Jesus the Risen Judge – and Forgiver

Acts 10.34–43; John 20.1–18
a sermon in Durham Cathedral at the Eucharist
on Easter Morning, April 8 2007

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

Once again, Easter has brought a rash of silly-season stories in the press. Some poor shopkeeper has made the blunder of saying that the Easter eggs are to commemorate Jesus’ birth. Vox Pop interviews in the street show that Joe and Josephine Public have very little idea of the difference between Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and the proverbial fried egg. Stories go around about the child in the American Sunday School who, confusing Easter with Groundhog Day, declares that Easter is when Jesus comes out of his tomb . . . but that if he sees his shadow he has to go back inside for another six weeks.

But the really worrying thing, frankly, is not that the lass in the Spennymoor omnibus doesn’t know what Easter is about, but that many practising Christians seem decidedly shaky on it as well. Yet again we have been treated in the media to people going on about how boring heaven seems to be, all that hanging around on clouds and strumming harps. Yet again we have been told that the real thing that matters is going to heaven or hell, with clever adjustments being made this way and that, most recently by Pope Benedict himself, to what precisely we should understand by those destinations. Yet again, in other words, we find people capitulating to the prevailing disease of western Christianity, which refuses to look the New Testament’s teaching in the face and prefers to play the tune of the story of Jesus while filling in the harmony from Plato’s philosophy. (Let me just say, to anticipate any conversation I may later have with the Canon Professor, who though he’s not here today may read this on the web, that Plato was one of the greatest men in the history of thought, but the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.)

Our reading from Acts made it quite clear that in the earliest apostolic proclamation about Jesus of Nazareth his death and resurrection were directly linked to two promises, one about the future, and one about the present. These can be simply stated: the resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead, and the resurrection demonstrates that he is the one in whose name forgiveness of sins can be had here and now. Now at first sight these two promises may seem somewhat arbitrary, and only somewhat loosely connected to Easter Day itself. But that again only shows how far we are off the mark. Easter Day is the moment when those great Psalms in the middle and late 90s come into their own, all about heaven and earth rejoicing, the sea thundering, the fields and the trees and the animals celebrating for joy, because YHWH is coming to judge the earth, to judge it with true justice and the nations with faithful equity. In other words, Easter is about the whole creation being set right at last, put back on track with the way it was supposed to be, and the way it had been longing to be. According to Paul, echoing Genesis of course, God intended that the created order should be governed by wise human beings reflecting God’s stewardly love into it. With human rebellion, this purpose was thwarted, and the earth brought forth thorns and thistles, not of its own will but because it had been subjected to futility against the day when humankind would be restored. Now, in the person of Jesus Christ, that restoration has happened; there is at last an obedient human being at the helm of the universe; and the heavens and the earth rejoice at the very thought. God’s judgment is the form that his mercy takes, when faced with a world out of joint.

Easter is therefore the glad and rich assurance that God has set the whole created order right at last. Of course, this has happened physically in only one particular so far. But Jesus, as Messiah, represents Israel; Israel, as God’s chosen people, represent the whole human race; and the human race, as God’s image-bearers, bring all creation with them. That’s the only way we can make sense of how Easter relates to the rest of the world. But already we can see that the resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true judge in a rich and deep sense: not so much that it qualifies him to sit on the bench in a wig and pronounce from a position of lofty moral superiority, but that he himself, as the first part of creation to be set right after the corruption of evil and death had done its worst to him, is now not only the one who can reflect God’s healing justice perfectly into the world but the one who actually embodies it in himself.

This message of future judgment, anticipated in Jesus Christ, is urgently relevant to several major issues before us right now. It addresses head on the issue of climate change and our responsibility for the future of the planet, especially since those most likely to suffer from rapid change are, as usual, the poorest of the poor. If in Jesus God has begun to bring about his great renewal of all creation, then those who in faith and love embrace Jesus as the risen Lord can do no other than work to put that renewal to work. But the notion of judgment brings into focus several other important questions we face not only about particular policies but about the very question of public and political life itself. Professor Oliver O’Donovan, now of Edinburgh University, has recently argued that ‘judgment’ is the primary political act, in other words, that what governments and rulers seek to do is to draw lines in the sand, to make decisions, which bring a measure of order to the world – and that, from a Christian point of view, these actions are to be understood as partial anticipations of the time when God, through Jesus Christ, draws the final lines in the sand and sets the whole cosmos to rights at last. If that is correct, then not only does what we vaguely call ‘religion’ belong most firmly and certainly within the public sphere, but it is the task in particular of those who believe in Jesus Christ to announce his judgment both in and through particular political and judicial decisions and also upon those decisions themselves, since they themselves partake systemically of the very injustice which they are trying to address.

Perhaps this explains why the notion of a coming judgment, and of Jesus as the coming judge, and the very idea of bodily resurrection itself through which this coming judgment is not only announced but anticipated, have all been so particularly unpopular over the last couple of hundred years. Resurrection has, of course, always been frowned upon by sensible people, from at least the time of Aeschylus and Pliny the Elder, both of whom firmly deny that such a thing could happen. But in the last two hundred years, precisely in step with our modern political institutions, we have been told that with the rise of modern science we simply can’t believe in resurrection, and that with our modern moral sensibilities we certainly can’t believe in the idea of a coming judgment. And notice what is going on. This double denial clears the way for a double affirmation of things which western society has tried to believe for two hundred years and which are now sounding more and more shrill and nervous. First, Jesus’ resurrection has to be got out of the way because, if it really happened, it would mean that world history reached its climax on the first Easter Day, whereas Europe and America have staked their worldview on the belief that world history reached its climax with Voltaire, Rousseau and the rise of liberal democracy. Second, the idea of coming judgment has to be got out of the way, not so much because we don’t like talking about Hell any more (that’s always the excuse), but because that same modern liberal democracy has claimed for itself the right to make all judgments about everything, and so wants to banish off the scene any rumours either of more ultimate judgments or, particularly, of judgments against its own absolute judgmental power.

