But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Michaelmas 7-2022

Matthew 25:31-46

If you have ever had the occasion to visit a national cemetery, you will notice that almost all the grave markers are ornamented with some kind of religious symbol. The size and style of the markers themselves are uniform and the same, but there is quite a diversity to be found in the religious symbols on those markers.

This diversity of symbols represents the diversity of beliefs and convictions that were held to by these many veterans and their spouses during their lifetimes.

It is understandable why people would want an emblem of their religious faith to be emblazoned on their grave marker, because almost all religions involve – as one of their chief purposes – the preparation of their adherents for what will happen to them when they die.

If someone has a specific hope or expectation of what he will experience in the next world, such a hope or expectation has no doubt been shaped by the teachings of that person’s religion.

Many today think that religion in general is little more than a human psychological phenomenon, invented by people to help them cope with the anxiety of death. People in different times and places invent different kinds of religions. None of them is objectively true, however.

This modern, secular way of thinking might seem to be confirmed by the existence of so many different religions, and of so many different religious teachings about the afterlife. Is it possible for you to know what will happen after you die, and to know what your ultimate destiny will be, and why?

There are so many competing claims, promises, and warnings. Which ones can be believed? Can any of them be believed?

Might it all just be made up, and might there actually be nothing awaiting you on the other side of death? Is it possible that when you’re dead, you’re just dead, and nothing of you continues on?

Two thousand years ago, there was a man – a unique and extraordinary man – who did cross over the threshold of death, and who then came back from death. He had predicted that he would come back, and then he did come back.

Many people who knew him before he died, and who saw him die, then saw him alive, and interacted with him. So, this is not a fable or a myth. This is real history, with real eyewitness testimony.

If anyone should be listened to, for reliable information about what happens after death, it would be this man, who himself came back from death. If anyone would be able to tell us what to expect, and how to prepare for what will happen on the other side of death, it would be this man. It would be Jesus.

In today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus does in fact tell us some important things about what will happen, and about why it will happen.

We don’t have time today to explore in detail all the things that Jesus says in this text. But we do have time to examine a couple of his main points.

We know from other passages of Scripture that in temporal death there is a separation of the soul and the body. On the last day, when Christ returns visibly to this world, all the dead will be miraculously raised – with a reunion of soul and body – and will then stand before Christ, who will judge them.

Today’s text picks up the story at this point. Jesus says:

“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.’”

In the original Greek, the word translated here as “blessed” is “eulogeo.” This is the same Greek word on which the English term “eulogy” is based. Literally, it means “good word.”

The kind of blessing that Jesus is talking about is not a material benefit that has been bestowed upon a person. There is another Greek word for that kind of blessing.

It is, rather, a spoken blessing: that is, a “good word” that has been spoken by God the Father over those who will be invited to enter the kingdom prepared for them.

The works of love and kindness that these people had performed during their lives on earth will be referred to. But what will be referred to first is the “good word” – the eulogy – that had been spoken over them by God.

Our good works are the natural fruits of a saving faith. But what makes a saving faith to be a saving faith, is that it believes the gospel of God’s salvation for sinful humans. This salvation does not depend on the good works that we do, but on the good works that Jesus did for us.

The gospel that the Lord’s sheep hear and believe is a gospel that announces to them, and bestows upon them, the divine gift of forgiveness, through the death and resurrection of Christ; the divine gift of justification, through the crediting to them of the righteousness of Christ; and the divine gift of adoption as children of God, through the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ.

On judgment day, when the saints of God stand before their judge, they will also be standing before their Savior – who is the Son of God. When they give an account of their lives, they will be giving an account of the good things that God has spoken over them; that God has worked within them; and that God has accomplished through them.

And they will be welcomed into the kingdom that their heavenly Father has prepared for them “from the foundation of the world.” God’s grace toward those who – in time – repent of their sins, and receive God’s reconciliation, is a grace that extends beyond time, in both directions.

It is an eternal grace, toward those who are chosen in Christ from the foundation of the world. This is an incomprehensible mystery.

