I grew up having the cross described to me. They started explaining it when I was two and it continued throughout my youth. I eventually landed in a private Christian high school where we talked almost exclusively about it and then I went on to College and Seminary where I got degrees in it.
So I know a lot about this cross. I know all about how it saves us. It also forgives us. It secures God’s presence for us. It promises us an eternity of bliss. It is both God’s love and the satisfaction of God’s wrath.
Yet it is also so much more than we will ever be able to comprehend. There are depths to this cross which we may never reach until the New Jerusalem.
With that said, one thing we never talked about regarding this cross is that it itself is an act of judgment.
I was taught it is the exact opposite. It is a delay of judgment, some sort of satisfaction that delays God’s wrath for a couple millenia until it boils all up inside God again and pours over to destroy us all, well all who are not saved by the blood. God just can’t help but pour it out all again but at least Jesus delayed it. Shallow readings of Revelation have certainly fed this view, that God’s wrath is not satisfied, only delayed.
I have come to disagree with all that. I believe the cross itself is an act of wrath, an act of judgment. Paul’s letters make this plain. The most obvious place is Colossians 2:15 which describes the cross as humiliating, a mockery of the rulers and authorities. He made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them. To put it simply, the powers and authorities were judged, weighed and found wanting that day when Jesus died.
This thinking of the cross is perhaps why Jesus’ last teachings before the crucifixion have to do with judgment. The very last one, recorded in Matthew 25:31-26, is the most blatant. It is a passage which us good Christians know really well. It has to do with sheep and goats and heaven and hell. Anybody who grew up singing Sunday School songs know which one they want to be.
It might be a stretch to call this a parable and yet the metaphors have resonated for millennia and it is a very popular passage from Jesus’ teaching. Because of its popularity it is so tempting to explain away its bluntness and thus minimize its importance. But the parable is blunt, obvious and demands a verdict.
Simply put, Jesus teaches that at the last judgment the sheep, those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked, will be welcomed into eternity. The goats, those who ignored the hungry and despised the naked, will be thrown into hell. There is no other way of reading it. This is what Jesus said will happen.
And right after he said it, the motions of crucifixion are put in place. The rulers conspire. Judas betrays. Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine. The guards arrest. The disciples flee. The governors judge. Peter denies. The soldiers beat. The cross is carried and the nails are hammered. The crowd mocks while Jesus breathes his last.
Right after teaching us about the sheep and the goats, Jesus becomes yet one more sheep who is terrorized, tortured and killed by yet more goats. This is the way things always are and the way they always were. Goats win. Sheep lose. Compassion is stupid. Tyranny is awesome. Generosity is foolish. Selfishness is brilliant. The strong and the mighty always survive. The sheep always die.
Yet Jesus, our compassionate sheep, our lover of the poor, our feeder of the hungry, our tailor of the naked, our water for the thirsty rises from the dead!
Jesus’ death and resurrection proves that in the end the sheep do win! In the end the goats do lose! In such a way the cross absolutely judges the goats. It strips them naked and makes a public mockery of them. Those goats could kill a sheep but they couldn’t keep the sheep dead! In fact, he rose with power to save those who by faith and the grace of God enter into sheepishness. The rulers and authorities, the goats, become such a joke after the cross.
So this Maundy Thursday, as this weekend really begins, the question remains, who is welcome at your Eucharist table tonight? What hungry and thirsty people are you inviting in? What are their names? What are their stories? Who are the sheep? Are you among them?
If you can’t answer those questions, the cross tomorrow night may find you judged, measured and wanting.