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Longing for the Judgement of Christ – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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Matthew 25:31-end

One of my favorite buildings in all the world is the Chartres Cathedral in North France.  I had the privilege of living in France for a year near Chartres and I used to love visiting and getting to know the amazing work of art.

I especially loved the stunning west front of the cathedral and those incredible stone carvings of Adam and Eve, the prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs.  But at the very center, that favorite scene of all: the Last Judgment.  And it was illustrated by that favorite symbol – the weighing scales.  Each poor soul would in turn, stand before the terrifying judge of all, as his good works were put into one side of the scales, and his evil deeds into the other.  Would he be a sheep or a goat?  If his evil deeds outweighed his good, down he would go into the fires of hell.  But if on balance he had done enough good works, up he would go to join the heavenly host.  And what a host!  You’ve never seen such smug, self-satisfied faces as those in heaven!  And we may sympathize with the view that if they are the ones going to heaven, I might prefer the other place!

The picture of judgment, based on our works, is how many people see Christianity.  They see us trying to be good, to get enough points to get into heaven.  Our reward will come after we die.  Of course, this is a travesty of the Gospel – but to our shame, the church has throughout history sometimes used the model in repressive manipulative ways.  In the Middle Ages, right through the Victorian Age, people have been told to put up with their lot, however dreadful, and they will get their reward in heaven.  “Pie in the sky when you die.”

So how should we understand judgment in the New Testament, and how might we even long for judgment?  When I was taught to preach in seminary, my teacher told us never to use theological jargon, but use plain ordinary words – and I remember him saying, for example, never use the word eschatology.  Well, sorry, but eschatology is a useful word when we’re talking about judgment, a very Advent word.  It literally means the study of the last things – what is going to happen to us and to the world at the end.

Running through the New Testament there are two distinct currents of eschatology.  The first are in those pictures which Jesus paints about future judgment.  We have an example in our Gospel reading today: the story of the sheep and the goats.  We also have it in the story of Lazarus, and in other warnings where Jesus uses imagery, such as hell fire and burning, which he draws from well-known traditional Jewish stories and images.

Clearly, our words and our actions now do have significance, and one day we shall have to give an account for what we have done, how we have lived our lives.  But these images and pictures are not used by Jesus to describe literally what is going to happen to us, nor did Jesus come to earth as some kind of divine policeman, frightening us into acting correctly, keeping the law, and threatening us with a final day of reckoning where our deeds will be counted up and put on a weighing scale.  No.  These stories are part of that current of eschatology which looks to the future.  But they cannot be understood without reference to the other current of eschatology running through the New Testament.  And this current is not looking so much to the future, but is now.  That now is the time of judgment.  And John the Baptist, when he appears baptizing in the wilderness, and Jesus himself when he comes to be baptized, both proclaim this second current of eschatology that now is the time of judgment.

The first recorded words of Jesus in the earliest Gospel – Mark – come immediately after he has been baptized by John.  “The time has come, the Kingdom of God is upon you.  Repent and believe in the Good News.” (Mk 1:15) In other words, the time for judgment is now.  The time has come.  When Jesus walked the earth and encountered men and women, Jesus brought judgment there and then.  He was the agent of God’s judgment, and when he encounters us today he brings judgment.  “What do you think, Pharisees, there was a man attacked by robbers and only the Samaritan helped him – the people walked by on the other side.”  What do you think?  Some walked away from Jesus, muttering, with their hearts closed – rejecting, hating: in that moment of challenge, of decision, of crisis, they received their judgment and received their bitter reward.

Yet some were challenged and responded.  “Forgive me Lord, give me new life.”  And by repenting and following Jesus, they too were being judged.  And already they were tasting the rewards, the first fruits of eternal life – now.

Jesus came not to warn us of a future day of judgment and to frighten us into keeping the law sufficiently so that when our deeds are put on the weighing scales we can get into heaven.  Jesus came, and comes now, to convert us, through love, to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh – to love us so much that we shed tears of repentance. And change our ways.  So that, in the words of Isaiah, “We might share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house, and when we see the naked to cover them.” (Isa. 58:7)

And I do believe that our deepest longing is to be challenged by Jesus, to have our hearts turned from stone into flesh.  Our deepest longing is to be made holy.  So in this profound sense we can indeed long for judgment.  For to be judged by Jesus is to stand before Jesus naked, just as I am, and to allow him to look at us with love, and love us into repentance for our sins, and to receive his loving words of forgiveness – and then to be set free, and even now taste the first fruits of eternal life.

And it is when we know ourselves to be judged with love and forgiven, restored and set free, that we can read the story of the sheep and the goats in a very different way.  The words, “I was hungry and you gave me no food.  I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,” (Mt. 25:42-43) do not fill us with fear about the final judgment, but break our hearts with compassion.

