“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
(Matthew 25: 45)
One of the first things I memorized in Sunday School, after the Lord ’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, was the Apostle’s Creed which was said every Sunday in the church service. If I thought the Lord’s Prayer was hard to remember it was nothing compared to the Apostle’s Creed. It was only later that I realized there was a trinitarian structure to it; that it was a confessional statement about the basic Christian belief about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. As a child it seemed like just a jumble of words that that didn’t seem to necessarily go together. Some of you probably learned it in church and said it where it was part of the liturgy on Communion Sunday.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.
The part of the Apostle’s Creed that did catch my attention came towards the end of the creed: “he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” It was Mark Twain who said, “It is not those parts of the Bible that I do not understand that bother me. It is the part of the Bible that I do understand that bothers me most.” The Apostle’s Creed isn’t in the Bible but the same principle holds. I didn’t pay too much attention to the language of the Creed and what it meant until I got to the judgment part. That part seemed pretty straight forward. That part I undertood. At some point, the creed said, Jesus would come and judge my life. I knew if that were to happen he would find my life wasn’t very pretty and I wondered what might happen when, at the end of my life, I was judged and found to have really missed the mark.
When my children were young I remember a mother saying to me, “I find it very confusing that when I was growing up everything was my fault but now that I am the mother – everything is still my fault.” No matter which way she turned she felt judged. How our world has changed. Many of us in this sanctuary who grew up with a well defined sense of right and wrong and a sense of guilt now live in a world of “whatever.” We dodge the blame game by making so much of what we believe relative. We live in a world where experience is valued over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words. We live in a world where we are uncomfortable with the idea of judging others ‘ beliefs and ideas. This is the age of understanding and compassion; this is the age of tolerance and leniencies. Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not that you be not judged.”
At the same time, we tend to be the most litigious society in the world. We sue people for almost anything from the class action suit that was filed against Apple because its Nano Ipod scratched too easily to the young man who was awarded $74,000 for a broken hand when his neighbor drove over his hand with his car as the young man was attempting to steal his hubcaps. We love it when the people who have “done us wrong” are judged and found wanting. We jump to our defense when the tables are turned.
But we couldn’t live without judgment. Judgment is the faculty we use to make decisions everyday. Judgment is the capacity to assess situations or circumstances shrewdly and to draw sound conclusions; it is the balanced weighing of evidence before we make a decision. It keeps us in line. We use our judgment to determine our actions and anticipate the consequences. Sound judgment is a quality we all want to have.
Yet the idea of judgment by God brings up very a different kind of reaction from us. We have heard Christians who say that “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation, a warning to all who foolishly and arrogantly believe there is no God, and that if He did exist, would not have done such a thing!” and we might agree. God’s judgment is something to fear. Then there are those who read those words from Matthew, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and hear it as part of archaic, religious folklore from the bible. For others the God they know is all loving and accepting. We are saved by grace alone, not because we are good but because God is good. We are like the heretic Marcion who cut out all the passages from the Bible he didn’t like. It was as though he had a pair of scissors in his hands and he cut out all the biblical verses about judgment, punishment and wrath. Just give us a loving and all accepting God, thank you. Mercy without judgment is what we are after.
Try as we might like to deny it the concept of judgment is a prominent theme throughout the Bible. Listen to just a few examples: “But you indeed are awesome! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused? From the heavens you uttered judgment” (Psalm 76: 7-8) “The Lord will roar from on high…the clamor will resound to the ends of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against the nations; he is entering into judgment with all flesh, and the guilty he will put to the sword.” (Jeremiah 25: 30a, 31); “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” (John 5: 22-23a). If we cut all the judgment passages out of the Bible it would look like a block of well-aged swiss cheese.
Judgment is also a prominent theme in the book of Matthew where Jesus said “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But we can’t stop there. Continuing on we read, “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:2-3). At the time of Jesus, the idea of universal judgment was an established belief that the wicked would be punished and cast out while those who lived by the law would be invited to share in the joy of God’s kingdom. In Matthew 25 the king puts the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Both sheep and goats are surprised by the king’s remarks. Neither of them knew that what they did or didn’t do for the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner, they did or didn’t do for the king. The sheep on his right have unknowingly followed the Lord’s example while the goats on his left, while they bore no malice toward the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner also did not recognize them as their responsibility. In Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus identifies himself with the suffering and the afflicted in the world and sets up God’s standard for the final judgment.
