Sunday of the Last Judgment (2017)

Sermon notes for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Epistle:  1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2

But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

25758119402_762f6c8f45_n

But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

4550001165_305eb8a124_n

1]  In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly.  Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian.  It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another.  But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community.  One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us.  Those who are really concerned about food and fasting:  these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework.  They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly.  They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations.  They read the labels on every product.  St. Paul would consider them weak in faith.  Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them.  This is what love requires.  Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ.  I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules.  Love tells me don’t wound their conscience.  I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor.  Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.

8271152404_c41179af30_n2]  The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own.  This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish.  So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns.  This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions.  We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?”  If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor.  If the child  in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child?   If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor?  When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor.  I should always be thinking about the other.

3]  This is very hard to live in real life.  It is an ideal that is very had to live up to.  So often we fail, then what?  Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.

Gospel:  Matthew 25:31-46
“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.

15696404666_2971087960_n

 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  

mercytoChrist

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1]  Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ.  They are surprised that He judges them this way.  “When did we do that?” they ask.  They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy.  They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed.  Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ.     Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing.  When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not.   It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ.  If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.

2]  The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news.  Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ.  Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day.  This Gospel lesson if full of hope!  I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

5399225597_15118792c0_n3]  The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice –  First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just.  Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage).  This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge.  Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly.   We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment.  The third level is divine justice.  Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy.  God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed.  As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments.  The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved?  In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!

Why a Fast Free Week Before Lent?

In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11).  The Synaxarion says the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline.  It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have got off track.  It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly.  We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God.  It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins.  Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality.    But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them.    Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice.  If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic!  To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom.  Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives.  The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.

“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)

Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…

So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”

Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds  us that we like everyone else is human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him.  We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride.  The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.

Fasting Before Christmas

“’When a man begins to fast, he straightaway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.’  (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 171)

‘Fasting was the commandment that was given to our nature in the beginning to protect it with respect to the tasting of food, and in this point the progenitor of our substance fell. There, however, where the first defeat was suffered, the ascetic strugglers make their beginning in the fear of God as they start to keep his laws. And the Savior also, when he manifested himself to the world in the Jordan, began at this point. For after his baptism the Spirit led him into the wilderness and he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Likewise all who set to follow in his footsteps make the beginning of their struggle upon this foundation. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? And if the Lawgiver himself fasts, who among those who keep the law has no need of fasting?’ (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)

Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness
Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness

‘What weapon is more powerful and gives more boldness to the heart in the time of battle against the spirits of wickedness, than hunger endured for Christ’s sake?…He who has armed himself with the weapon of fasting is afire with zeal at all time.’ (St. Isaach the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)”

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p 231)

 

Beginning the Nativity Fast

8062388600_ec433942c7_nNovember 15, 40 days before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, we Orthodox begin the Nativity Fast.  We find in the Book of Tobit the following wisdom about charity, which is an essential part of any fast, and is much in the spirit of the Christmas season.

“Revere the Lord all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments. Live uprightly all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing; for those who act in accordance with truth will prosper in all their activities. To all those who practice righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.” (Tobit 4:5-11)

 

The Dormition Fast (2016)

August 1 each year marks the beginning of the Dormition Fast.  This 14 day summer fast prepares us for the Feast of the Dormition which is the last of the 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox church year calendar. In Orthodoxy, the human problem is often understood to be an issue of the human will.  In order for God to heal the fallen will, humans have to learn to control their own will and even to deny it. It is our own will and self-centered demand to have our own way which separates us from God.   By denying our self, we open our heart and mind to seeking God’s will.  This opens us up to the healing and saving action of Christ.   Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“An essential aspect of guarding the heart is warfare against the passions. By ‘passion’ here is meant not just sexual lust, but any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride, and the rest. Many of the Fathers treat the passions as something intrinsically evil, that is to say, as inward diseases alien to man’s true nature. Some of them, however, adopt a more positive standpoint, regarding the passions as dynamic impulses originally placed in man by God, and so fundamentally good, although at present distorted by sin. On this second and more subtle view, our aim is not to eliminate the passions but to redirect their energy.

Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation,

spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth,

sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervor.

The passions, then, are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively. To ourselves and to others we say, not ‘Suppress’, but “Transfigure’. This effort to purify the passions needs to be carried out on the level of both soul and body. On the level of the soul they are purified through prayer, through the regular use of the sacraments of Confession and Communion, through daily reading of Scripture, through feeding our mind with the thought of what is good, through practical acts of loving service to others.

On the level of the body they are purified above all through fasting and abstinence, and through frequent prostrations during time of prayer. Knowing that man is not an angel but a unity of body and soul, the Orthodox Church insists upon the spiritual value of bodily fasting. We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are on the contrary God’s gift, from which we are to partake with enjoyment and gratitude. We fast, not because we despise the divine gift, but so as to make ourselves aware that it is indeed a gift – so as to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them, no longer a concession to greed, but a sacrament and means of communion with the Giver. Understood in this way, ascetic fasting is directed, not against the body, but against the flesh. Its aim is not destructively to weaken the body, but creatively to render the body more spiritual.” (The Orthodox Way, pp 155-156)

Fasting and the Defeat of Satan

“The devil said to Jesus: ‘If you are the son of God, command that these stones become bread.’ (Luke 4:3)

Here we learn that there are three principal weapons that the devil likes to carry in order to wound our souls. They are gluttony, arrogance, and ambition. He begins with the weapon with which he has already been victorious. We likewise should begin to be victorious in Christ in the very same area in which we had been defeated in Adam: we should be wary of gluttony. The devious trap is set for us when the table is laid for a royal banquet; it is bound to weaken our defenses.

See what weapons Christ uses to defeat the power of the devil. He does not use the almighty power he had as God: what help would that be to us? In his humanity he summons the help common to all – overlooking bodily hunger and seeking the word of God for nourishment. Whoever follows the Word is no longer attached to earthly bread, because he receives the bread of heaven and knows the divine is better than the human, the spiritual is better than the physical. Therefore, because such a person desires the true life, he looks for that which fortifies the heart by means of its invisible substance.” (St. Ambrose of Milan in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, pp 139-140)

Fasting, Food and Folly

“Those pursuing the spiritual way should train themselves to hate all uncontrolled desires until this hatred becomes habitual. With regard to self-control in eating, we must never feel loathing for any kind of food, for to do so is abominable and utterly demonic. It is emphatically not because any kind of food is bad in itself that we refrain from it. But by not eating too much or too richly we can to some extent keep in check the excitable parts of our body.

In addition, we can give to the poor what remains over, for this is the mark of sincere love. It is in no way contrary to the principles of true knowledge to eat and drink from all that is set before you, giving thanks to God; for ‘everything is very good’ (cf. Gen. 1:31). But gladly to abstain from eating too pleasurably or too much shows greater discrimination and understanding. However, we shall not gladly detach ourselves from the pleasures of this life unless we have fully and consciously tasted the sweetness of God.

[…] Fasting, while of value in itself, is not something to boast of in front of God, for it is simply a tool for training those who desire self-restraint. The ascetic should not feel proud because he fasts; but with faith in God he should think only of reaching his goal. For no artist ever boasts that his accomplishment is simply due to his tools; but he waits for the work itself to give proof of his skill.” (St. Diadochos of Photiki in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, pp 266-267)

Fasting and Invisible Beasts

“There are certain parts of the sea which teem with huge beasts like sea monsters.

Those who sail there hang bells from their ships, so that the creatures panic and flee at the sound. Many wild things far more horrible breed in the sea of our life: the evil passions and the even more evil demons who supervise them.

God’s Church sails upon this sea like a ship, and instead of bells it has spiritual teachers to ward off the invisible beast by the holy sound of their teaching. Prefiguring this, Aaron’s robe had sweet sounding bells fastened to its edge, and it was decreed that when Aaron ministered their sound should be heard (Exod. 27:21-35). Turning the literal into the spiritual to good effect, let our words ring out to you now spiritually, especially in this time of fasting when visible and invisible beasts make terrible attacks.

