Twelve Apostles' Church Eastleigh

What do I have to do to be saved? — Sunday of the Last Judgement

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.

How much do I need to do to get into heaven?  This is an easy question to ask.  We have busy lives to live, families, work and household tasks.  So, let’s reduce this to the bare essentials: what do I actually have to believe and do to be saved?

We could start by turning to the Symbol of Faith, the Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.”  This is a good start: to be saved we need particular beliefs.  We need to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, we need to believe that he rose from the dead, we need to believe that we are baptised into him and receive his body and blood in Communion.  Is there anything else?

We may remember Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”[1]  We may realise that it is not only what we believe but what we do.  So we go around doing good works; along with the young ruler in Matthew’s Gospel we ask the Lord, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” and we hear the reply, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”  We too, may reply in all honesty, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”[2]

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this line of reasoning will not get us anywhere: “What do I actually have to believe and do?” misses the point of the Gospel.  It reduces Christianity to the category of “religion.”  “Religions” have rules and guidelines, you follow these rules and you are a good “religionist.”  Christianity is different — in this sense Christianity is not a religion — because Christianity is not a set of rules.  Christianity is different from religion, because Christianity is about persons, it is about relationship, it is about community.  Christianity is about our relationships with God; as it would be ridiculous to say, “How much do I have to love my mother?” so it is ridiculous to say, “How much do I have to believe and do to be saved?”

The Church, in her great love for us, sets before us today the Parable of the Last Judgement before we start the Great Fast: in our preparations for celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord we learn what the End is about.  And it is a terrifying vision.  This is the third parable in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel and I strongly recommend you read the chapter in its entirety, each parable is about Judgement but has its own nuance: the other two are the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.

When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.

The other two parables both start in a similar way to each other, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom,” “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them.”[3]  Today’s reading is different, for previously he has spoken in images and similes, today the Lord is more stark and direct, “When the Son of man comes in his glory.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do you hide behind similes and images of judgement to avoid having to change you ways, your mind?  Do I?  Do we delude ourselves by saying, “Yes, I am with the wise virgins with oil in my lamp, I might not be the servant with five talents but I’m certainly not with the servant who receives one.”  Do we take our faith seriously?  Or is it a nice add-on on a Sunday morning?

When the beloved disciple, St John the Theologian, had his vision on Patmos as recorded in his Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, we would expect the Lord to identify himself as the one “who is, and who was and who will be;” yet the Lord does not do so.  In our Faith, in the Church, our understanding of time — the familiar past, present and future — has been transformed and transcended.  The Lord identifies himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End … who is and who was and who is coming, the Almighty.”[4]  He is not the one who “will be” but who “is coming:” “Behold,” the Lord tells the beloved disciple, “I am coming quickly!”[5]

It is with this immanence that the Lord speaks to us: he has a stark message, no more images, similes nor metaphors: judgement is here.  For the Church calls us not to prepare, as such, for judgement but to be ready for it here and now, for it is in this moment that the Lord is coming.  And he shall separate us from one another, as the shepherd separates his sheep from the goats.  This seems a strange saying to us, but to those who heard it they understood, sheep and goats can look alike in Palestine.  We, too, look alike — all human beings bear the image of God — and we need to be separated.  It seems strange for another reason, that the separation seems arbitrary, how are we to know whether we will go to the right or the left, with the sheep or with the goats?  In other words, how can I be certain which side I will go?  Yet we have already addressed this question: because our Faith is of relationship not rules, so it is only if our ultimate desire is to be with God, to be with love, that we may enter the Kingdom.  Let us read on in today’s Gospel that we may come to the answer.

The Lord identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned — when the Lord returns in his glory, surrounded by angels and sitting on his glorious throne, when the Lord is in his majesty, even then he identifies himself with the weak, the marginalised, the oppressed.  His Kingdom is not like the politics of this world where the rich are fêted, the famous flattered, the powerful are appeased; the Lord holds the least among us as being the ones to whom we should minister.  And there are many of them in this world, in this country, in this town and each of our towns.  And we, each of us dear brothers and sisters, must ask ourselves the question, “Am I ministering to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned?”  Because it is by this standard that we must be judged.

Notice, too, the responses, both of those on the right and those on the left, of the sheep and of the goats: all were surprised when the Lord said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it,” or “did it not,” “to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it,” or “did it not,” “to Me.”  The sheep were as surprised to be on the right as the goats on the left.  The sheep had not made a deal with God, “we will serve all these people and you will let us into Heaven:” we, too, cannot make a deal.  Rather, the sheep act not because they expect a reward but because they cannot bear to see another suffer without entering into that suffering with them.  This is the meaning of the Cross — Christ enters into our sufferings, despite being God, because he loves us infinitely: love and humility are the only criteria for salvation.  Love for God first of all, not as an exclusive love but one which desires that all come to love him, humility before God and humility before all others who bear the image of God: these are our tickets to Heaven.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must love God.  Because when we love God we love our neighbour, when we serve others, not for the sake of a pass into Heaven but for the sake of loving God, then we will find ourselves — with surprise! — in God’s presence.  When we love we learn to open our hearts and our love for God can grow.  Let this coming Great Fast, for which we allow one more week of preparation, be the time when we take more seriously our Faith: now is the time of repentance, of changing our minds, now is the judgement, now is our salvation.

May our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, grant that we may make today our day of repentance that we may honour and glorify his Father, together with him and the All-holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] Matt. 7:21.
[2] See Matt. 19:16–22.
[3] Matt. 25:1, 14.
[4] Rev. 1:8.  Some translations render ὁ ἐρχόμενος as “[the one] who is to come” which seems to lose some of the immanence.
[5] Rev. 22:7.  This is said elsewhere in the book, see 3:11, 22:12, 20.


Readings

Brethren, food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you—a man of knowledge—at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

First Corinthians 8:8–9:2

The Lord said, “When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at His right hand, ‘Come, O 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 welcomed Me, 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, ‘Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee, or thirsty and give Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger and welcome Thee, or naked and clothe Thee? And when did we see Thee sick or in prison and visit Thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Then He will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal 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 welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to Thee?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to Me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31–46