This sermon was preached by Bishop Moyer on the First Sunday of Advent at the Blessed John Henry Newman Fellowship.
+In the Name…
Jesus said, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come” (St. Mark 13:33).
You’re all familiar with the phrase: “Spring comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb.” Now, today, please know that I have not lost my mind in thinking that we’re in the Spring of the year -even though the weather we’ve had (especially on most Sundays) has been so wonderfully mild.
I refer to that familiar phrase, only to strike somewhat of a comparison – and that is, as “Spring comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb,” so does this holy season of Advent – the word “advent” meaning “coming.”
On this First Sunday of the Advent (the first Sunday of the new Church year), we face (year after year) readings in the Eucharistic Lectionary that refer to the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time, when He comes as powerful Lion to judge the living and the dead, when He comes (as we heard last Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King) to separate the sheep from the goats. The Advent season concludes with thoughts of Mary, the Mother of Incarnate Lamb of God – the Lamb “who takes away the sins of the world.”
Isn’t it more than interesting that Holy Mother Church calls us to think about “the End,” as we make a new beginning? She calls us to do this because the way we understand the end of things dictates how we understand the beginning of new opportunities to prepare for the end.
What I mean by this is, that every day is a new and wonderfully opportune time to serve the Lord with greater desire, devotion, intention, and commitment. If one day passes when we don’t engage ourselves in so doing, there is the next day to do so. But this doesn’t go on forever; or at least, we should not assume that it does – that we can continue stalling in doing what we should do, and making excuses for why we’re not doing what we should be doing.
There will be a time, so says the Creeds of the Church and the Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church (from the evidence of the Scriptures) when our Lord Jesus Christ “shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead…” (Nicene Creed).
We also know from the Scriptures, that Jesus will come again at the hour we least expect- at an hour that He Himself does not know. Only the Father, says Jesus, knows when that day will be. He says that it will come “like a thief in the night, at the hour we least expect.” Meaning, that He stands ready to be sent by the Father. We are to be standing ready (on full spiritual alert) to embrace Him when He comes – as unsettling as that may be.
So Advent, which means, as I have already said, “Coming,” is a time to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus, not knowing when He will come. Semper peratis is the slogan of the United States Coast Guard – “Always Ready” – and so it needs to be our slogan; and more so, our understanding.
Before the Second Coming of Jesus, which may happen today, or tomorrow, or far into the future, may be your death or mine. Not a pleasant thought on this beautiful day, but it is the reality of life. As the Prayer Book states it (in one of its beautiful and sobering prayers), we pray to the Lord that He makes “us deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life.” We are to live in the knowledge of this reality, being fully alive in and with the goodness of God’s creation; and alive in Christ, always praying that we are in the spiritual place, as we pray in the Prayer of Humble Access – “…that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us;” and as we thankfully state in the Post-Communion Prayer, that God, in the blessedness of our receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, “dost assure us…of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thine everlasting kingdom by the merits of his most precious death and passion,; and in that same prayer, we conclude in praying to our Heavenly Father that we He will, “…assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”
We heard in last Sunday’s Gospel for the Feast of Christ the King, how the doing of good works (the Corporal Works of Mercy) is necessary to Christian discipleship, and for us to make any claim the we are loyal subjects of the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords. We do such good works in thanksgiving for the faith we have been given as a gift. We love others; and in so doing, we are loving and ministering to Christ, because He loves us, and has died and risen for us.
The judgment of God may come to us individually before the Second Coming of Christ – as it has for all those who have gone before us – who have departed this life. This is called the “Particular Judgment,” and it something for which we should daily be prepared- even though our primary focus is on the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of human history, and on the Coming of Jesus in the Incarnation as the Holy Child of Bethlehem.
The Catholic Church teaches in its Catechism:
“Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ (II Timothy 1:9-10). The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in the accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul – a destiny which can be different for some and for others (Luke 16:22; 23:43; Mt 16:26; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; Heb 9:27; 12:23)” (1021)
“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ; either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately, – or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (1022)
And finally (for our purposes this morning):
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (1030).
This is, of course, why we pray for the dead – because we love them, and desire that they, as we, are growing in the knowledge and love of the Lord, and are, as we are to (in the powerful words of this morning Collect for Advent I), “…cast away the works of darkness, and put [on]…the armor of light.”
We pray for them, and for ourselves, that we are going from “strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom,” as we with them are in different portions and times of the heavenly Kingdom that has been inaugurated by Christ and will be fulfilled by Christ as His Second Coming in power and great glory.”
We pray that, as the Catechism states, we “die in God’s grace and friendship.” Meaning that we are always hungry for God’s grace, and that we are affording ourselves of the opportunities and provisions of such grace – particularly in our humble and reverent reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood, which is the sacramental necessity (as He Himself said) for us to have His life in us: “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’’ (John 6:53). And then in the next verse comes His promise: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” 6:54).
“Friendship” means that we know God and God knows us. We are not strangers or casual acquaintances. We are close to Him as true friends are close to one another – in thick or thin.
I would to conclude this sermon with a lengthy quote from Fr. George Rutler’s book, The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven, which he wrote in 1986. Listen carefully to his words which, in my opinion, are very rich, and which give us the theological clarity we need to possess for such a deep and serious part of the Christian enterprise:
“Citing John Damascene, Thomas Aquinas compared the effect of death on humans to the fall of the angels, both being a separation from the eternal bliss for which we were intended from conception. Yet the angels, free from the restrictions of the flesh, have a greater native liberty than do we, and when they reject God, the fall is final. Satan writhes before Christ in the exorcism scenes with a torture no human mind can bend enough to understand. Our human liberty to reject or accept God is imperfect, unlike the decision of the purely angelic intelligences; we ‘do not know’ perfectly what we are doing, even when we act with a formed conscience. Speculation cannot hope to present a certain explanation, but the evidence of God’s love lets us trust that he will provide a last judgment after the individual judgments each of us will undergo. That will give our capacity for love a final chance, free of fear and unblinded by ignorance, to embrace his divine will.
Saint Augustine said that a man fears because something that he loves is in danger. At the last judgment there will be two kinds of fear. The first is the chaos of a soul which loves nothing but itself and which is struck by the possibility of absolute annihilation. The second is the awe of a soul which has come to love God more than itself and which consequently knows that it is guaranteed absolute fulfillment of all for which it was created. The first is a case of wanting to die from dread, and the second, wanting to die from love. This latter fear is a synonym for bliss and bursts from the wonder of knowing that the Judge has carried out on himself the sentence for our disobedience. John Newton recognized in it a very amazing work of grace: ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my heart relieved.’
Years from now and today as well, but for all practical purposes the last day, while crossing the street, or in a comfortable bed, or by a shattering cataclysm, a hand will slip into hands of others. Some will pull away from the hand. Ask them and they will say it is cold. Some will hold it tightly. Ask them and they will say it is warm. Such, more than anything, will be the singular and final judgment toward which the soul and all creation has been moving from the moment motion began. The one test is the willingness to hold onto him who holds onto us, that infinitely simple requirement, attained by contradicting every complication of the will. With a devastating courtesy, which St. Francis of Assisi named ‘the sister of charity by which hatred is extinguished and love is cherished,’ he will say to each who keeps a hand with his: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord’” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
May God give us the grace to keep a Holy Advent – in humble anticipation and joyful expectation of the Comings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
+In the Name…