Sunday before Holy Cross: John 3:13-17

Sunday before Holy Cross

The Lord said, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:13-17)

People (and not simply non-Christians, but even many Christians) will point out that it is wrong for Christians to judge, because, “Jesus didn’t judge anyone.” The proponents of this position find something of an ally in St John Chrysostom. In one of his homilies of the Gospel of St John, Chrysostom reflects on the “two advents of Christ, one past, the other to come.” The first coming of Jesus Christ he says “was not to judge but to pardon us.” It is for this reason that Jesus says of Himself, “I have not come to judge the world but to save it” (John 12:47) as Chrysostom points out. Jesus comes to pardon us our sins “because He is merciful” and this mercy reflects what St John describes as “the unspeakable surplus” of God’s “loving kindness” toward humanity.

But if Jesus first advent is for pardon not judgment, it is good to remember that his second coming “will not be to pardon but to judge us” in Chrysostom’s view. It is only when I am “careless” and inclined toward “using the loving kindness of God to increase the magnitude” of my sin that I neglect this second coming with the excuse that well, “God forgives all our sins.”

Certainly God forgives me. The problem isn’t whether or not God forgives, but whether or not I will accept forgiveness, whether or not I will accept reconciliation with God. St Augustine in his Tractates (Lectures) on the Gospel of John reminds us that, yes, Christ is the Physician of our souls and that “He has come to heal the sick.” But at the same time, grace requires from us our cooperation and “Whoever does not observe” the Physician’s “orders destroys himself.” He puts the point sharply:

Thou wilt not be saved by Him; thou shalt be judged of thyself. And why do I say, “shall be judged”? See what He says: “He that believeth on Him is not judged, but he that believeth not.” What dost thou expect He is going to say, but “is judged”? “Already,” saith He, “has been judged.” The judgment has not yet appeared, but already it has taken place. For the Lord knoweth them that are His: He knows who are persevering for the crown, and who for the flame; knows the wheat on His threshing-floor, and knows the chaff; knows the good corn, and knows the tares. He that believeth not is already judged. Why judged? “Because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.”

Chrysostom reflecting on this point says that by this promised judgment Jesus means one of two things.

He either means that disbelief itself is a punishment of the impenitent [since], . . . is to be without [the divine] light [necessary to live happily]. . . . Or he is announcing beforehand what is to be. Even if a murderer is not yet sentenced by the judge, still his crime has already condemned him. In the same way, he who does not believe is dead, even as Adam, on the day he ate of the tree died.

The very curious thing about being a sinner, is that I seem to prefer the misery of my making to the God’s gift of happiness. A the beginning of Paradise Lost, John Milton summarized the psychology of sin in the words he puts in Satan’s mouth after his rebellion against God:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n (Book I:250-263).

It is on the Cross Jesus unites in His own flesh pardon and judgment and, by so doing, undoes our knotted freedom that has twisted back on itself over and over again until we no longer recognize happiness.

By suffering the Cross, Jesus pardons us, but at the cost of bearing the penalty of our sinfulness. He does this willingly suffering the fruit of our malice toward God and our subsequent self-hatred. Like the victim of drunk drive or a murder victim, Jesus accepts the effect of our sinfulness.

And by doing this, He also passes judgment on us–He demonstrates the depth to which sinful human beings, you, me and those we love, will sink given half a chance. In Genesis, when God brings to light Adam’s transgression, Adam turns to God and says, “The woman you gave me, gave me to eat.” When confronted with his sinfulness, Adam shifts the blame first to the Woman and then to God. Adam holds God responsible for his sinfulness and the Cross is simply the final result of humanity refusing responsibility for our own moral failings.

The judgment of the Cross, like the pardon that also comes by way of the Cross, is not such much the passing of a sentence or a judicial writ, as it is a revelation. On the Cross it is the light of God’s love and mercy, His never ending willingness to forgive that illumines the dark terror of human sinfulness. Pardon and judgment will always travel together, even if in our experience they seem be different moments in salvation history.

When we resist judging their neighbors we do well, but not so much because we ought not judge, but because we are incapable of holding together in our own flesh judgment with pardon. But, if we cannot hold pardon and judgment together, then we have taken from ourselves the ability to forgive as well since pardon and judgment always travel together.

Pardon and judgment, forgiveness and moral evaluation, can never be purely formal matters–the Cross has made that clear. We cannot forgive unless we judge, but we cannot judge unless we also extend forgiveness. And neither can be done except that we are willing, in imitation of Christ, we are willing to sacrifice our own good for the good of the other.

It is St Ireneaus I think who said it was fitting for Christ to die on a Cross since it is only that way that a man dies with arms out stretched suspended between heaven and earth. With one hand, and here I am re-working Ireneaus some what, Jesus offers us pardon, and with the other judgment, so that heaven and earth can be re-united in His flesh. And this flesh is beaten and broken, scared and pierced, not because we are sinful (though we are), but because God’s love for us is always personal, always sacrificial. To borrow from St Paul God’s

Love is patient, love . . . kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [God’s] Love never fails (1 Cor 13. 4-8, NIV).

And when God’s judgment comes

prophecies, . . . will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. ( vv. 8-12)

We oppose pardon and judgment because we know only in part, and so pardon and judgment seem in conflict to us because we are in our spiritual infancy, we are still children who need to grow up, we are still imperfect waiting (hopefully anyway) for perfection to come.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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