The Wounded Judge Who Saves
by Scott Schomburg
April 14, 2013
In the Acts of the Apostles we enter a world ruled by the crucified Jesus. The resurrected one returns to the scene exalted in the preached word. Peter and John carry this witness into the city of Jerusalem, directed toward rulers, elders, and scribes (Acts 4:5). The disciples proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the site of their salvation.
The crucified man of Golgotha, the victim of public torture and death, executed by these rulers, elders, and scribes—by these judges—has now returned, not as victim, but as the wounded judge who saves.
And he must keep returning, for the murderous city is not through condemning Christ; the rulers are now turned toward his followers; “people who belong to the Way” (Acts 9:2). The imagery in the early pages of Acts works to establish continuity between Jesus’ suffering and the persecuted Church. Like Jesus’ trial, Peter and John appear in Jerusalem before the courts the day after their arrest and imprisonment (Acts 4:5). The jailed victims embody Jesus’ ongoing life in the world. To speak of one is to speak of the other.
By preaching Jesus Risen, by re-presenting Christ crucified, these judges are presented with their own particular past—the blood on their hands is no longer hidden. The sermon comes to them as a terrifying hope: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, in the name of this man alone, you will find your salvation (Acts 4:11-12).
This is a terrifying moment. It is also a slippery moment for us, one that can tempt us toward a dangerous abstraction. Jesus as the only way to salvation tempts us to imagine our Christianity secured, our lives placed firmly on the right side of history.
We are tempted to distort the resurrection of Jesus as a means toward our own exaltation.
In a move toward God-likeness, even when we talk of justice, we are tempted to create abstract categories like “the poor,” and “the oppressed,” constructing a world outside of which we stand confidently as neutral persons, or in a space between the powerful and powerless. And if this world has been framed for us, one may reach the greatest temptation of all:
Tempted to imagine ourselves outside the powerful/powerless relationship, able to swoop in to save both; we are tempted toward false-messiahs, seduced by false-promises of righteous heroes.
From this imagined security, preaching Jesus as the site of salvation becomes attached to our vision of what is true, good, and beautiful.
And the problem with this fantasy is not that our lives are something other than God’s gift, or that our lives cannot be witnesses to God’s salvation. The problem with this fantasy is precisely that it builds our future hopes upon an invented foundation; it keeps us from being able to remember the truth of our lives:
The truth is, we find ourselves placed within a particular history, in a world not of our own choosing.
Jesus’ salvation in the abstract teaches us to live under the illusion that we can disavow the past, that we can cancel history, reject the memories we no longer want. We can receive Jesus’ forgiveness without realizing in Jesus’ salvific presence the voice of a particular history, particular people. We are tempted to think, in the abstract, that we can turn toward salvation without turning toward real victims, real histories of violence, receiving the Holy Spirit from real people.
If we climb up into the place of the judge, we are tempted to build our future on the forgotten-dead. But God keeps opening our graves, keeps bringing our past back to us, disrupting our future visions with the greatest offense of all: that the site of those who have been wounded, who have been made victim, is the site of our salvation, for God returns to us from the dead, still as the man of Golgotha, still wounded, still bearing the marks of the victim.
In this way, the resurrection of Jesus preached to his crucifiers in the New Testament steals from us the ability to abstract the story from its own particular movements. In order for the specific rulers, elders, and scribes in Jerusalem to turn toward their salvation, they must turn toward their particular history of violence, oppression, and exclusion. They must face Jesus, whom they sentenced, whom they crucified, exposing themselves to the judgment of God; and unwittingly, to salvation.
We see here the basic gospel reversal. The victim has become the judge.
But the gospel reversal goes further. The one crucified does not proclaim this good news as a threat, but as a promise and a hope. The old world must end, and yet, its end is not the final word.
