Some of you are involved in our annual Wednesday Lenten Lunch Program at the cathedral where at 1 p.m. we gather to distribute and deliver bag lunches to our hungry friends and neighbors. Once again, beginning this coming Wednesday, some of us will brave the bitter cold of the winter season and the more bitter cold of the cathedral vestibule to feed and in other ways comfort our brothers and sisters in need. In the 16 years that we have been conducting this ministry of service, I counted only 19 times that we were unable to do our work because of inclement weather. At this moment, I would like to thank those of you who have volunteered in past years as well as those who have volunteered this here for this good work. You know how deeply I appreciate your commitments to the meager efforts of our community to bring the love and compassion of Christ to the less fortunate, the suffering, and the wanting of our neighborhood and our city. May God bless all of you for the work you do in His name.
I would like to tell you a story of an experience I had last year during one of Wednesday Lenten Lunches. Once we had completed our distribution at the cathedral, I went to deliver a box of sandwiches, some containers of homemade soup, bread, fruit juice, and fruit to one of our new families who joined our program in 2016. I knocked on the door and had to wait a few minutes, even though there seemed to be many people inside before someone came to open the door. As the door opened, I was greeted by a completely naked little kid – maybe 3 or 4 years old, and a man and woman whom I assumed were the child’s parents. The parents did not seem to think about the naked child standing in the open doorway; they just let the kid stand there jumping around and running in the hallway. As I entered the apartment, I was taken by surprise because it seemed there were more family members in residence than the previous week.
The parents and two other little ladies embraced me, almost knowing me off my feet, and said, “We are so glad you are here. We didn’t know what we were going to do for food tonight!!!” They grabbed the box from my hands and scurried to the kitchen, where they put the box on the table. The box of food quickly became like a bowl of honey with bees swarming all around. Multiple hands were pulling items out of the box faster than you could imagine.
I told the woman and man who greeted me at the door that there was not enough food to feed all the people in the apartment. They gleefully told me, “it’s okay… it’s ok Abuna, there is more than enough food here for everyone! I said, “How can that be? I brought only enough food for five people! I counted fourteen here! The woman laughed. She said, “Abuna, you stay and see. I will show you just how we did it in our country.” All of all sudden, like a determined general, the woman clapped her hands, and everybody started doing something. Within two hours, the table was filled with food enough for all the people in the apartment to have a decent meal.
To this day, I do not know how they did it. As the woman told me before dinner began, which they asked me to bless, they had scrimped and saved to bring over her and her husband’s parents and their grandparents from Ethiopia. The following week and thereafter, I made sure to bring them some extra food so that they did not have to stretch too far.
You never know what you are going to encounter when you engage in these kinds of ministries. It is really an eye-opener. Sometimes it tugs at your heart, and sometimes it makes you angry, even to the point of crying because of the hardship you see. But that day, I really felt as if Jesus Himself was in that apartment working a miracle that multiplied a simple box of food into a nourishing and complete meal for fourteen of His children. And because of that, it makes me thankful to be able to take a small part, and it makes me happy. Not because I did something good, but because Christ was glorified by my small effort.
That is the message I want to share with you this morning. It is not by works alone that you will get into heaven. It is the faith in Christ that you have that brings about the fruit of good works. Good deeds without faith, without being done in the name of Christ, are empty deeds. Any person of good will, and even those of not-so-good will, can do good things, but only a person who has faith in Christ and understands the true meaning of serving others will do good works consistently, as an integral part of their life, because they know that they are in Christ and Christ is in them. Without Christ, nothing is possible; but with Him and in Him, all things good are possible, and do happen.
We know that Christ alone is the Giver of all good, and that which we receive from Him must be given back to Him one-hundredfold by doing good for and sharing with those less fortunate than ourselves. If we do not do for others, if we do not serve them as we would serve Christ, if we do not give and do with genuine charity and love in our hearts, then we shall face judgment and the justice of God on the last day.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us that when He returns “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate (us) one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep are gathered on the right side of Christ, the side of approval and honor; and the goats on the left side, for condemnation.
