The Parable of the Last Judgment (2019)

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Our life as Christians is and is supposed to be a journey.  Our life as Christians is a spiritual sojourn, which as Americans we tend to think is our personal journey, a very private one which doesn’t involve others much.  It’s just between me and God.   Yet all of the imagery and prayers of the Church portray the spiritual life as a community journeying together, like Israel did on its escape from Egypt and as it wandered the desert for 40 years.  We read the spiritual journey of that community in the book of Exodus and through most of the Torah.   Never was that a private journey for those involved, but they experienced all the events and they experienced God as a community.

You and I are part of that same community journey, we are traveling on a grand journey to the ultimate destination, the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like all journeys it can have moments that are arduous or difficult, at other times it might seem long and boring, and at times intense or exciting.  But it is meant to be experienced together as members of the Body of Christ.  From the moment we are baptized we are part of the Body of Christ – we are baptized into Christ, into His Body.   So at no time are we ever a Christian individual.  In the early Church they taught, “One Christian is no Christian.”    We only can practice the love that Jesus taught if there are others around us for us to love and serve.  Holy Communion carries the notion of community in it.  We pray “Our Father…”   We assemble together to show we are part of the community and to remind ourselves that we share a common life with all those who are in the Body of Christ.

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We are as a community approaching Great Lent, this is part of our journey together in which we especially think about our Lord’s words “to take up our cross daily, to deny ourselves and to follow Him.”

But this journey follows an unusual path, for on this sojourn we are asked to travel deep inside ourselves, to examine our own hearts and to let the light of Christ shine into our hearts, so that every part of our self can become light.  We are endeavoring to submit every aspect of our lives and every single thought of our minds, and each feeling in our hearts to the judgment and Lordship of Jesus Christ our God.  This is the journey we are about to embark on.  So this great journey to the Kingdom of Heaven which we take with all our fellow believers is also a journey into our hearts.  We each are to examine our hearts and then we open our hearts to another in confession to share what we find there, so that we can make room for Christ and to rid ourselves of all those things which separate us from God and from one another.

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We enter Great Lent together – next week on Forgiveness Sunday.  Forgiveness too shows us the journey is not individualistic for we need to forgive others and ask their forgiveness.  Being a Christian always involves other Christians.    Great Lent is not meant to be just a private journey, a free solo climb of a mountain, but rather it is a communal experience – we attend the same services, eat the same foods, say the same prayers, deny ourselves the same pleasures so that we have a common mind, the mind of Christ.

We fast to make our thoughts, our feelings, our cravings, our desires, our hearts, our minds and our bodies obedient to Christ.  Fasting is a tool to help us carry the cross of Christ and to be aware that we are in fact choosing to carry the cross of Christ.  As St Paul said in today’s epistle, “Certainly food will not bring us into God’s presence; if we do not eat we are none the worse, and if we do eat, we are none the better.”  (1 Cor 8:8)

We are learning how to sojourn together as Christian family.  We worship together, stand together, sit together, make the sign of the cross together, commune together to help us experience Christ which we can do only as the Body of Christ.

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And if we pay attention to the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), we see it is nations which are assembled before God, not individuals.  We are judged in and part of a community, so we have a responsibility to make our community the right community for Christ for we share in the judgment that the entire community faces.

As you contemplate the Judgment as described in Matthew 25, consider these thoughts:

1]   We are going to be judged by whether we treated the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters with mercy, compassion, generosity, love.  We show love to Christ by showing love to the least of His brothers and sister.  Am I doing for others what I would do for Christ Himself?

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2]   St Basil the Great on blessings received:  “If you hoard them, you won’t have them, if you scatter them, you won’t lose them.”    Generosity is seed planting and we will benefit from the harvest.  Besides, by giving to the poor we make God indebted to us, at least so said many of the early saints.

3]  Offer hospitality and charity to the stranger in need, so that at the judgment you will not be counted by Christ as a stranger to Him, but rather He will speak to you as a cherished friend:  Come, you 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 took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’  (Matt 25:34-36)

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A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   (John 13:34-35)

 

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Building the Parish Through Forgiveness

Forgiving others the hurts they inflict on us, just as we depend on those same others to forgive us the wrongs we visit on them, is absolutely necessary for successful community living. That’s the only way we can live peacefully.

When you live as closely as we do with one another, situations are bound to arise in which someone is hurt or offended. Unless we can be humble enough to speak to each other about these occasions, to communicate honestly because we trust each other – and then be willing to forgive whenever necessary, the bonds that keep us together will become strained and our love for one another will grow cold.

Living in the monastic community, we discover that none of us reaches a state of perfection in which we never hurt or offend another brother or sister. Obviously there are times when this occurs unintentionally, but unfortunately at other times, our demons drive us into behaving less nobly. There will always be situations in which we get irritated, or in which we’ve been hurtful. That’s simply part of being human. What’s more important than that these things occur is that we are ready always to apply the salve of forgiveness when they do, that the healing and mercy characteristic of God may bring about in us a bit more of the kingdom.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 302-303)

Being the Church

The mystical body of Christ is the tangible symbol and arena of God’s presence in our midst. By virtue of our membership in Christ we are now intimately related to each other. The very definition of church, ekklesia in Greek (ek, “out of,” plus klesia from kalein, “to call” – those who have been called out of their old place and summoned together into this new reality) refers to persons, therefore, and not buildings.

