Second Sunday after Pentecost

There is much confusion in our congregations about “judgment.”

February 27, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

There is much confusion in our congregations about “judgment.”

Preachers shoulder a good deal of responsibility for this state of affairs.  We seldom speak of judgment (particularly the “last judgment”) even though our people are reminded of this theme regularly in worship-both in the Scripture readings and in the words of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. Also, some Christians take the words “do not judge so that you may be judged” to mean that there should not be any judging whatsoever. Thus the guiding rule of life is to be “nice” at all costs, even if it means ignoring behavior that is harmful to the community. On the opposite end are those who are consumed by a judgmental attitude. These self-appointed critics wreak havoc with their harsh words, possessing a righteousness that is nothing less than mean. It seems we could use some help sorting out the various meanings of the word “judgment.”

The church at Corinth was also wrestling with the issue of judgment. Some of it became personal when they challenged Paul’s leadership role in the church (4:3). In response, Paul frames the issue within a much larger horizon. He reminds the community that they are living in between the times. Not only has Christ come, he is coming again. Christ’s return has significant implications for how the community acts in the present and thinks about the future. In our text we can glean at least three lessons on judgment from Paul:

You can’t judge yourself.
In a remarkable statement, Paul declares scoffs at the criticism of the Corinthian church, declaring that “it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you” and then goes on to say “I do not even judge myself” (4:3). It has become commonplace to assert that the typical male sin is arrogance while females struggle more with self-worth. I am not sure it is that easy to break down into gender categories, but there are large numbers of people in our congregations who are extremely hard on themselves. They are convinced that they are not smart enough or not thin enough. In general, they live on the edge of shame, secretly harboring the conviction that they must be some kind of divine mistake. And there are others who so stuck on themselves that they are unbearable to be around.

Paul’s dismissal of our ability to accurately judge ourselves can be liberating. He insists we simply lack the lenses to gain an objective picture of who we are. In the Bible, the truth about ourselves only emerges from our relationship with God. We cannot get an accurate picture on our own because we tend to over or under estimate. Like Paul, it is the Lord who judges us (4:4). That may mean we need reminding that we are fundamentally here because God wants us here-we are created in God’s image. Or for some it entails hearing that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Judgment must be leavened with love.
The notion that Christians should not be judgmental of others is completely unrealistic. It would be harmful if followed literally. There is a sense in which Christians must not judge, but that has to do with our eternal destiny and not with how we are to conduct ourselves in our life together. We will deal with this “eternal” dimension in the next point.

It is obvious that Paul feels it is important to judge matters here on earth. After all, most of his letter to the church at Corinth is taken up with criticism of their actions!  But we need to pay attention to the way that Paul “judges” the church. The guiding norm for him is the love that has been revealed in Jesus Christ (12:31). This love is not sentimental, based on feelings or emotions. It is rather a love that has been forged in the crucible of a crucifixion. Its goal is not self-glorification (1:13) but rather the building up of the community.

In the name of this love Paul can utter harsh judgments about lawsuits, sexual morality, and conduct at the Lord’s Supper. However, at the same time Paul can say this church is holy (1:2) and he even identifies it with God’s temple (3:16). Paul’s judgments of the community at Corinth are not mean to drive people away but to encourage them to reflect the fact that they are the body of Christ (12:27).

Our judge has been judged.
As already mentioned, there is also a wider horizon within which Paul is operating. Beyond the necessary judging that takes place on the earthly level, Paul also reminds us that there is a Day coming when the Lord will return and “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God” (4:5).

There can be little doubt that Paul saw a day of judgment coming in the future (see Romans 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10). For many of us this day of judgment has been imagined as a time of terror and doom. Michelangelo’s great painting in the Sistine Chapel in Rome remains the enduring image: Christ coming at the end of time and separating the saved from the damned.

However, Paul does not seem to share the feelings of dread and despair that accompany many Christian reflections on the second coming of Christ. It is true, as it says in our text, that God “will bring to light things now hidden” (4:5). All of our secrets will be revealed. That might be a cause for fear and trembling, but it is noteworthy that Paul does not regard the last day with trepidation. Rather, there is a buoyant confidence that God will strengthen his saints to end, so that they might be blameless (1:8) as they are met by Christ.

What is going on here? Paul’s confidence is rooted in the fact that they end of time is in the hands of one who was crucified for his sins. The coming judge himself has been judged: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Christ coming to meet us has already died our death. No songs of doom on the last day. There is joy in the air as earthly shadows give way to a blinding light.