“Good Friday and Easter — the days of God’s overpowering acts in history, acts in which God’s judgement and grace were revealed to all the world — are just around the corner. Judgment in those hours in which Jesus Christ, our Lord, hung on the cross; grace in that hour in which death was swallowed up in victory. It was not human beings who accomplished anything here; no, God alone did it. He came to human beings in infinite love. He judged what is human. And he granted grace beyond any merit.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A sermon on Romans 11:6 to his congregation in Barcelona, Lent, 1928
By the time you read this it will be too late. I’m writing looking ahead to Good Friday. A Friday that never seemed very good to me. Our tradition has a way of leaning into the paradoxes that help describe what we believe. It’s why we can assert confidently that judgment is a good thing. Good Friday may have passed us, but it’s never too late for judgment. I say judgment is good. I say it’s the only thing that makes us be able to say Friday is good. It’s a day when we are judged by God.
Growing up I heard the phrase ‘don’t judge me’ and its variations in two frequent circumstances. The first followed a person’s actions, that was then followed by a description or name calling…
“I’ll just tell the teacher I never got the assignment.”
“That would make you a liar.”
“Don’t judge me!”
The second usually had to do with a divisive social issue. The word judgment was used to form a defensive posture on making any overarching ruling about a person’s identity or culpability.
“I agree with capital punishment,” one ninth-grader would say to another.
“It’s not our place to judge them!” the other student retorts.
You can replace capital punishment with any ‘yes’ or ‘no’ social issue and you pretty much get the same conversational rhythm. And that pretty much sums up the way ethics was talked about in my middle school and even into my high school days. People shouldn’t be judged! Got it!
I think Bonhoeffer, more than any other 20th and 21st century theologian, gets us underneath the popular assumptions on judgment. He teaches us that sometimes we don’t know if we mean what we say. I had the good fortune of teaching Bonhoeffer again this year during Lent. I promise I’ve read other theologians. This is the 6th time I’ve taught something from Bonhoeffer since coming to First Presbyterian Church. I think it will be the last for quite a while. I told the Sunday school class that If I teach Bonhoeffer again, people will start to suspect I have a fetish. Or worse, that I’m a closet Lutheran (If it’s not clear, that was a joke).
I stood with a new member after our last class on Palm Sunday and we chatted about Bonhoeffer. I really liked what they had to say. I didn’t write down the exact quote, I should have. It was something like, I’m tired of the folks who read Bonhoeffer and think that it’s all just aspirational. This guy lived it!
It occurs to me this is exactly the correct attitude when approaching a theologian like Bonhoeffer. Or any theologian of the cross. We don’t get to call it aspirational and avoid judgment. We don’t get to detour and go around. We must be judged by the judge who is judged in our place. We are called to feast, commune, fall short, and live underneath the cross.
Bonhoeffer writes that we are granted “Grace beyond any merit.” It’s not grace despite or because of merit. It is beyond merit. Judgment is for us and not about us. It goes beyond us. We are judged by God. We are judged as sinners in need of a savior, and we have one. Christ responds to our judgment by judging us. We scream crucify! Crucify! Christ begs for our forgiveness. We bury him in a tomb and judge him dead. Christ is resurrected by the Father and judges us alive.
Judge me if you want.
Christ already has!
I’m a sinner. Given grace beyond any merit.
Judgment is a good thing! Thanks be to God!