“We aspire to please Him, for we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” — II Corinthians 5: 8-10
In this text Paul, a Jew of Tarsus, is telling the whole Mediterranean world, in a voice that resonates even unto our present, that every person will face the judgment of God, answering for what he has done in the years given him by a gracious Creator. Shocking to say, but when the curtain goes down on our lives, the only thing that will have mattered will be the approval of an audience of one, resplendent in His glory, magnificent in His justice, mighty in His mercy. Therefore, says Saint Paul, let us please not ourselves, for our own hearts can deceive us, but let us please Him. For we all must appear before the judgment seat of God. It is easy, knowing ourselves as we do, to look forward to judgment with fear, but it is important to remember that God’s judgment on those who love him, who are in Christ, will be “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the place prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 35:34). Paul’s point is not that God condemns his people but the hard fact that whether we have done good or evil matters to the only Judge.
This is Holy Paul, in the superscript above. striking the prophetic note that belongs to the apostolic mission, writing in a few words, without apology, without consideration for the opinion of ‘the world,’ the truth that the meaning of our lives is compassed in choices and graces accepted or rejected as these will be judged by God. It is a message that the world whether in the age of Tiberius or in post modernity does not welcome. But the apostles were not sent to engage in dialectic, but like their predecessors Jeremiah and Ezekiel to announce the Word of the Lord as heralds, not as salesmen. Jesus told His disciples to offer a choice, to offer peace to any house they might enter but should anyone refuse to hear the apostolic message of those sent by Jesus they were not to argue but to shake off the dust from their feet and be on their way (Matthew 10:13-15). In the day of judgment, says the Lord, the fate of the house or town that will not receive the apostolic message will be worse that the destruction visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Gospel is not in the first instance an instrument of judgment but of grace, addressed to a world that through complicity in the Garden with the Serpent’s project has already fallen under God’s judgment: “He came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it,” and yet the apostolic writings are replete with notes of exclusivity, offered on a tone that seems confident or even preemptory, defining the narrow way apart from which we cannot enter into life. Jesus begins His ministry with the command: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve” (Mathew 4:10). And again He says that He is the only way: “No man comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). These are choices of the heart.
Hard words to the unbelieving ears of those who think their first duty is to please themselves. But Paul and others entrusted with the apostolic warrant to teach Christ’s truth, like the Church in our day, must say such things, words outrageous to the unbelieving heart, because they are called by God and filled with the same Spirit that inspired the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, enabling them to teach truth without reference to the human sensibilities and if, as at the Areopagus, Paul occasionally appeals to the insight of poetry, this is only to set as it were in a golden frame the truth that God has not come to argue but tell us how it lies with each of us: “Now He commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world” (Acts 17:21-32).
Often those who would convince this modern age of the truth of Christ struggle for an effective apology, arguing truly that rebellion against God leads to an unhappy life, while loving obedience leads to peace. There is truth in this, and there are many good and worthy reasons why Christianity should be believed. It is good for the civil order. It mitigates cruelty with gentleness. It teaches truth-telling and blesses our work. But the one eternal and summary reason for belief is none of these but that it is the will of our wise Creator for mankind. The warrant of the apostles is simply “God says.” The prophets, and their successors the apostolic mission, in their task of divine proclamation, are not sent to argue but to announce the truth. “Go and proclaim: Thus says the Lord.” Apostles, like prophets, are not recruited but called. In the prophet Jeremiah the Word of the Lord burns intensely that he cannot but prophesy (20:9-18), and Paul says, “A necessity is laid upon me: for woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16). This is the witness which Jesus commanded the apostles to make before the world. This witness is the first step in the conversion of souls. The second is the opening of hearts to the Gospel by the Holy Spirit. And these two, taken together, without argument have and will convert those whom God has called into His Church.
The bold witness of heaven-sent prophets and apostles is essential if we are to play our part in the unfolding story of our lives well, for, among other reasons, our lives do not have their meaning written on them with the clarity we might expect if we lived in an unfallen world. The script we are given as we come onto the stage that is our time and place is incomplete and we are liable to an inherited weakness of sight. God has left compelling clues in the natural world which are calculated to open our eyes to the reality of the supernatural.. One of these clues is the creation itself, which, viewed with wonder attests the power and glory of God (Romans 1:19-23). The other is the voice of conscience, which, while it may not tell us what is right moment by moment, inexorably tells us that something is right, and that we must find and follow it (Romans 2:15-16). Following these good clues, enlightened if it may be by grace of the Holy Spirit, we may find that our meaning is in the one who made the wonder of the world and stamped upon our hearts the longing for what is good and right. But always we will require the prophetic voice to tell us with bold words God’s will for our lives as we seek to please Him, to assure us on one hand that despite the vicissitudes of this world we are made for an eternity of blessedness, and to warn us on the other that failure to please God has its consequences of eternal loss.
“They were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29), who like the Pharisees, argued endlessly about the right application of the Law while in heart they were far from the Kingdom. And in these last days, days that began with Christ’s resurrection and will end when He returns, it falls to the Church in the persons of the apostolic ministry to be the prophetic voice, speaking in the name of Jesus, addressed to us and our world, not fearing the anger and ridicule of a world that .is ever failing. We have always known what the response of that world would be: “You will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9). Yet nothing can still the apostolic voice, which will speak with a prophetic voice from the power of the Holy Tradition even when to human eyes the Church is in ruins. The rulers of this age may like those rushing forward to stone Stephen stop their ears (Acts 7:57), but the apostolic voice, speaking words of comfort and warning, will always be heard by those who listen, teaching those things which Christ has commanded. And He assures us, “Behold, I am with you even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The apostles, like the prophets who were rejected and killed for delivering God’s message, would die and are still dying for the sake of the Gospel message. “Rejoice and be glad, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).