This sermon can be heard as an audio recording via Ancient Faith Radio.
Sunday of the Last Judgment, February 15, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today our series on preaching the Gospel—evangelism—continues with the Sunday of the Last Judgment, commonly called “Meatfare Sunday,” because we begin fasting from meat tomorrow. And today we are presented with one of the most unnerving and disturbing scenes in Scripture, the Last Judgment, when the Lord will gather before Him every human person who has ever lived and judge them according to what they have done.
Hear the words of the Lord Jesus:
When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left. (Matthew 25:31-33)
And He goes on to describe who the sheep and the goats are, what they did in this earthly life, and how the sheep go to heaven and the goats go to hell. Pretty stark. Pretty disturbing.
There’s even a song that came out a number of years ago by the alternative band called Cake which is about being disturbed and not feeling too good which is appropriately titled “Sheep Go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell.” The singer observes “as soon as you’re born you start dying,” and laments that he has “dues to pay,” that he can’t laugh or smile. Why? Because even though he wants to go “have a good time,” he’s thinking about the Last Judgment.
It is an understatement to say that the Last Judgment is probably not the best thing for a “sales pitch” for convincing people to become Christians. “Wouldn’t you like to become a Christian? God’s going to line everyone up at the end of time and judge us all.” Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t accept an invitation that leads off with a threat?
It is no wonder that so many reject Christ, because embracing Him requires accepting the possibility of judgment, whether for oneself or for others. Who wants that? No thank you.
But our problem is that evangelism is so frequently thought of as a kind of sales pitch: Come be a Christian, come join the Orthodox Church, come be baptized into Christ, because look at all these great benefits! If only we can become attractive enough or have enough great programs or give people something to take home with them, then they will surely want to join our church.
And this same thinking is used regarding members of the church, too, whether it’s the people who are here every Sunday or those who come only occasionally or who come only rarely: We have to try to keep people happy, keep them engaged, give them what they want, say and do what makes them feel good. And then surely they will fill the pews, pay their pledges, come to our events, smile and say “thank you very much.”
No, brothers and sisters—no. This Gospel we hear today—and the Gospel we preach every day—is a rebuke to this kind of thinking. It is false. It is a distortion. It is actually a betrayal!
Making people happy, keeping them happy, trying to lure them in with all the “benefits” of being a Christian or being a member of the Orthodox Church or being a member of our parish—this is not evangelism. This is not the Gospel. This is not the faith that Jesus came here to give us and which became possible with His death and resurrection. We have to get this idea out of our heads that our church’s success is based on making people happy. It is not.
So what is evangelism supposed to look like? How does the Last Judgment actually figure in to our preaching of the good news?
To understand what the Last Judgment has to do with evangelism, we should look at the evangelistic message of both the Lord Jesus and also His cousin John the Forerunner and Baptist, who is the one who introduces Him to the world. Both of them begin their preaching this way: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Both Jesus and John the Baptist say this. It’s written on the scroll held in John’s hand in most icons of him, including on our iconostasis.
Their preaching begins with a command—repent—followed by the reason for giving that command—the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom is coming, so you had better repent. And in the Last Judgment we see the consummation of mankind into that Kingdom. In that awful moment when the Son of God is sitting on His throne and judging the nations, what we did in this life will finally be revealed in all of its deepest meaning and its most horrifying ugliness, and the question that will be asked is, “Did you repent?” And if you did, then your life will reflect the life of the sheep, having ministered to the “least” of Christ’s brethren. And if you did not repent, you will be numbered with the goats.
So how is this anything that is going to convince someone to follow Christ? How is this “good news”?
This message of repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God is good news not because it is something attractive that makes people happy but because it is a lifeline of rescue for those who are perishing! We don’t call it being “saved” for nothing! “Saved” from what? From death! From corruption! From eternal suffering in hell that is not the act of an angry God but the natural consequence of our own actions when cut ourselves off from life.
The Gospel of repentance and the coming of the Kingdom is good news because it is a promise of rescue from eternal suffering. Look, I know that heaven and hell stuff isn’t fashionable, but it’s still real. Whether you want to think of them as “places” or simply as the different states of those who embrace or reject the universal love of God, these things are still real. No, we don’t fully understand them, but it’s clear from Jesus and His Apostles that what happens at the end of time is really important when it comes to the preaching of the Gospel.
Now, does this mean that we need to go to our family and friends and others around us who are not actively part of Church life and begin threatening them with hell? No, of course not. We have to be artful and wise in how we preach. But we still need to get this message across. So how can we do this wisely? How do we reconcile ourselves to the Last Judgment and keep it right at the center of our Gospel preaching?
For one thing, for just about everyone I know, hell is not something that is merely “out there” somewhere at the end of time. Hell is already here and now. Whether it is in the hell that we see on the news nearly every day or the hell that is experienced in the pain of unfaithfulness in marriage or the hell that is felt when we are the target of cruelty or even just indifference, we all know hell. We all know the result of sin. We all know what happens when there is a refusal to repent. And there is rescue and there is salvation from these things right now.
We may not be able to free ourselves from the suffering others would inflict on us, but we can certainly stop inflicting it on ourselves. And we can even get to the point that what others do to us doesn’t really matter. We will not be pained by their sin, but rather wounded with love for them and compassion for their suffering even as they make others suffer. We can suffer without suffering.
This is why repentance is good news, because it is the path out of this hell—not just the hell of the end of the age but the hell of right now. To repent is not to drum up guilty feelings, but rather to move in a new direction, to turn over a new leaf, to begin a new chapter, to come to the turning of the tide, to make a fundamental reorientation in our vision and action.
So how do we preach this Gospel, the Gospel of the Last Judgment? We preach it first by knowing the hell that we live in, the hell that surrounds us and is in the hearts of those we love. And then we learn and teach the path of new beginnings, the path of repentance.
The Kingdom of God is indeed at hand. Let us come to it with repentance, preaching the good news of rescue from the suffering of hell and the glory that is the beauty of heaven.
To God our Saviour therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.