23 - Judgement Sunday, March 6, 2016 (with audio)

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I Corinthians 8:8-9:2

Matthew 25:31-46

See how the Lenten Triodion prepares us for the Great Fast. Over these last three Sundays, it has set before us two types of people in the publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal and the Elder Brother, and this morning the Sheep and the Goats: the two types are the unrighteous and the self-righteous. In each case, the unrighteous are justified, the self-righteous are condemned.

“All we like sheep have gone astray.” (Isa 53:6) “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) From verses like these, Scripture, it seems, divides people not into sinners and saints but into unrighteous and self-righteous. What of the righteous we read about: Abraham, Moses, King David, the prophets and many others? Look more closely. Abraham prostrates himself before God and cries out, “I am but dust and ashes!” (Gn 18:27) Moses insisted he was not good enough to be Israel’s leader. (Ex 3&4) King David was an adulterer and a murderer: “Have mercy on me, O God,” he prayed. “My sin is ever before me.” (Ps 51) Isaiah when he saw the LORD in His heavenly temple, cried out: “Woe is me, I am lost! For, I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa 6:5) St John the Baptist said, “I am not worthy even to loose the strap of his sandals; I must decrease; He must increase.” The apostle Peter cried out at the great catch of fish, “LORD, depart from me! I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8) St Paul writes to St Timothy, “The LORD came to save sinners of whom I am first.” (I Tim 1:15)

The righteous see their unrighteousness and look to the LORD for mercy because they want to be with Him, as did the Publican and the Prodigal. The “self-righteous” do not desire the LORD. They want to be admired; and so, they keep score of their righteousness. The Pharisee, e.g., said: “I am not an extortioner, I am not unjust or an adulterer. I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all I possess.” (Lk 18:11-12) The Elder Brother said, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command!” (Lk 15:29) And, the goats in this morning’s Gospel say, “LORD, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick in prison and did not minister to Thee?” (Mat 25:44)

The self-righteous keep score of their righteousness – and of the unrighteousness of others. The Pharisee said, “I thank Thee, O LORD, that I am not like this Publican.” The Elder Brother said, “This son of yours has devoured your inheritance with harlots!”

St Paul writes, “If I give away all that I have, if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Cor 13:3) St Seraphim of Sarov told Motovilov that the lack of oil in the lamps of the seven foolish virgins cannot mean they were lacking in good deeds. They were doers of the highest virtue, virginity. Yet, they found the door of the bridal chamber closed to them. The lack of oil must mean that they had not acquired the Holy Spirit. In their spiritual ignorance, says St Seraphim, they “supposed that the Christian life consisted merely in doing good works. By doing a good deed they thought they were doing the work of God, but they cared little whether they acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit.” A Christian way of life, he goes on to say, based only on doing good deeds and not concerned to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit is a “way which appears good, but ends at the bottom of hell.’” (On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit pp. 14-15) Only good deeds done for Christ’s sake bring the fruits of the Holy Spirit, he said. (p. 9)

St Seraphim opens a deeper interpretation of this morning’s parable. The goats did not feed the hungry, etc., even when they did because in their secret heart, they were feeding their egotism. They did not do it for the hungry or for the sake of Christ but for their own glory, so that people and maybe even God would think highly of them. The more good deeds we do in the expectation that people will admire us, the thicker the wall that separates us from God becomes and our “good deeds” only land us at the “bottom of hell.”

In our self-righteousness, we want to believe we are with the sheep in this morning’s Gospel. But if we fear that maybe we’re not, do we open our heart to God and acknowledge that we are naked of righteousness like the publican and the prodigal? Or, do we hide from God by clothing ourselves with the fig leaves of more good deeds done in the expectation that God will be pleased with us? So, even in our good deeds, we remain closed to God in our secret heart because our good deeds are done not in love for Christ but in self-love, secretly hoping that people will think highly of us.

Our self-love is so subtly interwoven into the fabric of our soul that it is very difficult, actually impossible for us to see it except in the light of the Holy Spirit. But, precisely this is our salvation; it means that our only hope is to step out from the fig leaves of our self-righteousness and stand before the LORD in the nakedness of our unrighteousness, like the publican and the prodigal, like all the righteous of the Bible. That’s how we unite ourselves to Christ in the tomb of our heart where our self-righteousness is put to death so that we can be clothed in the garment of Christ’s resurrected Body (cf. Gn 3:21).

If we eat we are not better, St Paul tells us, and if we don’t eat we’re not worse. We fast with our belly but the Fast is not about our belly; it’s about our heart. The holy fathers tell us that self-righteousness or self-love expresses itself in gluttony and in lust for the pleasures of the body. The Church calls the Fast the flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross. (Lenten Triodion p. 230) The Fast, then, is the Cross the LORD commands us to take up to put to death our pride for the sake of Christ. When we do the Fast for the sake of Christ, we’re not reading or talking about Christian spirituality anymore. We’re doing it; we’re living it daily. We’re taking ourselves to the gym. We sweat. That’s how we lose the calories of our self-righteousness.

Taking up the Fast for the sake of Christ, we put on Christ. We are confronting our self-love at its root in our belly. We are really and not symbolically carrying in our body the death of Jesus. (cf. II Cor 4:10) Fasting for the sake of Christ, we fast with the eyes, the ears, the hands, the feet, the lips, the tongue. We don’t want to be shaped by the world anymore. We want to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom 12:2).

The Fast makes the Cross of Christ to become active, even incarnate in us. By it, we follow Christ into the tomb of our heart and put to death the root, the cause and the symptom of our death: our self-love and our self-righteousness.

This is the great mystery of the Fast and of Holy Pascha, the heart, the living substance of the Christian Faith! In love for Christ who first loved us, we take up the Cross of the Fast to become one with Him in the tomb of our heart. But, what dies in us when we so unite ourselves to Christ is our death. What is destroyed in our death in Christ is the root of our death, our self-love. The wall of enmity that separated us from God in our heart, in our true self that is deep beyond all things (Jer 17:5/9 LXX), is demolished and the Living Waters of God’s Holy Spirit pour in as a mighty River of Joy (From Theophany). Rooted in our heart that is now rooted in the death of Jesus, our bodies are restored to their original meaning and become temples of the Living God, radiant within in the Fiery Glory of Christ’s Holy Spirit, so that even in our death, or rather precisely in our death, the life of Jesus is made manifest in our mortal bodies! Is this why the Lenten Triodion cries out? “The Fast shines upon all of us more brightly than the sun. It brings us the light of Grace. It proclaims the Good News – the Gospel – of the Cross, of the precious Passion and the saving day of the Resurrection!” (p. 232)

This is the joy greeting us as we draw near the Gates of the Great Fast. For this joy we gladly take up the Fast. We want to acquire nothing less than the Holy Spirit of God. Let us approach the Gates of the Fast with the prayer that Our LORD Jesus Christ will strengthen us in the Fast that we may die to ourselves and live to God in love for Him who first loved us, born from above as children of the Most High. Amen!