I hope it’s clear that this isn’t a mere abstract question to entertain the mind over Easter lunchtime. It is urgently relevant to several major issues that face us right now. It’s what is at stake in the question of the reform of the House of Lords. It’s what matters underneath the currentAngst over the fact that we now have de facto government by the executive, often under pressure from big lobby groups, rather than by Parliament. It’s what is going on under the rumbling debates about Europe – about the future role of Christianity within Europe and about the place of European legislation within our own sphere of sovereignty. We urgently need, as thinking Christians, to join up the debates and to think through the ways in which the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead establishes him, not any human institution, as the ultimate judge of the living and the dead. And to those who take fright at this, and warn about theocracy and extremism, we must reply that part of the point is that our judgments too, as followers of Jesus Christ, are partial and are themselves subject to sharp scrutiny; and that the objection sounds a little like special pleading when you see the way in which our present government, to look no further, is ramming through one policy after another which seem designed to provoke Christian opinion and, sooner or later, to force us to say that we must obey God rather than penultimate human authority. When that moment comes, and we are certainly nearer to it now than we were a year ago, we must know as Christian people that we stand in this matter firmly on the ground of Easter itself, in which Jesus Christ is ordained by God as the sole and ultimate judge of the living and the dead. May we have courage and strength not only to believe the Easter message but to know how to apply it where it may be urgently needed.

The second strand in the apostolic proclamation of Easter is equally powerful and equally urgent. Jesus is the one in whose name ‘forgiveness of sins’ is available to all who believe. This is closely linked to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: if the Messiah is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Healthy, not to say happy, Christian living demands that we understand fully what is going on here. It isn’t, once more, just a matter of saying that because Jesus happens to have been raised from the dead, he therefore possesses special quasi-magical powers which enable him to dispense this strange thing called ‘forgiveness’. Rather, it is that his resurrection demonstrates beyond all cavil that on the cross he really did accomplish the defeat of the powers of corruption, evil and death. If he hadn’t done so, he wouldn’t have been raised from the dead; it’s as simple as that. And, once again, we see part of the reason behind the shrill rejection of Jesus’ bodily resurrection in the western world (and, alas, all too often in the western church!) of the last two centuries. The world and the church have colluded with the dualism which says that death is nothing at all, the body doesn’t matter, the space-time universe doesn’t matter, so who needs resurrection? – a convenient way of looking at things if what you want to do is to run the world to your own advantage. And, in the middle of this, the world and the church have colluded with the view that says nothing very much is all that wrong; ‘sin’ is an outmoded concept, and a little more enlightenment, democracy, psychiatry and general common sense will see us through. Well, sorry: read the newspapers, think of Iraq or Iran or Darfur or a thousand other places, think of stabbings and shootings on our streets, not to mention corruption and folly in high places.

But, you say, what has forgiveness of sins got to do with all that? Surely forgiveness is what happens when someone realises that they’ve done something they shouldn’t, and turns in penitence to God and says ‘sorry’. Well, yes, that is true, and it matters more than I can say. But ‘forgiveness of sins’ was never simply a random individualistic concept. For any first-century Jew, it was much bigger: it involved the whole notion of a people in exile because of their sins, so that when God forgave them at last this would mean the restoration of national fortune. And when the early church announced ‘forgiveness of sins’ in the name of Jesus Christ, this didn’t just mean that individual sinners could get right with God, though of course it did mean that: forgiveness was a whole programme, a whole way of life, the new covenant way of life in which the restoration which God offered to all who believed in Jesus was to characterize families and communities, worldviews and life-paths, a Jubilee movement that, whenever it came upon anything amiss in human relations or society, would move heaven and earth to put it right, to restore things to the way they should be.

And now we begin to see, perhaps, that after all judgment and forgiveness are not two quite different things, but two ways of saying the same thing, both of them following directly from the Easter victory of Jesus Christ, through whom all things are put to rights and in whom all who believe find themselves put to rights in advance of the final great day. If God’s judgment is the form his mercy takes when faced with a world out of joint, God’s mercy is the form his judgment takes when faced with penitent sinners. About this we cannot speak any more in detail. But we may well ask, what has all this large-scale, vital but somewhat big, construction got to do with me, with us, with today, with Charlotte who is to be baptized in a moment? Well, come from the large worldview questions to John’s breathtaking Easter narrative (and I mean breathtaking: there’s a lot of running to and fro in it). Here is Mary Magdalene, whose world has gone horribly wrong from top to bottom. Here are the disciples, frightened and in hiding. And here is Jesus, speaking gently but powerfully to Mary, assuring her that God has put all things to rights and that this includes her, and that in and through him the living God now addresses her by name, and addresses the disciples as his own children: ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to be called children of God;’ ‘I am ascending,’ he said, ‘to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’

In the word of the risen Jesus, then, we find judgment and forgiveness coming home at the deepest and most personal level. And my prayer for Charlotte today, and for her family and friends as they bring her up, and for all who eat at the Lord’s Table this Easter morning, is that they may know the risen Jesus as a living reality in their lives, in their family life, and in their membership of the church; and that they with us may be part of the new church that God is creating in our day, a fellowship across ecumenical and ethnic boundaries, a great company which is learning painfully but surely the lessons that in Jesus Christ and in him alone are judgment and mercy, and that as we celebrate his kingdom and feast at his table we will be given power to name him as Lord over all other rulers and authorities, all others who claim to dispense judgment and forgiveness. ‘God raised him up,’ said Peter to Cornelius, ‘and commanded us to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ ‘My father and your father; my God and your God.’