We who have known personally what it is like to be judged with love, forgiven, and set free – can we neglect those in need with whom the same Jesus who has loved us, so clearly identifies?  “I was hungry and you gave me no food.  I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.  Insofar as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt. 25:45)

Those words have the power to judge us again – and again – throughout our lives.  What happens in your heart when you see someone in need – a street person, someone not like you?  Do you recoil, feel your heart harden, withdraw, avert your eyes, walk by?  Jesus comes every day to convert our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  And that is the place of judgment.

I will always remember a lecture by David Shepherd, a great former bishop of Liverpool (who also played cricket for England), and an Old Testament scholar.  He said the one thing in Scripture about judgment which is absolutely clear and without dispute, is that God judges us on how we treat the poor, the anawim – the needy, destitute, down-trodden and marginalized.

As we prepare ourselves this Advent for Christmas, allow yourself to be judged by God.  Be honest.  Look at your life.  Do you hoard wealth?  Do you put up walls and barriers?  Do you remain silent before injustice?  Where have you hardened your heart, closed your door?  Allow yourself to be judged.  Long to be judged because with God’s judgment comes forgiveness and wonderful first fruits of the Kingdom, which is already here.

And on that day when we stand at the final judgment before our God, we will not be frightened, for we will have already experienced the loving and forgiving judgment of God.  We will have already tasted the first fruits of that eternal life which we shall then know in all its wonderful and unimaginable abundance.

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15 Comments

  1. Gwendolyn Peters on January 21, 2016 at 21:22

    Tremendous! It makes me examine myself

  2. gwedhen nicholas on January 20, 2016 at 19:24

    Wow, wow, wow, Br Geoffrey! Thank you. You spoke
    directly to my heart. I grew up with the idea of the final judgement happening when we die and that only at that moment would we know whether or not we were ‘saved’.It is so freeing to hear you speak of judgment being now. We bring judgment upon ourselves now, depending on how we behave. God doesn’t meticulously tote all our behaviour up, saving judgment on it for after we die. Also you spoke of the first fruits. That is so comforting for me. I know that I am saved now, because I am tasting of the first fruits. I don’t have to worry about heaven or hell, about being saved or not being saved. God is full of loving compassion and forgiveness, and that is expressed to us now. Sorry, I’m rabbiting on about what you have already said,so much better than I am saying it. I just want to tell you how wonderful your sermon is. So freeing. Bringing such relief. Thank you.
    In Christ, Gwedhen

  3. anders on January 20, 2016 at 12:46

    Thank you for posting this again. These may be my words only, but I see both judgment and heaven in the here and now. Judgment in terms of an opportunity to change heart, to repent. Heaven, not of smug perfection, but the sense that God’s beauty and grace penetrates the grandest canyons to the minutest particles of our daily life, and it is good. Not perfect, not free of distractions and poor choices and their consequences. But good. As in grace and glory. Modest glory perhaps, but enough to make a difference. Always.

  4. Michael on January 20, 2016 at 09:07

    Visions of floating on Heaven’s clouds or suffereing in the fires of Hell are still cemented in many people Christian vision of judgement, but a judgement that could set us free because it is based in love and mercy gives us hope that we are not past redemption. God has many voices. Thank you for this one

  5. Jeff Schiffmayer on July 8, 2015 at 17:18

    Wonderful teaching! Thankyou Geoffrey. It is His infinite love that breaks our hearts. That is the judgement of the cross and our salvation. Repentance is not changing our minds to self improve, is is recognizing that we are dead and have been made new entirely in a whole new creation, along with everyone else!

  6. anders on June 29, 2015 at 11:46

    “Pie in the sky when you die” unfortunately didn’t die in the Victorian Age along with whalebone-reinforced corsets. Today’s updated view of judgment is that Christians are better off on earth as in heaven. In Evangelical circles, it’s having the power of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior which entitles us to a ticket to heaven, along with societal systemic advantages which are more palatable than insensitive outright personal discrimination. Christianity seems to make a lot of people rightfully angry forced into a position as the “Other,” which is the opposite of what Jesus preached that “all may be one”.
    As Christians we seek to convert others when the hearts which need to be softened are our own. Fill those pews with the pungent smell of homelessness! Send over missionaries from Africa to preach in our sclerotic suburban churches! We are sleeping and need to wake up. Our society is becoming so hard, yet I am grateful so many have hearts which remain soft and open, and it is good.

  7. DLa Rue on July 17, 2013 at 08:49

    Re-reading, so much later: your references to Bp. Shepherd led me to look up his biography online. I was especially impressed with his refusal to attend matches in South Africa before Apartheid was outlawed, and his dedication to the healing of rifts between Anglicans and Catholics in Liverpool (these, sadly, still exist in that area; my father’s mother’s family was from Sutton, St Helen’s, Lancashire, and that town’s website goes polemical anytime references to the RC church are made).

