Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Pleasant Surprise

I'm preaching at this evening's Eucharist, so that sermon will be the full post for today, but I wanted to take a few minutes to post about judgment. I was rereading Sunday's reading from 1 Thessalonians, and I noticed how Paul contrasts the day of the Lord's coming for those who are followers of Jesus and for those who are opponents of the Way: "When they say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness." In other words, the complete reversal that the coming of Jesus represents may catch the enemies of God off-guard, but, for those who follow Jesus, it will be a sort of pleasant surprise--not as a thief in the night but as a daytime unveiling.

We are in the middle of a three-week stretch when Jesus offers his disciples some challenging parables about judgment in Matthew 25. Last week was the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five of whom did not have enough oil and were shut out in the outer darkness. This week, we hear the parable of the talents and cringe when we hear that the one who was afraid and did not invest his talent wisely is stripped of all he has and cast out into the outer darkness. Next week, we will encounter the separation of sheep and goats according to whether we have cared for one another as if we were caring for Jesus. In case you don't remember any of these stories, allow me to summarize the ending of all of them: righteous people are rewarded while wicked people are punished.

That's judgment. These are some of Jesus' last words to his disciples, and he uses them to warn them about the upcoming judgment. He wants his closest followers--and the church that they will found--to know what is coming. The faithful, the persistent, the loving, the courageous will be rewarded. The wicked, the faithless, the self-interested, the fearful will be punished. That's what the Bible says. We don't have to like it. I'm pretty sure God doesn't care. This isn't just an isolated passage that we can ignore. This is central to Jesus' identity as an eschatological (i.e. "end-times") prophet. The Jesus Movement with which we love to identify is fundamentally eschatological, and you can't have eschatology without judgment.

Two days ago, I used Facebook to post a comment about judgment on one of Steve Pankey's blog posts this week. Like me, he has been wrestling with judgment these last two weeks. Several weeks ago, he shared another post with some pointed criticisms of the new website for the Episcopal Church, one of which was a criticism that I picked up on. The website says that we are a church that is free from judgment. That's a sentiment I understand and share, but it is worded rather carelessly. We may not be judgmental, but surely we believe in judgment. We are, after all, pretty big on that "Jesus Movement" thing (yes, still, after these two years). Anyway, since Steve had already offered a criticism of the church's website, I thought I'd drop that dead possum on his Facebook page to see what I might stir up. It could have been worse.

The point is that we have forgotten how to talk about judgment. We've lost our eschatological edge. And that's not just the Episcopal Church, though we're leading the way. Do Christians believe that the world is exactly how God intends it to be? No. Surely not. Do Christians believe that one day God will make all things the way God intends them to be? Yes. Absolutely. That's judgment. Anytime we skip a conversation, sermon, or blog post about judgment because we don't want to sound judgmental, what we're really doing is denying our hope that one day all things will be made new. That's judgment.

To the persecuted Christians of the first century, who could not imagine a day when they would worship God and follow Jesus without fear, it was the promised thief in the night who would catch the powers of the world unawares. To the slaves of the nineteenth-century American south, it looked like a new Moses coming to lead God's captive people into a Promised Land. To the present-day victims of violence, it looks like a prophet who will come and do what seems to be the impossible task of getting us to give up our arms and embrace peace. That's judgment. That judgment doesn't happen on human terms. We don't get to sit in judgment. That's what these three parables in Matthew 25 are about. God is judge. God the Father has yielded the divine-only authority to judge to the Son. The world will be judged, and that is very, very good news.

Why are we afraid of judgment? Why do we confuse judgment for judgmentalism? Maybe it's because we've started to recognize that, when the last day comes, we may not like what happens when the rich are made poor, the strong are made weak, and the oppressors are bound up in chains. Maybe we've replaced the gospel's judgment with our own criteria of wealth = blessing and might = right. The gospel is clear: the great day of judgment is good news for those who are on Jesus' side. Are we doing the church, the world, or ourselves any service by ignoring that? Don't we ignore it to our own peril?

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