Scripture: John 19:16b–22
Everything I need to know about the courtroom, I learned from Matlock!
At least that is what I thought when I was a teenager, watching the show faithfully. Our family loved the courtroom show about Ben Matlock, played by Andy Griffith, as a sometimes grumpy, often wise defense lawyer. Of course, I didn’t really learn much of anything about real courtrooms, because Matlock always managed to represent innocent clients, and always managed to get them off scot-free! The judge was usually a little hapless, and had to be led to the right decision by the all-knowing Ben Matlock.
Shows like Matlock, Perry Mason, Law and Order, and even Judge Judy or People’s Court don’t tend to give us a great picture of judges, do they? They are often jerks, or clueless, or both. So perhaps it is not a surprise, then, that we tend to associate words like judge and judgement in a negative light. “Don’t judge me.” “Why are you so judgey?” “I am not a judgmental person.” In general, what we mean when we use these words is that one individual is passing judgment on another individual, usually on some moral or ethical grounds. And it is usually seen as a bad thing.
Which complicates the fact that when we last left Jesus in John, he was seated on the seat of…judgment. As Cristina reminded us in her sermon last week, in John, Pilate sits Jesus on this seat that was meant to pass judgment on the people. Jesus as judge. So, should we see Jesus in this same negative light? Should we cheer for a Ben Matlock to gently urge the judge toward seeing things in the right way? Of course, there is something else going on here in the story.
Fleming Rutledge suggests as much in her instant classic work on the crucifixion titled, appropriately, The Crucifixion. Rutledge explores what we mean when we talk about the crucifixion. Her question from the first chapter is an important one:
What does Jesus’s death on the cross a long time ago have to do with us now?
And she labors over the next 669 pages to answer that question. She helps us see that the phrase “the message of the cross” is too simplistic. In the Bible, there are several messages of the cross. Several ways that the Biblical witness gives us an answer to this question. In fact, she offers no less than eight distinct theological motifs about the cross and what it means for us today. I find it oddly comforting that she suggests that the theology of the cross is complex, multifaceted, and even sometimes confusing. Maybe one day, I will preach on all eight of these motifs, but today, I want to talk about the one that seems to make some sense to me, especially after spending the last several months in the Gospel of John. She writes of the motif that theologians often call The Great Assize, or the Final Judgment.
Uh oh. There’s that word again. But Rutledge goes to great pains to explain the limitations of the idea that judgment must be one individual passing judgment on one other individual, on moral or ethical grounds. In fact, she writes, in the Scripture, this model is almost never used. Instead, judgment is seen in a broader and more communal light:
- First, it is not “final” in a temporal way, happening at the end of a certain timeline. But it is more rightly an Ultimate Judgment, which is happening continuously.
- God alone is the judge, which means it comes to no surprise that John’s retelling of the passion narrative places Jesus on the seat of judgment.
- We are the ones who are judged. And not you and me separately and individually on what we have done, but all of us, collectively and corporately, caught up together.
- And the evidence that the Godhead will judge us by? Rutledge points to two words that might be familiar to us: Mishpat and Tzadiquah.
If you remember way back to November, we talked about these two Hebrew words, often translated as Justice and Righteousness. In the book of the prophet Amos, these two words are the twin pillars of God’s standard for us on earth. “Let justice roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This is the way that God wants us to live. This is the way that we are collectively judged: do we live a life of Mishpat and Tzadiquah?
And, in short, the answer is simple: Nope.
At least not completely. There is injustice in the world. There is unrighteousness. It almost seems too obvious to say out loud. The pandemic has not made us more just or righteous, but it has revealed the injustices and unrighteousness that have always been there. When the food pantry and Family Promise numbers skyrocket, when children and families run for their lives from a dangerous dictator and his violent army, as Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Every rocket fired signifies … a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” He understood our failures on the scale of Mishpat and Tzadiquah.
To explain how God judges on this scale, Rutledge uses the metaphor of a compass. We all know that the magnetic needle of a compass necessarily points to the North, seeking the North Pole. But what we don’t always think about is the inverse: the magnet is repelled from the South Pole. It is pointing away from the South. Rutledge suggests that this is the way that God works as well: pointing away from all that would threaten the purpose of our salvation. Pointing away from that which is polar opposite of Mishpat and Tzadiquah.
Which is, again, the story that we have heard throughout the Gospel of John. Just about everyone in the Gospel of John is beholden to the powers of fear and violence. Pilate reacts in fear to the local religious officials, knowing that they can appeal to Rome and get him in deep water. The local officials react in fear to the power of Rome, and move to kill Jesus before he gains enough power to bring the fist of the Empire down on them. The disciples react in fear when Jesus is arrested, running into the night, denying and abandoning him. Even the people gathered for the triumphal entry at the beginning of the week are motivated by fear… of their oppression, of their poverty, of their desperation. There is a reason that they cry out “HO-SHAY-AH-NAH”…Hosanna…”Save us!” All of this seems to demonstrate what can only be called the polar opposite of Mishpat and Tzadiquah. God the Judge is eternally opposed to the powers of fear and violence and destruction and alienation.
Rutledge says it this way: To be for us and for our salvation, God must be against all that would threaten or destroy that purpose.