Now the criteria for judgment may be astonishing for some of us. On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will not ask anyone about their creeds or their standing in the community. He will not ask them what denomination they are. But instead, He will ask: “What did you do for the poor family down the street? Ever make any visits to the local jail?” The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the physically afflicted, the mentally challenged, the drug, alcohol, and sex addicted, the oppressed, the poor…what have you done or not done for them?”
The clear message is this: God so intimately identifies with human beings that to care for another person is to care for Him. To ignore the plight of another is to ignore Jesus Himself. I do not know about you, but I sure am thankful that Jesus cares so deeply about those of us who are hurting, suffering, and basically imperfect. That is why His judgments in this regard are just.
The ironic thing is this. When we answer those questions that Jesus will surely ask each of us on the day of judgment, it will not be the Lord who will judge us guilty or not guilty. We shall bring judgment upon ourselves because we will reveal our true selves before the Lord and all of mankind; all people from the creation of man to that very day. We will decide what our fate will be and the Lord of all will meet out His justice accordingly. On that day, there will be no second chances, no bargaining, and no pleading. There will only be Heaven or Hell.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is continually healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, touching the lepers, feeding the hungry, showing love to the marginalized: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the demon-possessed, even persons called Samaritans and Gentiles, people of different ethnicities and religions. In the eyes of God, there are no Blacks or Whites, no Asians or Hispanics, no heterosexuals or homosexuals, no blind or lame, no rich or poor, no intelligent or unintelligent, no male or female. There will only man, a creature made by God in His own image and likeness. The only thing God will want to know and be concerned with on the Day of Judgment is how much like Him we all were while we were alive on earth.
There are so many people who are living on the margins, in fear, in darkness, and despair, all without hope. And it is God’s yearning that we, His children, will live in love for one another. With a parent and child, or a husband and wife, the bond can be so closely bound that the misfortune of one becomes the misfortune of the other, but the bond between Jesus Christ and humankind is even closer than this.
Our gladness or sadness not only affects Jesus, it is a part of Him. He is troubled by our sorrows, not from a distance, but in His very heart. Therefore, when we help one another, we are, in all reality, helping Jesus, and Jesus comes to know us and we come to know Him through this helping.
Remember in Matthew, Chapter 7, when Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of My Father who is in heaven”? Well, we find the will of the Father here, in Chapter 25:31-46 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew writes not about “social justice” but about life in God. One of the problems with the Church today is that She, in the person of many of Her bishops, priests, and laity, have greatly politicized Jesus’ words. Christ is not interested in social justice. In fact, Jesus was not even interested in it while He walked, preached, and ministered on earth. Jesus was interested only in man’s relationship with God and man’s life in God. In other words, Jesus’s mission on earth was to reconcile man with God and to re-establish man’s existence with God as it was before the Fall…a life IN God, in perfect communion and community.
We have turned Jesus’ words and commands into “charitable works,” but Jesus is talking about a way of life which manifests a reality of community wherein all become one and are one in the Father through Him by the working of the Holy Spirit.
We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, make friends with the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and visit those who are in prison not because they are good things to do and will score us points with God, but because they are what a life in Christ, a life in God, is all about.
In the Orthodox Catholic Church, we speak of our relationship with God in terms of “theosis” or “deification,” which is the fruit of our life’s work on earth. When we achieve theosis, we will look straight into the eyes of Christ. That is why we try to conform ourselves so intimately to Him. It is what the Church means when She proclaims and affirms the eternal truth that all men and women have been created in the image and likeness of God. Knowing this, we can never look at another person the same way again. In every human being, we encounter in our lives is Christ God. How we treat our fellow man is how we treat Christ.
The Day of Judgment is not something we should take likely or ignore altogether. Listen to a description of what that day will be like as it is described by St. John in the Book of Revelation: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from His presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that was in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that was in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-20).
