Sunday of the Last Judgement

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Everything must be under-girded with Love
Sunday of the Last Judgement
22 February, 2009
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.

The words of the Apostle this morning are very important for us to remember. He is speaking about how we are supposed to be treating both food, and each other. I still remember the anecdote about a bishop (not an actual bishop, although there are some who do have this sort of reputation) who, before he went into his office every day, would eat at least one priest for breakfast. The point of this is that we have to be very careful how we are towards each other. In terms of our behaviour towards each other, we can be eating each other up by our words, by our thoughts, by the way we speak about each other, by the way we point fingers at each other, and by all sorts of things.

Thus, the Apostle is saying, in effect : “Yes, it is true that we Christians have a great deal of freedom. It is possible, if food is offered to idols, that we could eat it. We give thanks and we ask God’s blessing on this food that has been offered to idols. God takes away anything that is poisonous (spiritually speaking or even literally speaking). He makes it good for us”. People have tried to poison Christians for one reason or another, and God has taken away the deadliness from whatever it was so that when people ate, they remained alive and well. Let us not forget that the Apostle Paul, when he was in Malta on his way to Rome for judgement and eventual death, was bitten by a deadly snake. Nothing at all happened to him ; everyone was waiting for him to swell up and die. Nothing at all happened because of God’s blessing.

We Christians have a great deal of freedom in our way of life. We give thanks for everything, says the Apostle Paul. A Christian’s life, out of love, is supposed to be characterised by giving thanks. The Apostle also says that this freedom has responsibilities. He says that if someone tells you that a particular food has been offered to idols, we have to be careful how we exercise our freedom. If a person is going to say that this food is somehow polluted, it means that that person has certain scruples and may even be afraid. The Apostle says that out of our love and our concern for the weak spots of our brothers and sisters we voluntarily limit our liberty and our freedom. We understand the weakness of our brother or sister. If our brother or sister says that this food has been offered to idols, then, out of concern for that one’s weakness, we do not eat that food.

It is essential that we do not forget to care for our brothers and sisters in the coming Lent. To pay attention very closely to what someone else is eating or not eating is a very common temptation into which Orthodox Christians fall. They may actually condemn their brother or sister for some sort of fault. If we behave like this, how are we different from the Pharisees that were accusing our Saviour all the time ? In fact, how are we different from the Apostle Paul before his conversion ? However, the Apostle Paul subsequently understood the difference very well, and that is why he is speaking to us like this today. He is saying that we have freedom, but the freedom must be exercised with responsibility. Everything must be under-girded with love – the love of Jesus Christ, and the love of Jesus Christ in our brothers and sisters. It is important that we be careful how we live our lives, and that we keep watch over the attitude of our hearts towards each other.

I am going to tell you an anecdote about this. Mother Dorofea, of blessed memory (who used to live in this skete a long time ago), told about her time in Bussy, France, when she was, of course, cooking. Mother Theodosia sent her out to buy groceries. Mother Dorofea went out, bought the groceries and went back to Mother Theodosia, the abbess. She said that she had fulfilled her obedience, but that there was one thing on the list that she had not bought. Mother Theodosia said to her : “Why did you not get it ?” She replied : “I could see that it was not completely lenten”. Mother Theodosia asked : “Well, how did you know ?” Mother Dorofea answered : “I read the label”. She was beginning to think that maybe she had done the wrong thing, so she said : “Mother, do you want me to go back and get it anyway ?” Mother Theodosia said : “Now that you have read the label, we cannot have this thing – but next year, do not read the label”. I think that this anecdote is a practical application of what the Apostle is saying to us today.

When we are hearing from our Saviour the description of the Last Judgement, it is important for us to remember His words about how people are going to respond. People who are going to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven are people who have fed the hungry, visited the sick, visited those in prison, looked after the needs of everyone else and cared for people. These people will not have been aware that they were doing it for Christ, who says : “‘Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’”. Our whole way of life has to be led by, directed by, fed by, supported by, and kept in the environment of the love of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we are giving money to someone who is asking for it, when we are helping a neighbour who needs help, or visiting someone who is sick in the hospital or otherwise indisposed, when we are visiting someone in prison or we are caring for the needs of others, we are also offering this to Christ. In the same way, Saint John Chrysostom has written that after we have received Holy Communion, the presence of Christ is great in us, and we should, in fact, be making prostrations in front of each other because of Christ. It is not only then, of course. In every situation we, as Christians, have to remember that we who are created in the image of God and who bear His image, should be able to recognise that image in others. When we are living in the love of Jesus Christ, we, ourselves, are showing the likeness of God.

When the people are being sent away into the fire (as it were) that has been prepared, they are answering in effect : “Lord, we never saw You. How did we not look after You when we never saw You ?” That is precisely the point. They never saw Jesus Christ. The icon of the Last Judgement shows Christ at the top, and, coming from His throne there can be a river of fire in red, or a river of fire with also a river of life in blue coming from His throne (it depends upon who wrote the icon). Everything is happening in front of us in this icon. There are the people who are with Christ, and the people who are not with Christ. They are all there. It is important that we understand that the Kingdom of Heaven, and hell are not some sort of places. They are states of being. We also have to remember that there is no place away from God. There is no place anywhere where God is not. David, the Psalmist, says : “Where could I walk away from Your Spirit ? and from Your Face, where could I flee ? If I were to go up into Heaven, You are there ; if I were to go down into Hades, You are present” (Psalm 138:8-9). There is no place in which anyone can get away from God.

What is this lake of fire, and this hell ? They are actually the results of our refusal to see God. The river of fire and the river of life both come from the throne of God Himself. People experience God’s love either as Life or as extreme pain. Why this extreme pain and fire ? It is because sometimes people, in the presence of Christ’s love, still refuse to accept Him. Therefore, in their refusal and rejection, they experience God’s love as fire. However, the fire is still trying to wake them up, and bring them to the refreshing waters of His love.

We cannot hide from God. There is no place to escape from Him because He is everywhere. He is in all things. He is the Creator of everything. Nothing exists without Him. God is everywhere. I read a long time ago the book by C S Lewis called The Great Divorce. It is precisely about this difference between Heaven, and hell. He describes it very well. (Even if he was not Orthodox, he understood it correctly.) His allegorical story vividly describes for us what is the difference between Heaven and hell. Heaven is being in and with Christ, fully alive in Christ. Hell is supposedly being away from Him. However, it is not that anyone could truly be away from Him. It may seem so, but it cannot be. One turns one’s back on the Truth, and it feels like absence, emptiness, burning, and whatever else can be part of this self-deception. Even though we may deny and reject His presence, it is impossible to be apart from God, as the Psalmist says (see Psalm 138). In the Paschal Canon we jubilantly sing : “Now all is filled with light, Heaven and earth and the lower regions”.

The Lord is the Truth. Jesus Christ says : “I am the Way. I am the Truth. I am the Life” (see John 14:6). Everything is in Him. Even if we try to reject Him, we cannot get away from Him. He is still with us. He is Life-giving Love. It is important that we offer our abstinence and our prayers in the course of this Great Lent to the Saviour. Let us ask Him to do this one thing : to increase our love for Him. Let us ask Him to increase our ability to live this love in the way that He shows us.

Let us ask the Lord to increase this love in us. May our lives be more and more like His life. May we become more and more like Him. May people more and more be able to see Him in us, and with us glorify Him, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.