    I’m working for someone organizing an RC-initiated conference on ecumenical dialogue in a few years upcoming, so it was particularly important to see that and have a sense for the efforts made in the UK in that direction.

    We need not all be alike, but we can like each other.

  8. DLa Rue on April 11, 2013 at 10:35

    The focus on the Last Judgement/Weighing of the Souls in the tympana over the main entry to the church began before the Gothic period and has a couple of other well-known French Romanesque examples in particular: Vezelay and Autun, are among the best-known:

    http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7056/6798886990_25bef5b4ff_z.jpg
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Abbaye_Vezelay-tympan.jpg
    and
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Autun_St_Lazare_Tympanon.jpg

    Consistent with the homiletic interpretation above, this article also describes some of the sources and interpretive possibilities within the Autun lunette (which may have iconic Byzantine roots):

    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2848692?uid=3739696&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102126501967

    and Chapter 3 in this gorgeous study of the pilgrimage road churches discusses Vezelay:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Jvb44AKzgCUC&dq=last+judgement+vezelay&source=gbs_navlinks_s

    Perhaps also humorously consistent with the sermon, both sculptures show one or more devils trying to tip the scales in their own favor….at Vezelay the small demonic figure is unable to do so; at Autun a flanking angel works to prevail against them.

  9. George E. Hilty on April 11, 2013 at 08:13

    I commended this meditation to the online community of the readers of Forward Day by Day. The point:
    The Baptist, the Kingdom and Judgment. I commend the meditation: ” Longing for the Judgement of Christ” – – Br. Geoffrey Tristram of SSJE, written some time ago, but republished on Twitter today. The message–today, yesterday, tomorrow–is “We might share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house, and when we see the naked to cover them.” (Isa. 58:7). The Baptist urges “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Yet, that is not far from the erroneous picture of judgment depicted at the Cathedral in Chartres and described in Br. Geoffrey’s meditation. That notion of repentance naturally resulting in fruit got twisted into a doctrine of works to earn salvation. And that, dear Christian friends, is why IDEAS ARE IMPORTANT. Wrong ones can cause us immense grief. And that is why I oppose so vigorously what appear to be wrong ideas creeping into our meditations and discussions.

  10. Gretchen TenBrook on April 11, 2013 at 07:04

    Thank you for this reflection on the place of divine judgment in our lives. At first, the topic of judgment turned me off: who wants to face that? But then I realized that maybe my experience of judgment is hard to relate to because it is masked by grace. It focuses not on the punishment which is so closely related to judgment, but on the salvation which comes from grace. While Jesus naturally brought judgment with him into the world, as His Way cannot help but shed light on our brokenness, my experience of Jesus has been more one of Invitation than Judgment. When I become aware, through his grace, of an aspect of my life that needs healing (perhaps this is the judgment part?), I actually sense Him calling me to be more accepting and forgiving of this very brokenness/sin, yet empowered to move on from it into a place of freedom and restored union. It seems that Jesus is not primarily about judgment, but about mercy, forgiveness, restoration, and salvation. As Jesus said,”I did not come to judge the world, but to save it” (John 12:47). I like the note from my NIV Bible on this quote: “It is not the purpose of the sun’s shining to cast shadows, but when the sun shines, shadows are inevitable.” And this shining, whether you want to call it judgment or salvation (two side of the same coin?) is for NOW (is this not all we have?), in my daily intentional living to continually surrender to His Way. I am reminded of a quote, which I cannot remember its source: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven; and it’s hell all the way to hell.” I choose heaven for today. Open my eyes, dearest Jesus, to the continual invitations to Your Way.

  11. Lynn Bujnak on April 11, 2013 at 07:00

    There’s an old hymn in my tradition that contains this stanza:

    Bless thou the truth, dear Lord, to me, to me
    As thou did’st bless the loaves beside the sea.
    Then shall all bondage cease, all fetters fall
    And I shall find my peace, my All in All.

    I guess that’s how I think of judgement, of a truth-telling that is also a means of freedom. And yes, this I can and do long for. Thank you, Br. Geoffrey!

    • Gretchen TenBrook on April 11, 2013 at 15:06

      “A truth-telling that is also a means of freedom. Yes, I long for that.” Thanks for sharing such beautiful words.

  12. Kate on December 15, 2012 at 08:03

    Awesome! Thank you so much!

  13. Emmanuel john Patras on October 14, 2012 at 06:44

    Prayer is one of the best free gifts we receive. I asked God for water. He gave me an ocean. I asked God for a flower. He gave me a garden. I asked God for a friend, He gave me …..YOU…

  14. Anita on December 6, 2011 at 07:13

    Wonderful! Thank you, Brother!

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