man, Christ is united with us and is the one judged on our behalf, so we might share in his divine fullness.
In other words, as has been said, Jesus Christ is both the judging God and the judged Man. (Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance)
So as we saw on Trinity Sunday: the proper image is of Christ before us, Christ beside us, Christ behind us,” and as Paul says, “Christ in you the hope of glory.”
That is why Christ’s judgment is the best thing that can happen to a person: In Christ we know that we are not only forgiven–we know we are also being freed from our captivity.
That liberation begins in this life but is not complete until the final judgment.
Early in my ordained life I was confident that through faithful spiritual practice, plus a lot therapy and much reading, I could outgrow my reactivity so that people would no longer push my buttons and get me all riled up.
Sadly I’ve still got some buttons that get pushed and the reactivity to prove it. The judgment of Christ will finally heal the wounded places so that the reactivity disappears. This is Christ’s promise to us: take heart, my son, take heart my daughter…I will heal you.
The judgment of Christ is to experience our brokenness and healing in the same moment.
The reason Jesus tells us not to judge others is precisely because only God is capable of doing it. Saint Paul puts it this way: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.”
The judgment of Christ takes us seriously as God’s daughters and sons, liberating us from our obsession with ourselves so that in the Spirit we can finally love as Christ loves and build communities that practice healing, generosity, forgiveness, and peacemaking.
The ultimate goal of the good news is not to keep us in the straight and narrow but to transforms us into the fullness of Christ.
So, Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
This is the Spirit’s work, not our own.
Thus Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself….”
Life ploughs us all, and then God plants Christ in us.
The power is in the seed, not in us. So we look at his promise, not at our performance.
Our task is to surrender to Christ. He is not a stranger paid by the state to hear our case: he is our Brother and Healer who comes to set us free. And yes, as the harvest comes we have work to do. But we do it NOT to earn God’s love; we do it because we are loved first by God.