Sunday of the Last Judgment, March 10, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today we now come to that moment in our liturgical calendar when we consider what it will mean for us to stand before the awesome Judgment Seat of Christ. This Sunday one week before we begin the Great Fast is called “The Sunday of the Last Judgment,” because it is on this day that we read from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that remarkable description of what it will be like at the end of time, that moment when the fates of all humanity are finally sealed.
Let’s be honest—this is a scary moment. This is not a moment we like to think about. It should frighten us, because the truth about each one of us is that we are sinners. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). When the Lord describes in Matthew 25 what happens after the Judgment, having used the metaphor of sheep and goats to represent the righteous and the wicked, respectively, He uses rather concise language: “And they [that is, the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This is not the only time we see the Judgment described in the Scriptures, however. There is a less metaphorical and more awe-inspiring description of that moment in the apocalyptic vision that Christ granted to the Apostle John, which the John describes in a book we don’t read quite as often, the Book of Revelation, also called The Apocalypse:
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15).
So if the sheep and goats stuff didn’t get to you, perhaps that will. This is seriously scary stuff. This is the kind of thing that should keep you up at night. But I think it probably doesn’t keep most of us up at night, even for one night. Why is that?
There are a lot of reasons we can become desensitized to language in Scripture whose purpose is to make us sit up and take notice, even to startle us into a deep, honest look at our eternal destiny. Perhaps it’s because we are so used to seeing hellish imagery in our entertainment that it just seems like more of the same, only less compelling because it’s written and not in 3D on an IMAX movie screen. Perhaps it’s because we find it hard to imagine this could all be real. Perhaps it’s just because we find the Bible boring and don’t really care what’s written in it.
But I think the real problem, deep down, is actually not due to any sort of psychological or cultural explanation like those. Rather, I think our problem actually comes from a misinterpretation of what the Christian life is actually about. I think our problem is that the average Christian is actually a pagan.
Now, by that, I don’t mean that, if asked, he wouldn’t say he believes in Jesus and so forth. But what’s happened is that he lives his Christianity as if he were a pagan. What does that mean? I don’t mean he necessarily lives like an atheist (though, of course, that might be true, too), but rather that he has taken the basic narrative of paganism and interpreted Christianity through its lens. How does that work?
Consider the pagan’s relationship with his gods. The basic dynamic goes something like this: A sacrifice is given, and divine favor is expected in return. Sacrifice to the right god for the thing you want. If I’m an ancient Greek pagan and I want to excel in singing, I will worship Apollo. If I’m looking for a good harvest for my crops, I will sacrifice to Demeter. If I want victory in war, Ares is my god. No matter which god it is, the narrative is about making a deal. I give something to the god, and he owes me something in return. It’s a kind of contract.
This is the essence of nominalized Christianity—people who believe that because they do something (whether it’s getting baptized, attending church, giving donations, helping out around the parish, volunteering their time, doing good deeds, just being a good person, etc.) that they are guaranteed eternal life. So if you are a nominal, paganized Christian, when you look at the Bible’s depictions of the Last Judgment, you may think to yourself, “I’ll be just fine! I paid my dues” (however one may interpret the idea of “dues”). So it doesn’t bother you.
But a close look at what happens here reveals that this approach to Christianity is not only false but actually deeply dangerous. And why is it dangerous? Because it gives a false sense of security to those who really are not engaging in the Christian life at all, but are actually engaging in the pagan life only with a “Christian” label applied to it. And that means that they’re not doing what Christ said. And that means that their name’s entry into the Book of Life is doubtful.
So what do we do? What is the true path to making it through the Last Judgment and coming out the other side among the blessed? What we need to know is right there in the great fountain of truth given to us in the Holy Scriptures.
We know that all of us will be judged by what we have done in this life, and the passage from Matthew 25 gives some examples of the kind of behavior that the righteous will have done: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, visiting those in prison, and so forth. But is it possible to have done those things and yet not to be found in the Book of Life? Once we understand what it truly means to be righteous, we will realize that the answer is “yes.” We can indeed have done all of those good works and yet still not be righteous.
So what does it really mean to be righteous? Here’s the key, found in another place where Jesus speaks about the end of time, Matthew chapter seven, where the Lord tells us about people who did all kinds of good things in His name, yet won’t enter the kingdom of Heaven: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
“I never knew you.” That is the key. Jesus elsewhere describes eternal life not as living forever in a happy place, but as knowing God (John 17:3). Why do the righteous do all these good things? They know God. What is it about the pagan that keeps him in a “contractual” relationship with his god? He has no desire to know his god. He just wants something from the god.
There is a clear difference here. Christianity is not just monotheistic paganism with some of the names changed. The Way of Life is not about “getting to go to heaven when you die,” nor about receiving other good gifts from God. That’s part of it, but the true character of the Way is to get to know God, to connect with God, to commune with God. How can you tell if you’re on that way as opposed to living the paganized Christian life? Your priorities will be worship, prayer, learning the Scriptures and all of the details of our faith, humble service, serious soul-searching in confession, and genuine repentance. All of the other things we do in church flow from that central core, that place in the heart where we come to know God.
If you wish at the end of time to be among the “sheep” at the right hand of Christ, the righteous whose names are written in the Book of Life, then get to know God. Find Him. Know Him. Commune with Him.
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.