2012.03.10 sermon by Father Jonah
This is the gospel of the last judgment. When we hear about the Last Judgment, well, many people think that it is something frightening, threatening us. But actually it is not at all like that; it is today the message of hope, and the end of any evil and bad things. And it is the message of the resurrection and eternal life because we see here that everybody will meet Jesus Christ. And how will this meeting be? Because we will all resurrect, from the very beginning of human beings to the last human beings.
This is very important, and it should not make us feel terror, because, you know, this is finally the only warranty that justice has a meaning. What do we see in this world? We see injustice: we see how unfair life is, so unfair to many of us and to other people, and we know that we cannot correct this one hundred percent. If we correct this by power, it would be the ultimate dictatorship. And from another point of view, if there were no final judgment; if there is no final end of evil, what is the point of justice. Why, people will ask, should we be good people? Others, they will say, what you ask is not a realistic thing, most of the people are not honest, they are not just, they are not pious, so you are asking an unrealistic thing?
The basis of justice is not in the past; it is in the future. And must deeper, justice is not a set of regulations; it is not like the legislation that a country votes for, but it is a personal relationship. So, we understand it is the relationship of human beings in paradise with God and with one another. Now, the ultimate meaning of justice is the coexistence with God and with others in this beautiful communion, in this beautiful community. But it is very important to remember what it is that is going to happen.
Jesus Christ says that the Son of Man will come; he does not say “God” (though of course he is God) because He has the authority and He has the right, because He is man also. Because somebody could say, “You are God; you don’t understand what I suffer.” But yes, he suffered first and he knows very well, better than any of us. So he will come and there will be in front of Him a separation. Then, we cannot hide in front of Him; the goats and, He says, the sheep he will separate. We can have masks, and I can have my mask here, and I can pretend that I am a good person. But in front of God all these things melt and disappear, and then the true self – who I am really – appears, and this brings this separation. And this is a separation that is regarding God always because he will put one to the right and one to the left.
It is also very important that the good people do not know that they are good, because when Jesus said, “Come the blessed of my father, because I was hungry and you gave me food; I was naked, I was in prison, I was sick and you and you helped me. Good people do not say, He made a mistake, we can go to Paradise and it’s OK. They say, “No, no we don’t deserve. When did we see you like this?” They are so pure; they are so innocent see Jesus in glory, but they see the real Jesus in the face of the others, and they don’t separate this. They live with this love of the Son of God as members of the Body of Jesus Christ. For them this is a natural thing; this is why they don’t ask for anything and they don’t expect anything. Jesus cleans and makes more clear the mystery of the other: He says, “You do this to the others; you do it to me.” And this is the otherness, that you are the most holy icons, more holy than these icons behind the altar because you are the living icons of God, and each of us is a living icon of God. Because we are living images of God we have the connection with him. It is like these lights, as I say many times, there are wires behind connecting them, though they are silent. So if I see you like this, and I treat you like this, no matter what you do, then Jesus shows to us, this is the appearance of God.
You see, one of the Fathers of the Desert, Abba Apollo, he used to say, “You saw your brother; you saw your God.” And this is the meaning of monastic life: not that I go far away from the world because the world is sinful; but going far away from the world I am inside the world, much more deeply and much more actively. And it is very important that these people, they did not differentiate things. For example, when he says, “I was in prison.” Somebody will say, “You, Jesus Christ were in prison? For what; you did some criminal action?” Because even if somebody is a criminal, still he is an icon of Jesus Christ: still God is hiding in him. When we go there and when we see – even in a prison, even in the worst people – the icon of Jesus Christ, it is then that we glorify God Himself.
It is also very important also that those who he says go to Hell, He says, “It is prepared not for you; it is prepared for the Devil.” God did not prepare for us any hell; He prepared for us a Paradise. But because people choose the way of the Devil, that is why they go with him. And we see something here, because we see there is no repentance. The bad people in contact with the good people, they say they are there and they see what he says to the good people. But they don’t accept and they don’t really understand anything. What do they do? Well, they complain and they accuse the Master, as if He is not fair to them. This is why they say, when did we see you hungry or sick or suffering or in prison and we did not visit with you. We don’t hear any word of “Forgive me; I didn’t understand.” And this is actually the Hell: it is not that God is punishing us, but it is a permanent change in our attitude: “I won’t change; this is it.” The good people, of course they have sins, but they have a good heart and they try to improve and they are humble. But the others completely refuse.
This is what the Gospel says is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: you stay in your condition of non-repentance, not changing your mind to do the good thing. What Jesus Christ actually asked is not difficult at all: to give a little bit of food and take a little care, it is a very simple thing, especially today. And He did not say,” I was sick and you cured me.” He did not ask us to do miracles or to become doctors. He said, “I was in prison.” And once more I say this is very important, because why was God in prison? Did he do something bad? Because the icon of God, the image of God is in the prisoner also. And as I said last Sunday, the punishment is not that society takes revenge, put it is a gift trying to make the wrongdoer better in the prison: to change and to repent, and of course to protect the society. Jesus did not say, “You did not organize some secret thing so I could get out of prison.” He did not say this, but he said, “Just to visit with me, you give me a little bit of comfort,” which is so simple, right? And for us Christians it is very easy, especially some times when we don’t work we can visit some hospital, some place for old people where they live because it is a problem to live with their family or even their families don’t want them; just to then to touch them. When I was in India I saw Mother Theresa’s hospitals. They were not hospitals as good as we might imagine because she did not want them. But the poor people who were born on the street and die on the street, they can’t go to a hospital, they can’t stay on a bed, they cannot. So it was as if there was a corridor and there were very old people like skeletons. And there were young people from all over the world whom I saw just touching the hands of these old people, stroking them so they could die as human beings, with a little bit of the love that they had not had in all of their lives because of the caste system and because they were considered to be outside of society.
