Sunday of the Last Judgment, March 6, 2016
1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
As we are now on the verge of the first stage of our fasting, today we begin an eight-week sermon series, which will last all the way through Palm Sunday. I hope that you will stick with us all the way through the series and come every Sunday, or at least listen on Ancient Faith Radio, as we will be exploring many answers to one question, a question that goes to the heart of who we are as Christians. It is a question defined by Jesus Christ Himself as the very key to eternal life. And so it is one we wrestle with, and it is best wrestled with during this season of fasting, when we are most prepared to make a journey into the heart of our Orthodox Christian faith.
So what is this question? What is it that is so critical that Jesus defined it as what it means to have eternal life? For the next eight Sundays, we will keep asking this question: “Who is God?”
It’s my experience that many (maybe even most) Christians go through their lives without asking that question or without asking it very much. But that’s not okay. We’ve reached a point that is almost desperate, actually, as the love of so many has grown cold. So many just sort of go about their lives—pursuing making a living, getting good grades, having nice things, accomplishing various goals—but not asking this question: “Who is God?”
And this is not just unbelievers I’m talking about. I’m not just talking about the world out there who do not know Christ. I am talking about right here, right in our Orthodox Church, right in our parish. There are people here who aren’t asking themselves this question or think they already know the answer, as though one could give one answer and be done with it. Knowing God is not being pursued relentlessly throughout life, not by many. It is rare—rare, brothers and sisters!—to find even a Christian who cannot get enough, cannot be satisfied, cannot ever rest in his great quest to know God. It is rare to find a Christian who keeps asking, “Who is God?” and keeps wanting to know more and more, to go deeper, to go higher—whatever metaphorical direction you want to give it. I am sometimes tempted to depression or despair because of this.
But this should be our obsession. We need to know Who God is. We need to keep exploring His identity, His personality, the way that He works in this world and within us. I need to! I have not done enough to explore this question for myself, and I have not done enough to help you explore it. It is not a criticism I am making of you. It is a confession I am offering to you, a confession of my own sin.
So today we will make a beginning, and we will continue throughout this holy time of prayer and fasting to seek the face of God and to know Him and see Him for Who He is.
We should begin with the words of Jesus, which I alluded to earlier. As the Lord Jesus is making his high priestly prayer to the Father before His arrest and crucifixion, praying earnestly for those who follow Him, He says this to the Father in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.”
This is the basis for what we are saying, the basis for why we pursue God, for why we keep asking, “Who is God?”, never satisfied with any one answer, always seeking for more. We ask this question because we want eternal life. We ask this question because we do not wish to be damned forever. We ask this question because we want what is good. So we keep asking, “Who is God?”, because eternal life is knowing the true God and Jesus Christ Whom He sent. This is the one great question whose many answers tell the story of mankind.
Today we give one of those answers. “Who is God?” Today, we answer, “God is our Judge.”
Today is called the Sunday of the Last Judgment, or sometimes “Meatfare,” since today we finish up all the meat in our homes to clean it out before the fast. But liturgically, this is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, because we read this Gospel today.
Of the various images that we have of God, the one we may dislike the most is God as our judge. No one likes to be judged. No one likes to have someone look at them and say, “This is who you are.” We feel condemned. We feel dishonored. We feel that it is not anyone else’s business who we really are. Being judged feels mean.
And of course, when we are judged by one of our fellow human beings, it often is mean. Human beings are frequently bad judges of character. We see other people through the distorted lens of our own sins. It is tough to be impartial. We tend to look at other people either as a threat to ourselves or as potential benefits to ourselves. We like or dislike people because of what they either do for us or against us. It is difficult to look at people simply for who they are. We love people, of course, but our love, just like our hatred, is very often mixed with selfishness.
It is not always so stark as that, of course. There are gradations of this problem of judging other people, of not seeing them as they are. But whatever the case, we don’t really have the capability of seeing people for who they really are, if only because we can’t see their hearts. I can’t count the number of times when someone has said to me something like, “I don’t know why he did that. I had no idea he was like that!” We can’t see people inside. We have only our own experience, and that is often mixed up with our own desires and biases. We are not good judges.
But God can judge us. God sees us for who we really are. When other people judge us, it may be mean, since their judgment is mixed up with their own desires. But God’s judgment is perfect and righteous. God sees us better than we see ourselves. He is the great Judge Who can see things as they truly are and make righteous judgments and give righteous rulings. The saints can often judge righteously as well, because they are like God. But only God’s judgment is perfect.
And God will judge us. We hear in this Gospel that God will judge how we treated “the least of these,” His brethren. God will judge us on whether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. And those are not strict categories. One can feed the one who is hungry for knowledge or love. One can clothe the one who is naked in his sins. One can visit the one who is sick in his soul and imprisoned in his addictions.
God will judge us on whether we have soft hearts that respond to need just as He responds to need. God will judge us on whether we are becoming like Him. And when that judgment takes place at the end, it will be final. There will be no second chances. That will be the end.
So you see, we are playing for keeps. This life is no game. When God judges us, it won’t be “time out,” and we won’t get any “do overs.” That judgment will be forever. As the Scripture says, the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Eternal means eternal. There’s no two ways about it. There are only two possible destinations in life—eternal punishment or eternal life.
Eternal punishment is suffering forever and ever. The Scriptures and the whole tradition of the Church are very clear on this. It is frightening. It is disturbing. It should freak us out.
And what is eternal life? It is to know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom [He] sent.” So that means we can actually begin our eternal life now, by asking, “Who is God?” And when we ask that question, one of the answers we learn is that God is our Judge.
So what do we do with that answer? We have been given a chance to escape the judgment of eternal punishment, and that chance is this life. And in this life, if we will become our own judges, looking at our own sin, changing our own hearts to become softened toward need, to lead us to put ourselves last, then when that time comes that God will be the everlasting and perfect Judge for all mankind, we will have already been judged, and God’s judgment of us will be eternal life.
Today, we ask: “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is our Judge.”
To God our righteous Judge 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.