Sermon on the Sunday of the Last Judgement: Matthew 25:31-46
In the name of the Father & the Son & the Holy Spirit – three persons in one essence bound by Love.
This is the Third Sunday of our Pre-Lenten preparations and is called the Sunday of the Last Judgement. The previous two Sundays (the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Sunday of the Prodigal Son) conveyed God’s deep compassion, mercy, patience, and His readiness to accept every person who returns to Him. On this third Sunday we are powerfully reminded of several complementary truths: 1. Though God’s patience and mercy are limitless, even He cannot forgive those who do not repent, seek reconciliation, and sincerely seek to change. 2. Eventually there will be a final judgement & reckoning. The God of Love and humility is also a God of righteousness, and Christ will come again; not in poverty and humility as He did the first time but this time in great glory and power. Then, it will be the last day of time, the last day of becoming, and the first day of eternity. Every liturgy when we declare, in the last phrase of the Nicene Creed that, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen.” We affirm our believe that at the time of Christ’s second coming the dead will be resurrected and that the fundamental condition of both the world and of man will be radically changed. A “new heaven and a new earth” will be instituted, for the “Life of the Age to Come.” Today’s Gospel conveys part of that same eventually; there will be a judgment and we will appear before the Lord of Glory and be held accountable for what we have done and who we have become in this life.
Now, it is important to remember that unlike some of the contemporary Christian ideas of The Judgement, and Heaven & Hell where God somehow personally and directly intervenes or actively decides the fate of each person; the Orthodox belief of The Judgement is described markedly different and very well stated by St. Symeon the New Theologian who writes: “God is truth and light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The ‘books’ will be opened.” What are these ‘books’?
They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice in seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.
So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation – and there really is – it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it; hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell.”
In short the Orthodox belief is simply this: the judgement will be our natural and automatic response to the fullness of the unveiled presence of Christ our God. As the Gospel of St. John tells us “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”
As I have mentioned before, at present (because of God’s mercy) there is a veil between us and the fullness of the Glory of God; though sometimes we are graced to have brief glimpses of that Brightness. St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ So, when the brightness and fullness of His Glory are revealed, some will rejoice in that brightness and warmth because they have struggled to become like God; while others who have consistently rejected the things of God, will experience this light and glory as caustic.
So, if this is what we believe about the final judgement, then it behooves us to sincerely ask how are we to be and how can we prepare ourselves?
Jesus tells us in many ways and gives us His example throughout the Gospels, but in Matthew 22:35-46 (on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost) when a lawyer asked; which is the greatest commandment; Jesus pointedly said to him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
If you have been following the reading from this week, you probably noticed that all the Gospel reading were taken from the Passion week services - reminding us of the ultimate sacrifice & suffering that Christ voluntarily endured out of His love for us and desire to save us. And all of the Epistle reading were from John who constantly wrote about love; love of God for all of us collectively and each individually; and the necessity of our love for God and each other. From this past Thursday (1 John Chapter 4) he directly states, ‘If someone says, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.’
Today’s Gospel clearly tells us how that love should be made manifest – by noticing and then helping those in need around us. This is not simply a call for everyone to become social workers, or simply to give money or clothing to the Salvation Army, Rescue Mission, or IOCC though (of course) that has much value. Rather it is a call to have genuine relationships with each other as individual people; people created in the image and likeness of God; and to be sensitive to each other’s needs – directly and personally. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloome reminds us about the last judgement, he says; ‘we will be asked the direct and concrete question, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not? Unless you have been human in the simplest term of mercy, of compassion, of charity, how can you go beyond humanity into communion with divinity itself?’
So, ask yourself honestly, how often am I aware of the condition of my Christian brothers and sisters who may be standing right next to me here in Church that I see every week; or how sensitive am I to the needs of those in my immediate family or those where I work whom I see every day? And if I find myself lacking in that awareness, is it because I am only concerned about the things that affect me personally, right now? Of course, we can make the excuse that we do not really know the needs of those near us because it is hidden and everyone deserves their privacy, which is indeed true. But too often I think, it is simply that our self-absorption has blinded us to almost anything that does not affect us directly and immediately.
Further, notice in today’s Gospel that both, those who were being rewarded and those being punished were not fully aware of the significance of their actions. Both asked “when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give you drink? ...” But each person, and group, displayed through their actions, who they had become. We should heed this warning very carefully because as I mentioned earlier now, in this life, is our time of becoming. And we should wisely use that time, and especially the time of Great Lent, to change our lives into what we want them to be.
There are so many opportunities that we have to serve each other, far beyond the few mentioned. Maybe someone needs a word of encouragement, or seems lonely and could use a bit of attention. Maybe someone is sad since life has thrown more disappointments than they can handle and they are in need of some comfort. Maybe someone needs a break from all their never ending duties (at home, at Church, at work) and you can step in to offer a helping, cheerful hand. Or as St. Paul mentions in the Epistle reading today, maybe there is something we should NOT do in order to help someone avoid temptation – not necessarily for us but for our brother or sister. I am sure that you can think of many more on your own.
As Christians we have chosen to be Christ’s friend. And you all know what friendship means; it means solidarity, it means loyalty, it means faithfulness, it means being as one in soul, heart, in action with the one who is our friend. This is the choice Christ made for us, and we have all made to Him - though too often we forget.
Let us then all take this time of Lent that is given to us to increase our sensitivity through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving not only to the Divine inwardly but also to increase our sensitivity to the Divine in each other. For as Christ tells us in today’s Gospel (and which is written as the inscription on the icon at the analogian which we all venerate each time we enter the Church) ‘assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’. Make sure as you venerate today, you notice that inscription!!
But most importantly, let us strive to follow His instructions and become like Him, in His love and sacrifice, so that we can look forward to His return in Glory.