Who's the Judge? (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 7)


TEXT: Luke 6:37-38; Romans 8:1-6

As we continue our travels through the Apostles' Creed, we come to a rather squirmy line: "From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." Thinking about the judgment passages of Scripture is not an easy way to pass the morning, but I think we have made them much worse than they need to be. The doctrines surrounding God's judgment of the earth have been some of the most misused in Christian history, and unfortunately we don't have to go back very far in history to see that such abuse continues in modern culture.

September 11 had people declaring that the tragedy was God's judgement on us for any number of reasons, and there is no shortage of people who believe that we have been dropping bombs of God's judgment on Islam ever since. If you have HIV/AIDS there are plenty of people willing to label your illness as God's judgment, and there are hordes of people who think that the problems and tragedies which hit their families are God's punishment for past misdeeds.

In the face of all of that, I want to stand up and say, "Stop it!!" If such judgments were meted out in our courts, we would be declared barbaric and probably put on trial ourselves for crimes against humanity. So where do we get off thinking that such behavior is characteristic of God? If God is love, why on earth would you think that God would give you some dread disease as a punishment? Would you do that to someone you loved?

I remember a young woman once coming into my office. She told me that she had an abortion when she was young. Now she was in an abusive relationship and thought God had sent her this relationship as punishment for the abortion. As a result, she would not leave it. She was accepting her punishment. Fortunately, I knew her mother, who was as kind and loving a woman as you could find. I asked the young woman, "So, did your mother approve of the abortion?"

"No," came the reply.

"And do you think your mother would have given you this terrible relationship as a punishment for having the abortion?"

Again she said, "No. Of course not."

This was, of course, my point. "If your mother wouldn't do that to you, why do you think God would? God is far more kind and merciful than your mother." And yet this is what we do all the time...attributing to God things that we would condemn as horrible behavior if a human being were to do it.

I've spent a fair amount of time in judgment halls. In seminary I was a mediator for the Atlanta courts, which meant that I spent a day a week sitting in court, waiting for cases that the judge would send my way. Once I entered ministry I ended up going to court with members of my congregations. Most recently I have spent time on the Board of Ordained ministry, sitting in judgment myself over candidates seeking to become pastors or pastors who have gotten into trouble.

If there's one thing I've learned from all of those settings it is that who you get for a judge makes all the difference in the world. From the fierce debates over the appointment of federal and supreme court judges, down to the discussions that go on between every lawyer and client as they prepare to go to court, the nature and temperament of the judge can be the difference between jail and parole, between justice and a farce, between mercy and retribution. Who the judge is matters even more than the merits of the case itself.

Now, leave that thought there for a minute and let's look at the other thing I have learned through my experiences: third-party judgment is sorely needed. Whether it was an intense family issue or a case that ended up in civil or criminal court, anyone who has ever been involved in a serious conflict knows that you get to a point where you can't sort it out yourselves. The emotions are too intense, the stakes too high. No matter how good you might be at seeing what is right for other people, when it's your own stuff, you need a third party that is not directly involved to help get things sorted out. You need someone to judge.

As much as we might dislike the thought that we might be on the receiving end of God's judgment, I don't think there's a person in this room who wants a God who does not judge. I have yet to meet anybody who wants God to pat Adolf Hitler on the head and say, "There, there, what you did really doesn't matter." We may have considerable differences over what sentence we think a person ought to receive for their crimes, but I believe every last one of us wants others to understand the wrongs they have done.

I think most of us want there to be judgment. We don't want God to just gloss over the harm that has been done to us and to others. I, at least, want a God who will make my abuser face the impact of the abuse. I want a God who is not afraid to say, "That was wrong. It was not my will, she did not deserve it, and there was more evil in the world because you did it."

Not only does believing this give me some peace psychologically, but I think it makes me far less likely to want to take judgement into my own hands and exact vengeance. If I believe that every person will have a time of judgment, then I can more easily leave that to God and let go of it. I think belief in the ultimate judgment of God would lessen the amount of violence in the world.

But judgment is more than just saying something is wrong. Judgment is not just about wrong deeds. Judges also declare people to be innocent and deeds to be righteous. To judge is simply to make a determination about the nature of an act. Judgment is not condemnation. If there was to be no judgment, there would also not be the opportunity for us to hear "Well, done, thou good and faithful servant."

If I have finally wrestled a bad habit into the ground and learned to live better, I want a God who will recognize that. When I faced a difficult challenge with grace, it will be nice to hear God's judgment of that. I don't just want to hear about the bad things I've done. I also want to hear about times when God was pleased with something I did and to have a chance to see how little seeds of kindness might at times have become huge strong trees of good in the world. When I really think about it, I want there to be a time of judgment.

I can sit with that comfortably, however, only because I know the judge...which brings me back to the first point. The first part of the creed has been spent telling us that the one who will pass judgment on everything we've done is the same one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary...the one who consented to experience life on earth as we know it...the one who, when faced with as much cruelty as the power of Rome could muster said, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing."

The matter of judgment is one of the reasons that the Christian message is so important. The Christian proclamation is that Jesus reveals to us the nature of God...that Jesus IS God in the flesh, and we can know what to expect from God by looking at how Jesus behaves. And what do we see in Jesus? When someone strikes him, he does not strike back. When a woman is brought to him caught in the act of adultery...a crime that carried the death penalty in Jesus' day...he does not condemn her. He acknowledges her sin and tells her to go and sin no more. His disciples desert him, and yet he returns after the resurrection to bring them back into the fold. He knows Judas will betray him, and yet he shares his last meal with him. The one who dies and rises and ascends to God so that we might do the same is the very one who returns to judge the quick and the dead.

Would you really be afraid to face him? Paul knew better as he wrote in his letter to the church in Rome. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus." So why are we so full of condemnation for others? It is not our place to name God's judgments. It is not our job or our right to name this group as "saved" and that group as going to hell. We can't know that...that judgment belongs to God alone.

Look at the favored ones of God in the Bible. Moses committed murder, yet God used him to bring the Hebrews to the Promised Land and prophesied that the Messiah would be a prophet like Moses. King David slaughtered Philistines by the thousands. He committed adultery and then murdered one of his most faithful soldiers to cover it up, and yet it was King David's bloodline that eventually gave birth to Jesus. Paul persecuted Christians and dragged them out of their homes to be executed, and then God called him, almost single-handedly, to spread the Gospel across the known world.

It is the God who did these things...the God whose nature was fully revealed in Jesus...who will judge our deeds. It will be Jesus standing by our side, to help us face the things we did badly in life. It will be Jesus who gently turns the pages of our history to the things we thought no one knew; it will be Jesus who shows us how those things affected others, and it will be Jesus who helps us stand when we think we cannot face what we've done. It is only fair and just that I face those things, and I will be ever so glad to have Jesus be there when I do.

And when the difficult part is done, I will also get to see the good things. Jesus will cheer for the times that I struggled and won; and delight to show me the times that I didn't even realize were good times, but someone else benefited. Jesus will show me the ways in which my spirit grew and how one little good deed affected people I had never even met years after it was over. And I will be glad then, too, to have Jesus be the one to take me through it.

From thence...from the right hand of God, Jesus will come to judge. He comes to judge the quick...the living...to prod us and try to turn us around when we are headed in the wrong direction, and to cheer us on when we do well. He comes to judge each one of us at our death, so that our learning can continue on and our souls continue to grow in eternity. There is absolutely no reason to be afraid. Jesus is God, and God is love. Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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