The Last Judgement
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeffrey Smith on Sunday, February 27, 2022
Good morning! This is a hard gospel to preach on. I confess I don’t like the idea that “the righteous” are saved when others are condemned to eternal damnation. It’s the classic “us vs. them” mentality, when Fr. Antony has been preaching for weeks, that “there is no them.”
It’s hard for me to imagine some eternal place where I am safe while another is suffering. But then again, it’s not. Today we are safe while our brethren in Ukraine are suffering. For years, we have been safe while our relatives in Syria and Lebanon have suffered terribly. We can be safe while someone is suffering in the next room. But this is the opposite of our God who chose to suffer that we might be saved. Aren’t we supposed to follow his example? Am I like the Pharisee, who proclaimed, “Thank you, Lord, that I am a sheep who follows you, not like that goat over there who wanders off,” instead of the publican who prayed in humility for God to have mercy on him. Everything in my interpretation feels false and off key. I must be reading it wrong.
Today is MeatFare Sunday, and as with all references to the last judgement (remember Lent is coming and the bridegroom comes at Midnight), the call is for reflection: where will we stand when faced with judgement? How can we change before it’s too late? These are not idle questions, and they are posed on purpose at the brink of Great Lent.
Let’s start with the problem. The Lord will say to those on his left hand, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This is a frightening image. To hear the words, “Depart from me” is terrible, but wait: The Greek word for “punishment” is kolasis which also means pruning with the connotation of correction (source: David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament p. 53). So, we end the gospel with, “And these will go the chastening of that Age, but the just to life.” Chastening implies correction, change and hope, not everlasting torture. Each of us will be exposed like sick trees separated from healthy ones. Like the cursed fig tree, the wicked may not have any leaves or show any fruit, but the word, “kolasis” or chastening may have the meaning of a severe pruning rather than vindictive torment.
Bishop John has reminded me more than once that God’s love is everywhere and filling all things, but some people experience His love as a burning fire. So, when we see this gospel finish with everlasting punishment, we must remember that God’s love is present everywhere in our midst, even and especially in the horror, as we may feel His love as a kind of chastening, or healing pain. In this way, all of us are called to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Evil cannot destroy the divine purpose to bring everyone to the saving presence of Jesus Christ.
The language of this gospel is extremely apocalyptic. It points to a final end and a sorting out. Here Jesus is presented as the Son of Man in His Glory, with all the nations gathered before his glorious throne. All the holy angels are present with him to bear witness to all the ways they have served Him over time. Christ lifts up the Son of Man just before he is crucified. This is at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew. He focuses on His glory just before he ascends the cross. He lifts us up too and brings us before His judgement seat. This person, Jesus, will raise all the nations and judge each of us according to our deeds. At the end of time all of us will behold Christ in Glory, where the gentle, meek, and obedient sheep are gathered at his right hand and the belligerent, unruly, and destructive goats are gathered on his left. There is no doubt about who is who, and each of us will be singled out in our turn. There’s no way around it. And on this very last day, we are not asked about our creed or how we worship, but “what have we done for our neighbor?” Our faith must be more than ritual observance and a correct creed, or we are dead on our feet.
But there is beauty in this gospel; it is not all about judgement, but about helping the poor, the naked and the hungry and seeing Christ in all of our neighbors, like our neighbors at the YWCA whom we have served for decades or all of the many Afghan refugees we have faithfully helped this fall. One characteristic of saints is that we have the opportunity to forget ourselves in service and see Christ in each and every person that we encounter, not to worry about the state of our souls at the end of time. What have we done for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, all those who are afflicted, the incarcerated, the destitute, the homeless, the immigrants?” What we have done or failed to do; that is our judgement. So, we link Jesus to men and women in love. This act of giving is simply love. We are called to be God’s love in the world. We are His hands and His feet, and only through prayer can we feed this grace. Our integrity is indispensable, and our faith matters because love springs from faith.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Put on compassion, gentleness, faith, peace, and kindness. The Sheep are gentle, they harm no one, and they are patient. As for those in prison, did not Christ Himself descend into Hell, leading the souls out of prison and freeing them from their chains? Likewise, let us “keep our minds in hell without despair.” In our daily life, in what are called “little things,” we can prove that we are his disciples. And the King will answer and say, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to me.” So, when we hear the words, “come, inherit the kingdom, prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” we also hear “you are welcome to a close, loving, and abiding fellowship with our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
And this is a remarkable question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you?” If we ask truly, we see that Love is the central test of our lives. Did we love? Do we really love and care for our neighbor? This question really matters at the end of time. We are bound to Christ who dwells with the least of us. Christ our God is also the Son of Man in the most intimate way. He shares our joy and is troubled by our sorrow. This is Christ’s very identity: to love all of us. Since Christ has entered into our own prison, we then ask, “Lord, when did we see You a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison and come to you?” and we hear the reply, “You did it to Me. Come into eternal life, inherit the kingdom.” “Come, you blessed.” The throbbing heart of creation is the love of God for the world, and His yearning is that we will live in that love. The love of God who feeds the hungry and visits the prisoner is the very foundation of this world. Thanks be to God.