This living church is the community of Christ’s disciples responding to the call to be the assembly of God in a specific place. God calls us from out of the chaos and alienation of everyday living to be a people, his people in our own day. (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 219)

The Church is the Body of Christ

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.    Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.   (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

Peter Kreeft comments on being a Christian and a member of the Body of Christ, the Church:

“I am I whether or not I am a part of a party, a club or a nation.

But this is not true of members (organs) in a body. Remove heart, lungs or kidneys from the body and they die.

A member of a group has a life outside the group; an organ in a body has no life outside the body. An eye removed from the body and put on a plate no longer lives. It is even no longer an eye. It cannot see outside the body, it loses its identity.

This is how we are related to the Church. The Church is not essentially an organization but an organism. The Church is not Christ’s society but Christ’s Body.

The Christian has no life or identity apart from Christ (and therefore apart from his Body). If I were to die and discover that there was no Christ, that Christ was dead, that Christ was not God, that I was not alive with his life in his Body, then I would not be I, I would be another person.

(Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 319-320)

Most interesting insight into being a member of the Church – “The Church is not Christ’s society but Christ’s Body.”  Each member is indispensable to the Body, and no Christian can claim that he or she does  not need the Body of Christ.   The Body is essential to the life of each Christian who can remain alive only as part of the Body.

Maintaining the Unity of the Community


“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”   (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world.   They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might.  They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means.  They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal.  Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end.  They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth.  As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.

These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.  These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God.  They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience.  Sometimes they are simply stories  which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel.  What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous.  Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on.  They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord.  So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:

Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)

Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.”   Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault.  They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” –  that they are lost.  For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.

“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.”   (1 Peter 4:8)

The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were.  The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide.  And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost.  It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.   (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

Labor as Light to the World

Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.  (Ephesians 6:7-8)

Another example of light is our work, which here [in the monastery] is not servile labor but a diakonia, a service performed for monastic community without gain, without necessity, without force; a well-pleasing sacrifice which is illuminated by prayer and becomes a transfiguration of the world and of objects, a way of continuing the Divine Liturgy outside church.

Because here the light is the contemplation and use of the physical world, not for pleasure but for the needs of the community; not like the destructive consumption based in technology, but in order to make nature already now a partaker of the glory of the children of God, and allow it to sing praise with them.   

(Archimandrite Amilianos of Simonopetra, from Living in God’s Creation, p. 112)

 

Jesus & the Church

Just as Christ could be described and understood by way of the images and titles that were associated with and ascribed to him, so could the Church. Indeed, since formal and extended reflections on the nature of the Church was relatively rare in patristic times-despite the obviously crucial significance of the topic–images, which sometimes appear to be used almost unreflectively, are a valuable means of capturing the early Christian idea of the Church. Three of the most important ones–namely, mother, ark, and virgin-bride–suggest the rudiments of an ecclesiology.

The Church was a mother because through baptism it bore and nourished children who formed a single family around it. It was an ark because it carried passengers saved from the flood of sin. And it was a virgin-bride because it renounced the world of carnality and was espoused chastely to Christ. In other words, the Church was a community of the saved, marked by a shared baptism, set apart from the world, and bound to Christ.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99)

One Lord, One Church, One Eucharist

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.   (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:

As St. Ignatius insisted, “Take care to participate in one Eucharist: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union in His blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop.” The repetition of the word “one” is deliberate and striking: “one Eucharist…one flesh…one cup…one altar…one bishop.” Such is St. Ignatius’ understanding of the Church and its unity: the Church is local, an assembly of all the faithful in the same place (epi to avto); the Church is Eucharistic, a gathering around the same altar to share in a single loaf and a single cup; and the Church is hierarchicalit is not simply any kind of Eucharistic meeting, but it is that Eucharistic meeting which is convened under the presidency of the one local bishop.

Church unity, as the Bishop of Antioch envisages it, is not merely a theoretical ideal but a practical reality, established and made visible through participation of each local community in the Holy Mysteries. Despite the central role exercised by the bishop, unity is not something imposed from outside by power of jurisdiction, but it is created from within through the act of receiving communion. The Church is above all else a Eucharistic organism which becomes itself when celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper “until He comes again” (I Cor 11:26).   (The Inner Kingdom, p. 17)

The Church: Encountering God in Community

“The Church is seen primarily as a place of encounter, where God is not so much learned about as met, and where human lives are brought into an ecclesia, a community, of relation to this encountered God. At the beginning of its main service, the Divine Liturgy, the deacon proclaims to the celebrant bishop the intention of the Church’s work: ‘Master, it is time for the Lord to act.’ (cf. Ps. 118 [119]: 126] – announcing an act that culminates in the eucharistic encounter of the communicant faithful with the body and blood of Christ.

This focus on encounter establishes the nature of the church as intrinsically sacramental. The sacraments stand at the centre of the Church’s life and mission, not because of a symbolic significance or merit of ritual, but because in each sacrament the person is drawn farther into the encounter with God which transforms and transfigures. 

…The perception of the Church as, above all, a living organism, Christ’s very body into which his creation is drawn through encounter and relation, rather than an institution or complex that can be neatly defined.”

(Mary B. Cunningham, The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, pp. 121-122)