I hope St. John’s vision helps give an impression of just how incredible the Last Judgment will be. Billions of people in front of God, being separated into two halves – one half being welcomed to their inheritance, those standing on the right; and the other half condemned to eternal punishment. I suspect that the crowd on God’s right will be smaller than the crowd on God’s left. The most probable reason for this is that most people do not believe that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. In fact, many people do not believe in Christ at all. So, is it any wonder that the goats will outnumber the sheep?
Jesus starts His teaching about the Last Judgment by using a very familiar image of separating sheep and goats. It is not a straightforward process unless done by a skilled shepherd. Sheep and goats look fairly similar and were often allowed to graze together during the day. At night time, however, they had to be separated because the goats need more protection from the cold than the sheep. The way to tell them apart is to look at their tails: goat’s tails go up, sheep’s tails go down.
Having separated them, Jesus then begins to speak to the sheep telling them to take the inheritance that was prepared for them from creation. The word inheritance implies a relationship, so the sheep are getting only what is their due. The reason they are getting it is that they have behaved just as their Father would have them behave. The goats, on the other hand, have not behaved in the way their creator would have them behave.
Notice that both the sheep and the goats ask exactly the same question: “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?’
Notice also, that both groups start their question with the word “Lord.” There can be no denying God here. There are no atheists now. There are no agnostics now. This is the time mentioned in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:10-11. “… at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). It is obvious who Jesus is, the creator of the universe, the son of God, the judge of mankind.
Notice though that the way the Lord responds to each group is different. To the sheep, He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me”, but to the goats, He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.” Which leaves us with the question who does Jesus say are His brothers?
The short answer is this: we are all mankind are the brothers and sisters of Jesus because Jesus shares our humanity. He became one of us in the flesh. Also, there is an even more intimate relationship that Christians alone have with Jesus and that is that we are baptized into His Body. By Baptism, we are washed clean of our sin and become a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. This relationship does not exist with those who do not profess belief in Jesus Christ as God.
Jesus’ sharing in our humanity and our being made members of His Body imposes upon us a twofold obligation. Where there is suffering, oppression, and injustice experienced by our fellow human beings, we are called to do what we can to relieve it and eradicate it. At the same time, we are especially encouraged, to see to it that all members of the Body of Christ are especially looked after and cared for. St. Paul attests to this in his Letter to the Galatians, saying: “Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).
Politics has no place in the work the Lord has commanded us in the Gospels to do. Jesus did not speak or teach as a politician, philosopher, social worker, etc. He spoke only as God and Lord. His words, the words of the Creator and Ruler of all things, were backed up by the example of His life. Thus, His teachings and the example of His life call us to follow Him and continue His work until He comes again in glory.
If you believe that salvation can be bought simply by doing good works, you are going to be greatly disappointed on the Day of Judgment. Also, you are going to be completely out of luck. As I said earlier, there will be no second chance to make things right at that point in time. In a similar vein, those of you who believe that you will get to heaven by faith alone, that good are not necessary, you too shall be very disappointed. Remember the words of St. James: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17)
The truth is that you do not do good works to get into heaven, you do good works because you already have a relationship with Jesus. If you say you are a disciple of Jesus, you will do what He did, and have the same attitudes as Him. If you say you are a Christian you cannot ignore God’s people or any of God’s creation. If you think that Jesus came with some wonderful teaching and some good ideas, then be very careful how you try to implement those good ideas. If they end up ignoring the plight of the worst off, you will end up with the goats.
That seems to be what has happened with the goats. Their main sin seems to be one of omission. In their busyness, their greed, or their complacency, they have simply overlooked those who are in need and lived their lives for themselves. They have used their strength to make their own lives comfortable and have left the needy to fend for themselves. Some of them have used their strength and resources to exploit those in need and to make their lives even harder than they would otherwise be. Whichever it is, come Judgment Day, they will find themselves among the goats, and the consequences will not be good. In fact, they will be hell. So, do you want to be among the sheep or the goats? Now is the time to decide.