In Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov two brothers argue about the evil in the world and whether there is ultimate justice. The debate comes to a point where one of the brothers says he is so outraged by the suffering of children that, given a place in heaven, he would refuse it in protest. The other brother replies by pointing to the suffering of Jesus. Does God expect anything of us that he has not been through himself? The judge of the world is not aloof, he has come to us, been one of us, suffered with and for us, only without sin.
In Christian faith Jesus Christ will provide the ultimate righting of wrongs for he will come to judge the living and the dead. As Paul states in our first reading from 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 and verse 10: all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
How are we to understand this teaching?
God has invested in the human race. One day he will get a return on that investment. To believe in the judgement of the living and the dead is to believe in the coming of God’s kingdom and the trumping of the rule of evil and injustice in this world by God at Christ’s return which is a process working out in history - the detente between the US and North Korea is part of this with our ongoing prayer that detente works! The two parables of seed sown and the mustard seed in today’s Gospel from Mark Chapter 4 illustrate that historical process from small beginning to grand ending.
Jesus Christ died for all, Paul writes in verse 15 of the epistle so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. Jesus came, died and rose but has yet to complete his great and saving purpose we’re all part of, along with everyone and everything. In a bible image from Ephesians this purpose and process is the seeking of a bride by a heavenly bridegroom. To the eye of Christian faith the whole of human and cosmic history has this purpose: to prepare a holy people for God’s possession. The church is this, a bride being prepared without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5v27) for a heavenly destiny when her Lord comes again. In this eternal perspective all the sufferings of this world endured in faith will work for good for those who love the Lord (Romans 8v28)
Christ had died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! This is Christian faith and it brings an assurance that evil’s triumph in this world will end. God will turn the wrath of humanity to his praise by building up the body of Christ as a people for his own possession (1 Peter 2v9). This is why God invested in the human race by creating us and sending Jesus to draw the destructive sting of evil from us through his cross and through the sending of the Holy Spirit
How can judgement be possible? Can there really be a final catalogue of wrongdoing? Surely there can, Christian faith replies. As surely as a computer memory contains a million records, the memory of God is established. To him all hearts are open and all desires known.
By his sharing in our nature and his boundless compassion Jesus Christ is well appointed to judge the living and the dead. It is the love of Christ that urges us on we heard in the epistle. Did not that love put the best slant on thieves and prostitutes, a love always ready to treat people as better than they were? A love we’re welcoming this morning in Holy Communion showing to us in Bread and Wine manifold and great mercy!
Christian tradition distinguishes an individual judgement at the moment of our death from the general judgement referred to in the epistle which will complete God’s righteous task at the Lord’s return. After death scripture speaks of two ultimate destinies, heaven and hell, although there is a qualification that no one dying with unrepented sin can face the Lord without cleansing since no unclean thing shall enter his presence (Revelation 21v27). This is the origin of the doctrine of purgatory which in its plain sense of the need for the faithful departed to be purged or cleansed of residual sin to come close to God is hard to counter. The other historical understanding of purgatory as a place where the closeness to God of the departed can be engineered or even bought by appropriate religious services or exercises was rightly opposed at the reformation.
How could God inflict pain?
Our minds argue against judgement because they think they know best. Actually God knows best in the end. When we look into the eyes of Christ at his return there will be pain, but an if the cap fits wear it sort of pain. Hell will be our choice. Our wrong actions are an affront to God but he has given us a remedy.
As the DVD of my life is prepared for showing on judgement day Christ has power to edit out the unacceptable points if I give them to him. Mercy can triumph over judgement if we will allow Christ a place in our hearts!
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus Paul writes elsewhere to the Romans in Chapter 8 verse 1. God looks on those who are in Christ with the same love with which he looks upon his Son. Judgement has in a profound sense been passed already for those who have accepted God’s judgement on their lives. To accept one’s sinfulness and inadequacy is in the Christian tradition the pathway to joyful freedom. Such acceptance springs from a vision of God given in Jesus Christ, a God more concerned to give us what we need than to give us what we deserve.
To believe all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ is to face the future with an infectious hope. If faith shows you that the whole world is in God’s hands so is its future. Christianity provides a deep sense of certainty that any perceived triumph of evil will be seen ultimately as an illusion. All will come right in the end because in the end there will be the grace and truth of Jesus Christ (John 1v14, 17). Ultimately there will be grace – mercy - for repentant sinners and truth to prevail over all who live and act deluded by falsehood.
So to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all might, majesty, dominion and power now, henceforth and to the ages of ages. Amen.