So, when we last left the scene last week, God-dwelling-with-us Jesus sat on the judgment seat before all of the people, surrounded by all that would threaten or destroy the justice and righteousness of God. And then, from there, in today’s passage, God-dwelling-with-us Jesus is drug from that seat, and the Judge of The Great Assize is beaten, marched through the town, made to carry his own device of execution, and then hung there for all to see. His murderers cannot even agree what sign to hang over his head, squabbling through yet another power play between Pilate and the local officials. And while they nitpick over what words to place on the sign, Jesus slowly suffocates to death.
Yet, our question remains: So what happened on the cross? What did that event, 2,000 years ago, mean in that moment, and what does it mean for us today? Perhaps it is helpful to walk back a few days, to the beginning of the week. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The Last Week make a comparison between Jesus’s triumphal entry on a donkey and Pilate’s entry on a war horse, flanked by soldiers, quite possibly on the same day. These symbols harken all the way back to the story that we read back in October, when the people told Samuel that they wanted a king “like the other nations have,” and Samuel told them “be careful what you wish for!” Then, and now, the way of monarchy looks for someone like Pilate. On his war horse, flanked by power and violence. Or more specifically, many of them were looking for someone bigger and better than Pilate. A monarch “like the other nations have.” Someone like David who would come in and “out-monarchy” Pilate, who would come into town on a bigger horse, with more chariots, and run Pilate and all of the Romans out of town. Then, and now, we cry out to someone who can save us from our fears by being the bigger bully. Who can out-authority the authorities. When we feel like we are trampled and trapped under the boot, what do we look for…but a bigger boot. But, as the week progressed, the prophet king showed them a different way. Instead of the way of the monarchy, the way of the bigger boot, he chose a kinghood that astounded Pilate, angered the Judean leaders, and didn’t even make sense to his loyal followers. The prophet king didn’t pull out a bigger boot. He let the boot of power trample him. The prophet king refused to match violence with violence, which ultimately led to his death on a cross. The most humiliating, non-monarchist death possible.
But in so doing, Jesus the prophet king transformed the nature of power itself. When Jesus refused to overpower, but instead chose to empower, he dismantled the notions of overlording power and monarchist bigger boot ideology. Instead of overpowering from above, Jesus demonstrated a power from below. From underneath the boot.
I have been reading a book titled Rocky Mountain Natural History, by Daniel Mathews, and am currently reading the chapter about geology: plate tectonics: the process deep within the earth, melting and exploding, and pushing up from below, which works together to form the incredible structures known as the Rocky Mountains. They were not plopped down from above, but raised up from below. The Great Assize says this is what happened on the cross: when humanity was at its most despicable, Jesus transformed and re-created those destructive forces through a new kind of power. That’s what happened on the cross. Jesus refused to play by the world’s rules! Again, Rutledge says it beautifully:
“…the righteousness of God is God’s powerful activity of making right what is wrong with the world. When we read, in both the Old and the New Testaments, that God is righteous, we are to understand that God is at work in his creation doing right. He is overcoming evil, delivering the oppressed, raising the poor from the dust, vindicating the voiceless victims who have had no one to defend them.”
Which leads us to the rest of the question that Rutledge asks, “and what does it have to do with us today?” And that is where the rest of the Great Assize fits in. Because on the cross, God demonstrated a reversal of power, and a transformation of all of the powers that reject Mishpat and Tzadiquah. For they would not have the last word.
But that cosmic and eternal transformation has ripples for us, in particularity, even today! We are transformed. We are not beholden to the powers of death and evil. We don’t have to go around wishing and pining for the next bully to bring a bigger boot, because the power of the bigger boot has been defeated. We don’t have to live in quivering fear of the Pilates and the Putins and all those who would use their military or their money or their Empires to march over the weak and the vulnerable. We have an Advocate that stands with us, transforming us, removing from us all that is the polar opposite of Mishpat and Tzadiquah. Jesus sits on the judgment seat, but he is also our Advocate. He is our Ben Matlock!
So what happened on the cross? A transformation of the very notion of power itself, and a transformation of those of us no longer beholden to that power. Through pain and the cross and death, Jesus brought transformation to each and every one us. He became our Advocate. He became our compass, pointing the way to Mishpat and Tzadiquah.
Rutledge has a final Scriptural reference that I will share with you, in this explanation of The Great Assize. And it is not from John, but from Paul. “If anyone is in Christ, she or he is a new creation.” On the cross, we were transformed. We were re-created to be what we were already created to be. Empowered from below, instead of overpowered from above. The powers of death and violence have been transformed. We are no longer beholden to them, but are now a new creation. Christ has been made low, to show us the power of coming beneath us. Christ has been made a victim, to show us the power of standing with those victimized in our world.
I cannot help but see the connections. As we stand here today, on the first Sunday that we return to worship in the sanctuary, I preach a sermon on the power of transformation in Christ. As I look at new walls and restored ceilings, we talk about being remade and recreated into our original creation. And as I look at our beautiful stained glass windows, watching them reflect and refract light throughout this beautiful worship space, I read for the one millionth time the words written on them: “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation.” And once again, the transformation of the cross, the message of the new creation washes over me.
This Holy Week, let us see again what Christ has done in the cross. Let us see again what Christ has done in our church. Let us see again what Christ has done in our hearts. Amen.
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