The Last judgement (2nd Sunday before Lent) Matt. 25: 31-46 Feb. 19, 2017 Fr. Andrew
Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgement. In a week, we will have arrived at Forgiveness Sunday and the start of Great Lent. If you are a practicing carnivore like me, we have one last afternoon to hit our favorite hamburger stand, as this is also Meatfare Sunday.
The last 3 weeks we have been considering the great mercy that God gives to all repentant sinners. The tax-collectors, representing the most vilified and obvious sinners, and the Prodigal and his older brother all receive the unlimited love and mercy our heavenly Father offers to us all in His great patience and compassion, and we take heart.
Today, with the Sunday of the Last Judgement, we are warned that while His forgiveness and mercy are always available to all who come to Him in repentance, we must make this decision and choose to continue on the path of repentance while we are able – before time has run out. Every Liturgy we pray with great fervor, once before the Creed and once before the Lord’s Prayer for “A Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ” When you come for confession; the prayer of forgiveness which the priest prays over you at the end is “May God… forgive you all things through me a sinner both in this world and in the world to come and set you uncondemned before His terrible judgement seat…” There is a time of righteous judgement for each of us, and the destination of our souls will be decided based upon our own choices and actions, for these actions demonstrate the truth and reality of our choices and our love for God and all of mankind.
If you want to understand what the Church teaches, one of the best ways is to pay attention to the Vespers and Matin’s verses. Last night at Vespers we sang “a river of fire will draw all men amazed before Your judgement-seat.”… “The books will be opened and the deeds of all men laid bare” We will have nothing to say, all of our acts and thoughts, our deepest motives cultivated and nurtured during our brief journey here on planet earth, especially that which we had hidden – even from ourselves, all will be completely exposed to the light of God’s absolute truth. The twisted excuses we had held on to, attempting to justify our behavior will lay silently, in a crumpled heap at our feet. We will not so much be judged as judge ourselves as the light of Christ illumines all. Simply by the very reality of being present in His light – all will be judged. We will see all of our life, all of our actions the good and the sinful as in one great and eternally occurring moment, standing outside of time as we now know it. At that moment, we will truly understand that apart from God’s grace, mercy and love there is truly nothing; apart from God all is non-existent. The essential prayer the Church gives us “Lord have Mercy,” which we will have repeated 78 times by the end of this Liturgy, will be our only defense and hope.
We hear in other passages of the gnawing worm, the burning fire, the gnashing of teeth… Rather than physical realities, describing a punishment imposed from a wrathful God, these would allegorically describe our own potential state of consciousness when we wake up to true reality in the kingdom of God, and comprehend how we have squandered our opportunities and our destinies as children of God. Think of how it gnaws at our guts in the interior depths of our being when we do something monumentally stupid, something cruel and impulsive, and wound someone we love deeply – our parents or spouse or children, or through a very ill advised action or word at work or school. This would be a small foretaste of the great anguish we may feel as we stand before Christ at the last judgement, great regret at not making the most of our short time here to follow Christ and seek the kingdom of God before all else. We hear of the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel. We are all both the sheep and the goats. This isn’t describing the good guys – us, and the bad guys – those rotter’s not like us over on the left. This is describing our hearts and the acts that have flowed out of them, and the resulting joy or horror we will experience upon the penetrating illumination and fire of God’s presence exposing every thought and action.
The Fathers tell us that the very things that Christ lists in today’s gospel, He suffered Himself. He hungered in the desert and refused the devil’s suggestion to change the rocks into bread to feed Himself. On the cross He said “I thirst.” Christ tells us “The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” On Great and Holy Friday we sing “Give me this stranger who has no place to lay His head.” He was taken down naked from the cross and the noble Joseph “wrapped Him in fine linen, anointed Him with spices, and placed Him in a new tomb.” He took into Himself all the sickness and sin of the world, and was thrown into prison, and whipped and crucified by the authorities – all completely approved by the legal system of the day – by the world. Christ experienced all these things, and as He tells us today in the gospel reading, “When you help the least of My brethren suffering any of these things, you do this directly to Me.”