The embodied site of this radical break happens most dramatically with Saul of Tarsus, the villainous persecutor of Christians. Until now, Jesus’ resurrection has been preached in Jerusalem, directly to rulers and priests responsible for his crucifixion. It was geographically contained. The crucifixion was their problem, not ours.
Then Jesus stopped Saul on his violent journey, outside the city walls. In blinding him, Jesus brings Saul to his end, sending him to Damascus to be healed by the very people he insulted, injured, and killed. God’s resurrection sermon now stretched beyond Jerusalem: it became a gospel for all people, for us.
Yet, this universalizing move maintains its particular nature. Outside the city walls, those whose lives are marked by violence, oppression, or exclusion, become another “Jerusalem,” another city of rejection. They become another embodiment of Christ crucified, the wounded judge who saves. For when Jesus appears to the man of Tarsus, he locates his identity inside the muted cries of his particular victims:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)
Jesus is now calling out from Saul’s past, spoken in radical identification with those broken bodies stoned to death with Saul’s approval (Acts 7:54-59). This is the hidden past that must be given back to Saul in a particular way; this is his story that will also be his salvation. He must turn toward his victim’s voice, those calling out from the dead, revealing God’s identity found on the side of those made victim. The decisive moment for Saul—the blinding light and accusing voice—is the moment Saul found himself removed from his place as judge.
Before that moment, Saul could only see Jesus as failed messiah, useless to the moral order set up to secure a social order Saul could control. But Jesus’ voice still comes to Saul as his antagonist, arriving to defeat his murderous plan, to blind Saul and bring him to his end. Jesus is a living, acting agent. He is the one whom has spoken, still speaks, and will speak again.
Christ’s disruptive appearance flips Saul’s world upside-down, returning to him his true memory, making him truly present to himself for the first time; an excruciating experience. Saul set out to bind his victims, to bring them helplessly back to Jerusalem in chains, and instead he found himself on the ground, lying helplessly without vision, dependent on others to lead him to Damascus.
Saul’s dreams, nurtured by the seductive illusion of righteous heroes, were stolen from him.
He now traveled toward an unknown future, following only after God’s promises. He could no longer breathe threats and murder, he could not even eat or drink; he could only be led toward his victims in hopes that God’s word would come to him again.
And though Jesus remains the living word who commands, the community must now come into view. We must come into view. Jesus asks us to do something we do not want to do. In the second act, immediately following our lectionary text, Jesus asks Ananias—a follower of Christ, Saul’s enemy—to give Saul his sight, and with it, his salvation (Acts 9:10-19). Jesus asks the community to offer salvation to someone we would rather see left on the road, blinded, swept away and forgotten.
We are asked to look upon this most despised of victims, and let him speak to us of Christ’s presence. We are asked to respond solely to the command of Jesus, to not build our loyalty upon any principle or social order.
This is a precarious moment of apocalyptic proportions. The old world is at its end. The foundation on which Saul once stood has crumbled underneath him. Now he can only point toward Jesus, can only follow after him. HIs future has been disrupted, turned toward Jesus’ hopes, his witness against violence, oppression, and exclusion.
The difficulty with rooting Jesus’ salvation in the presence of particular victims is that our relationships are often fluid and our vision is always limited. It is not a question of whether or not God is on the side of the oppressed; the marks of Jesus’ body are a witness to God’s relentless choice for the victim.
The question for us is this: where are we willing to see the victim, and where are we not? Are we willing to see the hunger strike at Guantanamo as the witness of victims, whether or not we find any one detainee guilty of violence? Detainees being made victim, excluded from human touch, human reconciliation: are we willing to let those moments speak to us of Christ, our wounded savior?
And what of our personal relationships? The complexity of our lives and the world we inhabit make it possible for us to find ourselves both oppressed and oppressor: both judge and victim. And we never reach anything that could be called a purity of either position. One theologian says it this way: Violence, oppression, exclusion toward the so-called ‘other’ is not wrong because the ‘other’ is purely good; it is wrong because the ‘other’ is truly human. She or he is God’s creature, immersed like we all are into the cycle of wounds received and given, where our options for individual violence are already faded into the background of violent histories. Before we can choose a non-violent alternative, we are already caught in the oppressor/oppressed bond, already part of its brutal force. And this is the difficult truth of our lives: we cannot escape this deadly entanglement.
