Each year, as the Orthodox Church prepares to enter the season of Great Lent, we hear, from St. Matthew's gospel, Jesus's account of the last judgment:
"When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, '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.'"
"Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'"
"Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.'"
"Then they also will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?' Then He will answer them, saying, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
-- Matthew 25:31-46
A sermon on this theme is practically superfluous. I can give a good one in four words:
"No, He's not kidding."
Okay, here's another one:
"Yes, He is serious."
It's that simple because the judgment itself is that simple, based on six simple questions:
1. Did we give food to the hungry?
2. Did we give drink to the thirsty?
3. Did we take in the stranger?
4. Did we clothe the naked?
5. Did we visit the sick?
6. Did we come to the prisoner?
The simplicity of this judgment would be apparent to the rural Palestinians to whom Jesus was speaking. Sheep and goats are separated because, at night, the sheep like to sleep outside in the fresh air; the goats, without the thick coats, prefer the warmth of a cave. Sheep are valuable; goats are not. Sheep are white; goats are black. It is literally a black and white decision.
The one un-simple question is why? Why would such an important (and eternal) thing like the judgment rest on six questions? And why on these six questions in particular?
It is -- simply -- because, as St. John writes in his first epistle, "God is love." (1 John 4:8) And having been created in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27), that love is in us. Moreover, that love has been renewed in us, poured out on us, every day of our lives. And the love of God -- and this is critical -- isn't puppy love. It isn't Valentine's Day love, or Senior Prom love, or staring dreamily into each other's eyes love. The love of God sacrifices that which is dearest to it in favor of the beloved.
It was this love that caused Abraham to bind Isaac, his son, his only son, whom he loved, to an altar of wood, in order (had God not interceded) to offer him up as a burnt offering. (Genesis 22:1-19)
It was this love that held Jesus to the cross. Do you think a few iron nails could have held the Son of God to a piece of wood? He who created both the iron and the wood out of nothing?
"Our God," writes St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:29) And if "God is love", then this love is a consuming fire. If this love is in us, then we are on fire.
And, on the last day, when God is revealed as "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28), when the consuming fire of His love is engulfing us, one of two things can happen.
If we are on fire with it ourselves, then we have returned to that from which we were made: we are in paradise; we are in heaven; we are home.
But if, on the other hand, we have allowed that fire within us to go out, if it has been extinguished by disdain and neglect and the passage of time, then... well, what happens when you cast a piece of cold, dead driftwood into a blazing fire? Great for fire; not so good for the driftwood.
It is, in the end, really that simple.
Six simple questions. Four simple words.
"Yes, He is serious."
"No, He's not kidding."