Sunday of the Last Judgement

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Passing through Fire
Sunday of the Last Judgement
2 March, 2008
1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2 ; Matthew 25:31-46

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgement, and this is the last day for eating meat before Lent begins. Tomorrow we start eating up all the dairy products we can manage in the next week. It is not exactly good for the liver, I suppose, but that is how we do it. The following weeks are very good for the liver so it all balances out. On this day when we are remembering the Last Judgement, there are two main points that are important to remember.

In the first place, the Apostle Paul this morning is emphasising to us the importance of being careful about how we use our liberty in Christ so that we do not scandalise our brother or sister. In this case, he is talking to the Corinthians particularly about food that had been offered to idols. The point he is making is quite correct. If a person, who is a believer, blesses the food with Christ’s blessing, it does not matter where that food has been, whether it has been offered to an idol in a temple or not. It does not matter at all because Christ’s blessing overcomes all those things. Anyway, all the idols in the temples are cheap imitations at the very best ; or they could be called deliberate imitations, and simply lies and ghosts, as well.

The point the Apostle is making is that the idols have no substance in themselves. They are just there, and people are worshipping creatures, and not the Creator. Nevertheless, a person who has a weak conscience or a weak faith can be tempted to feel that there is some substance there, so that if a person is eating this food that is being offered to idols, it might affect him somehow or associate him with this idol worship (which is not at all the case). However, a person who is weak is a person who is weak. He or she listens to tempting thoughts, and accepts the tempting thoughts as real.

It is really important, as the Apostle Paul says, to pay attention to the people around us. We can exercise our liberty in what we eat or what we do not eat, but we have to be careful about the fragility of our brother or our sister who sees us exercising this liberty. In the Christian way of living, we are called to be very sensitive to those around us. Because of our love for Jesus Christ, and our love for our brothers and sisters, we are supposed to know what are their strengths and weaknesses, and never play on the weakness. We are only to help the brother or sister overcome the weakness.

One of these weaknesses can be legalism, of course. In Jewish society, the way of life and the way of worship were focussed on the rules : what you must do, and what you must not do. At any rate, this is how they were living out life. It does not mean that rules are truly the essence of life. The essence of how everything is supposed to be lived out in Jewish society is found in the summary of the Law in the Old Testament, which is : “You shall love the Lord your God from your whole heart, from your whole soul, and from your whole power” (5 Moses [Deuteronomy] 6:5). Our Saviour repeated this in the New Testament. In addition, He said, in effect, that the whole of the Law also says that “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

We have to be sensitive in the love of Christ. We have freedom. Nevertheless, some people are still bound by legalism and other sorts of fears. This is because legalism is one of the faces of fear. People are bound by it in one way or another, and we cannot force them out of it. We have to be careful how we behave so as not to scandalise people, and break them. Taking into account their weakness, we support them, so that they can grow out of their weakness, out of their fear, out of their being bound by one thing or another, and be able to grow up into the true freedom which is in the love of Jesus Christ.

Today, our Saviour is talking about the Judgement. There is going to be the separation of the good from the rebellious, as the shepherd would separate the goats from the sheep. In the Apocalypse (22:1), there is a reference to a river that flows from the throne of God. Iconographically, there is sometimes added a river of fire flowing from the same source. Many people (in connexion with the fear that people have, and the sense of legalism that people have) are understanding that God is somehow very angry, and that He is waiting to strike everyone who is disobedient, and everyone who is stepping out of line. This is not the case. God did not reveal Himself as an angry God in such a way. Otherwise, the Ten Commandments would not be summed up with this exhortation to love : to love God, to love human beings, to love each other, and to love all creation. The Ten Commandments talk exactly about loving God, and loving each other in such a way that our lives will be pure, holy, life-giving and constructive.

There is nothing in the Ten Commandments that does not apply to a Christian today. They are the expression of how a person who loves God lives : putting first things first, putting the Lord first, putting His worship first, accepting no substitutes for Him in any way, putting nothing between Him and us in any way, treating each other in this context with such respect that we do not kill, lie, commit adultery, covet, and so forth. These are the expressions of love.

As mentioned before, in an icon of the Last Judgement, we will often see a blue river and a red river. The red river is to be understood to be the river of fire, and the blue river to be the river of life, as it were. We will notice that they are both coming from the throne of the Lord. To begin with, we have to remember Who is the Lord. The Lord is love. The Apostle John, in his Epistle makes it very explicit : “God is love” (1 John 4:8). What is coming from the Throne of Glory ? What is this river of fire ? It cannot be hell-fire in the way we usually think about hell-fire : just perpetual, sadistic torture that goes on and on for ever. It is not like that. People such as Archimandrite (Saint) Sophrony (Sacharov) have said (and I believe that this is really how it is) that since this river of fire is coming from the Throne of Glory, it has to be another characteristic of God’s love. God’s love is experienced by some of us from time to time in life as burning. I have experienced, myself, this burning in my heart when it needed to be cleaned up. It has been quite an intense burning feeling.

This is why I believe that Archimandrite Sophrony (who is being seriously considered in Constantinople for glorification) is right. He says that this fire is an expression of God’s love, and it is perceived as water by people who already love, know, and accept Jesus Christ. This is the blue line in the icon. For those who are rejecting God, who are still bound by fear, it is experienced as fire. It is a refining fire, a fire that is intended to burn away the darkness, and admit the light. I believe that we might say that the Prophet Malachi has spoken about the Lord’s love as being like a refining fire (see Malachi 3:2). The Prophet actually says that the Lord Himself comes as a refining fire ; but we know very well from the Apostle John that God is Love (see 1 John 4:8). A refining fire burns away our rebellion, and enables us (as long as we co-operate with the Lord) to experience this, first, as fire, and then as living water. It is not that a person cannot have experience of both. I am not saying that there will not come a time when, as we say in the Church, a Cross will be put on everything. I am not saying that this will not happen.

What I am saying is that, until such a time, we all can experience the Lord’s love as fire, which is a refining fire. The Lord’s love wants to bring us to Him in any way He can. Some of us have to get burned in order to get waked up. It is not only one time in my life that I have experienced this fire. The Lord, in His mercy, as we wake up, transforms this burning into healing balm, and into living water. That is the point for you and for me to remember while we are entering Great Lent.

It is true that the Lord is righteous, and that He does not admit into His presence any darkness, any rebellion, any shadow of lies, any cheap imitation. He admits into His presence nothing that is apart from His love and His will. In His presence, everything is real. However, for some of us, coming into this reality has to mean passing through some fire. The Lord wants to bring us to the reality, the truth of Who He is – Love, life-giving Love. He wants us to come with Him, and live in eternity with Him, to be always and forever alive, more and more truly ourselves, in accordance with His promise, in accordance with His love, in accordance with His example.

Therefore, as we are about to enter Great Lent, let us offer to the Lord everything that we are doing : whatever we are eating or not eating, our extra prayers, our extra almsgiving to the poor. (This is a very much forgotten essential of Great Lent. Although we have to care for the poor all the time, we are especially called to do this in Great Lent.) Whatever we do, let us offer it all to and for the Lord in the context of His love. We then will have hope of coming to His Throne of Glory, and hope of hearing Him say to us : “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me”, and in the Kingdom of Heaven we shall glorify Him, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.