Edward Markquart writes of his experience in traffic court, the place that many of us have probably come face to face with a judge. “The judge came in,” Markquart wrote, “and I tried to size him up. When it finally became my turn and my name was called my heart immediately began to flutter. I’m not sure why that was but I felt nervous inside, almost like a child coming before a father. As I walked up to the bench I refined my speech and I had already shaped the truth in such a way that it would benefit me. I had the story all figured out. Then the judge asked me just one question, “What did you do?” Now, that question disappointed me. I wanted the judge to ask about my job. You see, I thought that if the judge asked what I do for a living then I could tell him I was a pastor and he would be lenient with me. But he asked the wrong question. He didn’t ask me about my family, whether or not I was a good father or husband. He didn’t ask me about my beliefs and values, I could have talked to him for a full hour about that. He didn’t ask about my motivation or about my good intentions. He simply asked me, “What did you do Mr. Marquart?” “When we stand before the Judge Eternal,” wrote Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ, “he will not ask what we said but what we did.” As much as we might not like it, the Christian faith proclaims that we will be held accountable for the choices we made – not only in what we did, but what we didn’t do – in one way or another.
The idea of standing before God and hearing the question, “What did you do?” certainly has the power to make us fearful. This fear is well expressed on a Tshirt seen at the Chautauqua Institution in New York: Please God, don’t let me be behind Mother Teresa at Judgment Day. But one of the most important lessons we have to learn if we are going to be mature adults is that there are consequences to our actions and we all struggle to teach that lesson to our children who we know will be crippled as adults if they don’t learn it well.
As Christians the good news is that we do not have to live in fear of God because, “apart from hope,” writes theologian Daniel Migliore, “every Christian doctrine becomes distorted.” A doctrine of judgment is distorted unless we view it through the lens of the hope we have in God’s love. Migliore goes on to say that “Christian hope in the last judgment,” which is the scene depicted in Matthew, “must be sharply distinguished from all self-righteousness and resentment” those qualities that are so often present when we judge others. “The gospel of Jesus Christ and the motive of resentment and revenge are absolutely incompatible. The God who is decisively revealed in the cross of Christ doesn’t exercise vindictive judgment.” But Migliore also warns us not to sentimentalize our Christian faith of hope and love. “Gold is indeed a ‘consuming fire,” as the writer of Hebrew proclaimed. “But the fire of God is the fire of a loving judgment and a judging love that we know in the cross of Christ to be for our salvation rather than our destruction.” Our hope lies in the truth that God will judge all of us – that includes you and me and the people we would be thrilled to have judged by God. Our hope lies in the truth that it will be Christ, who was crucified and raised for us and who will also be our judge on the final day according to Matthew’s account of the end of time. “We are not confronted with a gracious and forgiving God now only to be confronted by a vengeful, vindictive judge then. Our hopes lies in the truth that we will not be judged by what we have said or whether we have subscribed fully to certain orthodox doctrines. “The question we will have to answer,” continues Migliore, “will be something like this: In response to God’s super-abundant mercy to us, have we shown mercy, or only loved ourselves? Orthodox belief and petty legalism are not the criteria by which human lives are finally measured. The criteria are simple trust in God’s grace and joyful participation in Christ’s [loving] way of life that manifests itself in often quite ordinary service of others, especially of the poor, the sick and the outcast.
Two weeks ago Ben preached on a text from Joshua, “choose this day whom you will serve?” “The heart needs to be single-minded,” Ben said, “if it is to be true in answering “yes” in serving God. The single-minded heart makes a commitment. The single-minded heart serves God in making daily and routine choices: choices about how you spend your money, choices about how you use your time, choices about the priorities you set, choices that come with the dilemma of ethical decisions. Again and again, we have to choose.” The choices we make and the actions we take are extremely important in God’s eyes. God wants to lead us out of lives that are only self-serving but God’s love will not coerce us. God lets us choose.
The big question we are left with, the most argued about and feared question many people have about God’s judgment is, “Will hell be empty?” (Migliore) It is not a question that anyone can answer, no matter what someone might believe. The Bible says that there will be a judgment that has a dual outcome and it also states that there will be redemption for all. Karl Barth suggested that we not to try and resolve the question but to put our hope and faith in a loving God who desires the redemption of the world far beyond what we can desire or even imagine. What a wonderful circle – God’s love and mercy to us moving us to act with love and mercy for others moving God’s love and mercy to extend back to us. Around and around it goes into eternity. God invites you to jump into the circle at any time. Amen.
I believe in God, the Father
Almighty, the Creator of
heaven and earth, and in
Jesus Christ, His only Son,
our Lord: Who was
conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius
Pilate, was crucified, died,
and was buried. He
descended into hell. The
third day He rose again
from the dead. He ascended
into heaven and sits
at the right hand of God
the Father Almighty,
whence he shall come to
judge the living and the
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the
body, and life everlasting.