Sermon preached by Fr. Nicholas Livingston on Sunday, March 7, 2021
One of the faults of humans is when we try to make things more complicated than they need to be. But today, Christ shows Himself as the Great Simplifier. While not negating the other aspects of His teaching, Matthew 25 gives us a glimpse into the most simple and fundamental aspect of the Christian life. Christ’s teaching today about the Last Judgment clarifies things into an understandable image: Whatever you do (good or bad) to others, you also do those things to Christ.
If this is so simple, why do people struggle so much to act this way? Why do we hurt, slander, and hate others? Do we not know that our neighbor is our salvation?
I’m afraid that many people, in fact, do not believe this when it comes to actual people. They may have heard it in Sunday School, they may even hear it in church as adults, and believe it in a philosophical way, but they shy away from it when actually confronted by the opportunity to live it. I think we’ve all been there, but it’s worth asking “why would someone not accept this simple reality?”
Whenever we approach God, the contrast that exists between us becomes dreadfully clear. We may not be aware of this as long as we live at a distance from God…as long as his presence or image is dimmed in our thoughts and in our perceptions... but the nearer we come to God, the sharper the contrast appears. Is this not perhaps why we choose to live lives that do not include God? They are afraid because, in the words of Metropolitan Anthon Bloom, “Every encounter with God is a last judgment”.
We understand that when we come into Christ’s presence, the stark difference between what He is and what we are comes sharply into focus. But it’s much more difficult to confront the fact that, in hearing the words of our Lord today that, “whatever you do to the least among you, you do to me”, we must accept that every encounter we have with other people is also a moment we are faced with our self-realization. If every encounter with God is a Last Judgment, and every encounter with another person is also an encounter with God, then every encounter with the least among us is therefore also a Judgment.
So why do we pretend to not see people in need, or argue against social action to care for people in need? Are we afraid of encountering God? Are we afraid of encountering the least among us?
Even though we may be afraid of experiencing the great divide between us and God, it is the very thing we need the most. If we ever want to become who we really are, without delusion or dishonesty, to be free and at peace, then we must “draw near in the fear of God with faith and love”; we must risk coming close enough to the flame of God’s love to be ignited by it. We pray before Communion, “You have smitten me with yearning, O Christ, and by Your divine eros You have changed me. But burn up with spiritual fire my sins, and grant me to be filled with delight in You.”
A paradoxical part of human nature is that we are often afraid of receiving the things we desire the most. There’s a saying that,, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” (Joseph Campbell). We must ask ourselves, “What is the treasure I seek?” Most people I know seek love, belonging, peace, joy, goodness, beauty. If God is the creator and fashioner of all these things, then what we truly seek is God, Himself.
So where do we find Him? We find Him, of course, in a cave; the cave in Bethlehem and the cave of the empty tomb, because it is in Christ’s joining Himself to humanity and in His Resurrection that we receive the mercy, love, acceptance, and divine transfiguration we so desperately desire. Is this the cave we fear to enter? We must enter the cave of repentance, the cave of death to our old self, in order to emerge with Christ in His resurrection, sharing in the divine transfiguration, embracing our true, pure, Spirit-led self.
An encounter with God must change us because every time it is a judgment. It is a judgment of all that is false in us, all that needs to die in us, all of our disordered parts, but it is also a revelation of all that is good, lovely and worth holding on to; it is the death of our false self and the revelation of our true self. The problem, of course, is that we do not always know the difference between these. “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” If we ask, God will show us the difference, but we are often too afraid to ask, too afraid to enter the cave. Will I have to change? Will I have to give up too much? Will He ask of me more than I want to give? The answer to all these is YES, YES, YES, but still He tells us not to be afraid. His love will not destroy us, it will make us more truly alive. What we end up giving away is the cause of our individual misery and the false selves we have constructed and that turn us all into slaves.
Where do we look to find Christ? We look in each other and we look inside ourselves; the image of Christ is imprinted upon our hearts and everything we do for the least among us (the one who is in need), is done unto Christ, Himself. With this principle guiding our every action and effort, we hope to arrive at the judgment of every encounter and at the end of time, counted among the sheep who were willing to enter the cave, to enter into the joy of our Lord.