The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 9th December 2007
Now in various parts of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, there are visions of some sort of final judgement at the end of time, when, to use one of the images in a parable of Jesus, the sheep will be separated from the goats, and we shall all be judged. In this final judgement, it is claimed, we will answer before God in some way for how we have used the opportunities we have been given in our lives. And certainly if we go back, say, two hundred years of more, it was an image that exercised great power in the imaginations of many ordinary men and women, no doubt among other things encouraging them to behave well rather than badly.
And it was also seen as a way in which the wrongs of this world would somehow be made right. The wicked that enjoyed immoral pleasures or treated others unjustly in this life would be punished and the virtuous, particularly those who suffered unjustly at the hands of the wicked, would be rewarded.
Now of course that may indeed turn out to be the case. I suppose if you believe that everything in the Bible is divinely communicated and that the various authors somehow had knowledge denied to the rest of us then you might want to assert that will indeed be the case. How can any of us know for certain about that?
But what I think is undeniable is that as an image it exercises far less power in most people’s minds than it did. That will be for a number of reasons. It will partly be because belief about life beyond death is less widely held now than it was. It will also be because attitudes to the Bible have certainly changed, not least of all amongst many Biblical scholars. The books of the Bible now are viewed far more clearly against the intellectual and cultural background of the age in which they were written, and so many would see elements of the Biblical pictures relating far more to that cultural background than to any absolute final truth. And then also I suspect for many people who do believe in God, their way of thinking about God is to see him far more as a loving and forgiving father than as a severe judge.
But does that mean that we can label all that we read about judgement in the Bible as simply outdated and ignore it all today. Well, no, I do not believe that is the case. But to find a way into its contemporary meaning we need to consider one of the rather remarkable strands in the New Testament picture of judgement. For in various parts of the New Testament, but most especially in St John’s Gospel, there is the suggestion that judgement has already happened. It is most clearly stated in John 12.31f when John has Jesus saying ‘Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ And if there was any ambiguity in how that ‘lifting up from the earth’ should be understood St John answers it in the next verse. ‘He said this to show by what death he was to die’. Jesus was lifted up from the earth on a cross, and that, for St John, was the moment of judgement. God judges not from a throne at the end of time, but from a cross at a particular moment in history. It is not merely a possible event in a remote future, but an event within the life of this world that has happened. It is not that we shall go to God to be judged by him, but he has come to us and the judgement has already taken place. It is a last judgement, but not ‘last’ in the sense of last in time, but ‘last’ in the sense of ultimate. This world has been judged at Calvary. And through that, for St John, the ruler of this world shall be cast down, and a new order established. And we are judged now, by whether we crucify Christ afresh or whether we let that love shown in him break and convict us.
How far we truly accept that moment in history as the moment of final judgement is the criterion. That he who showed us most clearly what God is like should end up on a cross was an extraordinary judgement of the world and what the world does to God. But it is not just an event in the past; we keep on doing it to God again and again as we ignore him. And when did we ignore him? Well, Jesus gave us a clear answer – ‘When did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger…? Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these you did it unto me.’ If God be God then he is there in each of us and in each of the people whom we encounter day by day. And judgement comes in how we treat that divine element in each person we meet. It is a judgement on our own humanity, and how we use it in treating others. Do we really treat others as though God is in them?
Now of course many of us for much of the time probably forget that; we continue on with our lives and the relationships we have with others in the way that has become familiar and comfortable to us. But every now and then a moment of judgement does come, unexpectedly even, like a thief in the night, when the easy and trite remark we made about someone is suddenly exposed for what it is, thoughtless, unfeeling and hurtful, or the person in real need crosses our path and we realise that we have in effect passed by on the other side. That is the moment of judgement; it is a judgement on our humanity, but, because of that, it is also our judgement by God.
God allowed himself to be edged out of the world onto a cross, and probably all of us from time to time edge him out still that little bit more. But as we at least at some moments recognise that then he also calls us to come home to him, and judgement is complete at least for us when we do come home, and find our rest in him.
For most of us for most of the time it often is only momentary, but as that moment lasts longer and longer, as it permeates more of what we are, and as we become more and more aware of that judgment, we then also find the other critical thing; our judge is also our Saviour.