Yet the good news echoed in Jesus’ resurrected wound is this: Jesus has been to the depths of these entanglements. He has entered these destructive cycles of violence; he has been crucified by these histories of oppression and exclusion. Jesus has been to the places where we have been hurt the most, where the world is at its worst, places where these wounds turn into weapons. Jesus has entered the space we cannot escape. And Jesus will bring us out, for God does not merely escape violence and death; God brings it to its end; Jesus’ intervention is a wrench in the spokes that keep histories of violence turning.
Indeed, God will open our graves, and give us back our past; not as a threat, but as a hope and a promise.
This is the story God gives us as the wounded judge who saves. He knows we cannot escape it alone. His resurrection sermon comes to us as people in need each other, in need of God to make space for us to go on, space to make us truthful witnesses.
Which brings our community back into view. We have come to worship, to preach the resurrection. And in so doing, we open our lives to the hope that God’s living word will give us back our past; not as a threat, but as a promise, and a hope.
Like Ananias, we wait for God’s command, and hope God will help us be faithful as we try to point toward Jesus with our lives. If you find yourself made victim, wounded by the stones of judges, your voice can be bold against oppression, for God is with you. You can be bold, because Jesus has already pronounced the most crushing judgment of all to the old world of oppression: it has no place in God’s future. Jesus’ witness is already with you and ahead of you, inviting your raised voice against violence and exclusion, and turning it toward God’s future promises.
Or perhaps Like Saul, you live in a world in which God’s unexpected interruption might surprise you, redirect you, stealing from you visions beholden to illusions of righteous heroes. Following after Jesus’ command, you may be blinded so that you might see. And at the moment you are dependent on others to lead you, hear the good news: the end of our dreams comes with the gift of God’s future, God’s dreams. And it also comes, we pray, with a real community to offer you God’s salvation through human touch and reconciliation, sharing with you in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.
Like the disciples, we may all still lose sight of Christ’s call on our lives, yet we preach the good news of the resurrection: a “world characterized by betrayal is now interwoven with God’s reality incapable of betrayal.” In the risen Christ, we still have space to go on.
Whoever you are, whoever we are, we pray God will show us our identity. We pray will God still speak to us, will help us see victims and judges, oppressed and oppressor. And God must keep whispering to us of a relationship more hopeful, a reconciled life together beyond our imaginations, stretching us into new ways of being church.
For as one theologian says, “if God’s forgiveness does not confront an abstract past, then God’s grace does not make possible an abstract future.” Our life in the freedom of the Holy Spirit remains relentlessly particular. We exchange stories and memories: we pray, we hope, we lament. And in the presence of our resurrected Lord, we find out that our self, our story, our particular history, is the very gift given to us to give to each other.
In the resurrection, our story is given back to us as the end of all exclusion, creating a space for each of us in Christ’s body. Simply being handed back our hurt, our wounds, and our wrong is not itself an act of grace. Many of us would rightly regard such a possibility with terror and despair, an occasion for some to be more deeply hurt by a world that keeps making victims. What happens in the resurrection, however, is something much more profound: our story, whether as judge, or victim, or both, is given back to us in a particularly special context—in the presence of Jesus. It is the gift given in the wounds of the resurrected word made flesh, the one who keeps coming to us as the bread of heaven, and the cup of our salvation.
 Jon Nelson, a good friend and enthusiastic reader of Karl Barth, suggested this description of the resurrected Jesus to me while discussing my sermon. Christ as the man who returns as “the man of Golgotha” is found in Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.
 Williams, Rowan. Resurrection.
 Williams, Resurrection.
 Williams, Resurrection.