Christ has also transformed and sanctified each of these things. We hunger and He gives us the bread of life, His very body as real food. We thirst and he gives us living water that springs up into everlasting life. We are strangers and pilgrims in this world and He prepares a true home for us in His kingdom – one prepared from the foundation of this transient world and tells us that we are known by God down to the very hairs of our head. We are naked and He clothes us with a garment of light, our baptismal robe, and we put on Christ Himself. He came that we might have life and be forgiven our sin and healed of the sickness resulting from it. He has proclaimed liberty to all of the captives, those imprisoned and tormented by the evil one, and has shattered the gates of Hades, freeing all who would follow Him.
We are given countless opportunities to choose to invest our time and resources in the kingdom of heaven. We are told many times to build up our account where moths and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not steal – and the price of oil and the stock market are not a concern. Today’s gospel spells out very clearly and simply what the capital requirement is for eternal investing. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe and give shelter to the poor and needy, visit and comfort the sick and the prisoners. This is the way of the kingdom, pretty simple really. But of course it is very counter-intuitive to what we learn in our world about how to get ahead. Rather than looking out for #1 we are to lay down our lives for others, to put their needs even before our own, to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ. If we find our life we will lose it but if we lose our lives for the sake of Christ and the kingdom of God we will find them.
But won’t we be taken advantage of we ask ? What are we to do when we are persecuted and spitefully used? What did we just finish singing in the beatitudes? Remember the last line? “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in heaven.”
We are being told in today’s gospel to intentionally choose to help the poor and needy, or risk ignoring Christ Himself. God will bring into our immediate field of vision as a gift to us, those we can directly help; or we can donate to the Church and to those who are actively engaged in helping the poor and needy. There are STAS (Saint Tikhon Archdiocesan Stewards) forms at the back of the Church, please do yourself a favor and fill one out. Share in the work of the Archdiocese in doing this. Buy some $25 food cards at Safeway or Save On Foods to help the homeless and hungry right here in Cranbrook, I give away 5 or 6 a month and am always running out. Do something this Lenten season to build up your eternal savings account!
As we do these types of things, we demonstrate in real tangible ways our love for our neighbor. This love of neighbors and especially of enemies demonstrates our love for God. The Apostle John tells us that we are a liar if we say we love God and yet do not love the people God brings into our lives – even the most difficult person we have to deal with. This love needs to be shown in deed and by how we act. James tells us that faith without works is dead, it is a delusion, a lie we sometimes tell ourselves. We are judged on what we have done, not what we intended to do or talked about in enthusiastic terms.
Christ said that the two most important commandments were to “Love your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Our works are a testimony of our love towards God and our neighbor, which demonstrate that we are fulfilling these two most important commandments. However, works without love are of little value and can even fill us with pride. Paul makes this lesson very clear in I Cor. 13 when he says “If I give all I have to the poor and give my body to be burned but have not love it profits me nothing…Love does not seek its own” If we are doing works of mercy and kindness to be noticed, with some sort of reward in mind, we will suffer great loss at the final judgement. We will have already received our reward through the praise of men and our acts will be burned up as if made of wood and straw. We need to always check our motives and ask God for clarity. Are our motives truly love and compassion for our suffering brothers and sisters, or are they to call attention to ourselves, to impress someone? Do not let your left hand know what your right hand does is good spiritual advice for all alms-giving. In the two chief commandments, it is love, not duty that is required. Wherever the Church exists in truth and love, the suffering world notices and wants in. “See how they love one another, preferring the other one first,” is the way of the kingdom of God, both here in this age and in the world to come, and Christ draws all to Himself through love.
So, let us enter into Great Lent with renewed commitment to feed and comfort the suffering humanity that surrounds us, sharing with them both physically and with the true love of Christ. May each of us arrive at our final destination upon leaving this earth, the Great Judgement seat of Christ, and with great joy hear “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” For this is the true purpose of our journey here on planet earth.