See, it is so simple. And also it seems so difficult, difficult because of our, let’s say, individuality and refusal to see the other. If you see the original text of the Gospel – because in the Chinese text and in many Bibles it says, “Because you did not do this for one of my least brothers,” For the bad people, the original text does not have the second word “brothers;” it says, “to the little ones this.” Why? Because they don’t understand what is brotherhood in Jesus Christ. The good people understand, and they become brothers and mothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. But for the others, this is their Hell, that they cannot be relatives of Jesus Christ and relatives of others. We must understand that the Gospel of the Last Judgment is not a threat: it is not that if you are not Christian you will not go to Hell and so God will take His final revenge. It is nothing about revenge: it’s indeed the ultimate happiness of the communion. And it’s not like bribery, as if to say, “You were a good person, so I have for you this, so now go and eat.” As in other religions. Because it is actually a very deep way of life.
Many people, actually because of the sick imaginations of artists, they can describe the Hell as terrible things, but they cannot describe the Paradise. The Paradise is not a place were as some people might imagine, where there is praying every day, a very boring thing. It’s not like that. It is the imperfect perfection of those who grow in the love of God. Why do I say imperfect? Because knowledge of God and of each other will be growing infinitely, without end: it will be a very exciting way of life and it will be the total brotherhood and son-ship to become children of God, to activate this and to continue brothers of everything and everybody, and to have this connection that now we don’t have. Now the time and the space separate us, but in Paradise and through the Holy Communion [gesturing to the chalice] time and space are united: it works differently.
And we must also explain a few things about how he says, “Go to the fire.” What is the fire of Hell? God did not actually prepare any fire: it is the presence of God also, it is the light of God, and this is the Orthodox dogmatic theology, because we will live in this light and presence of God.
As many times I say, if you ask me, “Tell me, where is God and I will believe.” God is very polite: he does not want to force us by his presence because I am forcing you now: you cannot say that I don’t exist, I exist and if you say I don’t exist then you’re crazy. But God wants us to know Him because first we love Him. But one day He will appear and everybody will live in his right hand or to his left hand, but in His presence. And if we don’t love like these people, if we don’t have any kind of repentance; if we don’t know the other and who is the other, that he is the icon of our God, then this light of God will act to us as fire. It is as if we lock the door to this room and we say we will live here forever. If we hate each other, imagine what will happen: in one minute this will be Hell. But if we are friends it is different.
And this is why marriage is an image of Paradise, because two people have the commitment to live together forever, loving each other, this is marriage and this is Paradise. And so you see, Paradise and Hell are the same thing. From one point of view it is the light of God, living in the light of God. Only because I don’t want it, because I hate, the light of God works on me as fire. It’s as if I don’t want to smell the same air as you smell so I close my nose. Of course I will feel like fire in my lungs, right?
You must understand this main point of Orthodox theology, and we must understand something, and hear something: the voice in the Revelation of the martyrs under the altar [gestures to under the altar]. This is why an Orthodox altar has holy relics of the martyrs, who say in the Revelations, “Till when Lord? You don’t come, you don’t give an end to the history and you don’t start the new life.” And all of us should say, “Till when, Lord?” Because the Lord said, “I’m coming fast.” But he’s not coming fast for us. And the answer of the Lamb in the Revelations is, “Wait a little bit.” Because there are many to be added to the Kingdom of Heaven, there are many of us. And we must understand also that during this period that we live, we who love God, we are already judged if we love God (John5：24). For a saint in his glory, this is the second coming. The only missing thing is the resurrection of the body.
But also something that reminds us and makes us brothers of Jesus Christ is our pain. Jesus Christ did not say, “I was a millionaire and you did not come to my ship to enjoy.” He did not say, “I was a king and you did not come to celebrate with me.” It is the pain that everybody has; it is the difficulties, it is the death, it is the injustice that we experience every day that has a meaning, and behind this is Jesus, who is taking this injustice, this pain, this suffering, with us. When we suffer, we never suffer alone – you must remember this. And our pain, only in Jesus Christ, takes a meaning, the meaning of becoming brothers of Jesus Christ, brothers of Him on the Cross. Because many people try to avoid the pain, which is a natural reaction, like in Buddhism. But how? And to give a theology for the pain? The theology of the pain is that God knows, and He identifies himself with our pain. And so when we are suffering our pain has a meaning: it is Jesus hiding inside our pain. And this makes us brothers of Jesus Christ. It lets us understand that it is not only me suffering, it is not only you suffering: it is Jesus in the prison. And remembering this we take courage and we take some hope to carry on in the everyday difficulties and the everyday life. As St. Simeon the Theologian says, “What is the Last Judgment? Taking the Holy Communion, this is the appearance of God,” for those who receive the Holy Communion. So the Christian is always feeling the Last Judgment, not as fear but as presence and as the celebration of others.
May the Holy Trinity protect all of us. Amen.
Photo: Leo Moskos. The Last Judgement. 1653. Collection of Marianna Latsis