The visible ones are gluttony, drunkenness and the like. The ones that lie invisibly in wait are vainglory, pride, self-conceit and hypocrisy. The same sound puts such beasts to flight and safeguards those who practice fasting. Fasting and self-indulgence are opposites, like life and death. Fasting is a commandment of life as old as human nature, for it was originally given by God to Adam in paradise (Gen. 2:16-17), as a guardian of the life and grace engendered in him by God Himself.

Self-indulgence, on the other hand, is a counsel of death for both soul and body, craftily given by the devil to Adam in paradise by means of Eve (Gen. 31:1-6), for banishment from life and estrangement from God-given divine grace. God did not make death, nor does He delight in the destruction of the living. Does anyone want to find life and grace in God and from God? Let him flee lethal self-indulgence and run towards fasting and prayer which make divine, that he may return to paradise rejoicing.” (Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp 94-95)

Fasting and the Virtue of Hospitality

Cassian JohnSt. John Cassian (d. 435AD) was a disciple of St. John Chrysostom and wrote extensively about the monastic life.  His comments on fasting and keeping Lenten periods are very instructive as the received Tradition which he taught was not as fixed and rule bound as are some current ideas in Orthodoxy.  He did not know of one set of ascetic rules which applied to all monks, let alone all lay people.  Fasting was to be kept by a common discipline known in the local community, but these rules were not to be applied to guests and visitors, and in fact were not to be discussed with those outside of the local community.  He writes:

“…They also declared that the common discipline of fasting should not casually be disclosed to anyone but should, as far as possible, be hidden and concealed. They were of the opinion, rather, that if some brothers paid a visit it was better to practice the virtue of hospitality and love than to display the strictness of our abstinence and the daily rigor of our chosen orientation […] And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)

For St. John Cassian, fasting, as important and essential as it might be to monks, was voluntary offering, not to be done in fulfillment of some rule or duty.  On the other hand, practicing hospitality was clearly taught and commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ.  The virtue of hospitality and love outranked the virtue of strict fasting.   Christ commanded us to love, He gave no direct commandment to fast.  To practice hospitality and charity with others is what Christ demanded of us.  To share a meal with family, a visitor or a stranger is to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love one another.  His teachings are very much in line with the kind of fasting approved by God in Isaiah 58 and with Christ’s teaching about the Last Judgment Matthew 25.

Great Lent: Time to Change

“God has prepared us, created and blessed us, ‘for glory’ (Rom. 9:23). ‘You have died,’ Paul tells the Colossians, ‘and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ appears – He who is your life – then you also will appear with Him in glory!’ (Col. 3:3-4).

Caught up in a world of sin, dwelling in a ‘body of sin’ subject to death and corruption, we are nevertheless called, ‘destined’, to participate fully in the glory of the Risen Christ. Through ascetic practice, as through eucharistic communion, that participation becomes a present reality that little by little transforms our body of death into a true body of life and celebration. This is the perspective that makes sense out of our lenten asceticism. Against this perspective there is the subtle and powerful temptation to turn the Great Fast into an end in intself. We adopt lenten practices of bodily prostrations because of their physical benefit; we abstain from meat and perhaps dairy products in order to purge the body of toxins, or to lose weight, or to be able to say ‘we did it’. This popular distortion of the reason for lenten discipline goes hand in hand with an obsessive need to ‘do it right’, exemplified by a close examination of every carton we purchase in the grocery store, to be sure it contains not a trace of meat of dairy.

We pride ourselves on our ability to sacrifice some pleasure (movies, alcohol, sex, ice cream), at least during the first and fifth weeks of Great Lent. Yet the Old Adam remains very much alive. Our sacrifice all too often translates into narcissistic self-congratulation and all too seldom issues in self-giving love. We still harbor the same old grudges, still neglect the anonymous undesirables in our neighborhoods, and still take vengeance when the opportunity arises. In St. Basil’s words, we abstain from meat yet devour our brother!” (John Breck, Longing for God: Orthodox Reflections on Bible, Ethics, and Liturgy, p 140)