But one of the ways in which you can be comforted by this mystery is to know that God’s desire to save you from sin and death is not an afterthought on his part or a contingency plan based on anything you have done or earned. This is something he has always been planning.

Whenever his law drives you to repentance and remorse, so that you desire to forsake your sins and amend your life, God’s plan for you is thereby being implemented. Whenever the comfort of the gospel is applied to you, filling you with the assurance that your sins have been put away, and that God is at peace with you for the sake of his Son, God’s plan for you is thereby being implemented.

Whenever you in your human failures are restored to faith, or in your human weakness are strengthened in faith, God’s plan for you is thereby being implemented. And when on judgment day, Jesus opens the door to his Father’s eternal kingdom to you – prepared for you from the foundation of the world – God’s plan for you will, in the ultimate sense, be fully implemented.

If you know Christ’s pardon and acceptance now, you will know Christ’s pardon and acceptance then. If you have eternal life now – by faith in the one who has claimed you for eternity – you will have eternal life then.

But there is more to the story of what will happen on judgment day, that we must also consider. In today’s account, Jesus goes on to say:

“Then [the Son of Man] 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.’”

These fearful words will be spoken to those who are cursed by God because of their sin – manifested chiefly in their indifference, during their lives on earth, to the needs of others. And that indifference will be referred to.

But the Lord does not link this curse to an eternal plan on God’s part, to reject them and damn them. Indeed, as we read in today’s lesson from the Second Epistle of St. Peter, the Lord “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Jesus will not, therefore, send unbelievers to a place of destruction that had been prepared for them – as was the case with heaven, for his saints. Rather, the damned will enter into an eternal destiny that had actually been intended only for “the devil and his angels.”

In other words, people do not go to this fiery judgment because God wants them to be there, or because he takes any pleasure in their condemnation.

They go to this judgment because they had chosen to believe the lies of Satan instead of the truth of God; because they had aligned themselves with the rebellion of Satan instead of with the peace and harmony of God; and because they had made themselves to be servants of Satan – in their thoughts, words, and deeds – instead of servants of God.

There is a very noticeable lack of symmetry between the origin and inhabitants of heaven, and the origin and inhabitants of hell.

Those who end up in heaven, end up there because of God’s unmerited grace, in Christ, from the foundation of the world. But those who end up in hell, end up there because of their own sin and unbelief, and not because God had prepared hell for them.

God does send the devil and his fallen angels to hell. There’s no doubt about that. A way of redemption for these rebellious spirits has not been provided.

But there is a sense in which God does not send people to hell, as much as he allows them to send themselves there. But he does allow this.

In life, God does not coerce people to forsake evil and turn to him. Likewise in death, God does not coerce people who in their hearts actually hate God, to spend an eternity in the gracious fellowship of God and his saints.

Instead, in eternity, he lets them have what they want. If in life, they had chosen companionship with the devil over companionship with God, then they will share in the fate of the devil also in death – in an eternal death.

As we all think about the inevitability of our departure from this world; and as we – with all human beings – would seek to glean from the teachings of our religion some kind of hope or expectation concerning what comes after this departure: I implore all of you, to make sure that you are adhering to the teachings about life, about death, and about life after death, that Jesus declares to you, and to all people.

Neither Jesus, nor the Bible as a whole, answer all the questions you may have about the afterlife. But what Jesus does teach – and what the prophets and apostles teach – answer the questions you need to have answered, as you look forward to the rest of your life, and to the end of your life.

Make sure that there is more than just a cross emblazoned on your grave marker, after you die. Allow the cross – the real saving cross of humanity’s Redeemer – to be emblazoned on your heartbefore you die.

St. Paul writes to the Galatians:

“God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

He also writes, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Many are perishing even now. And if there is no course correction in their minds and hearts, then in the final judgment they will perish eternally. Nobody enjoys believing this, but that doesn’t mean it is not true. It is true. Hell is real.

But many others, in Christ, are being saved even now. Their walk with the Lord may indeed be accompanied by much weakness, and by many doubts and stumbles.

But the power of God to sustain them, to help them, and to restore them, is also there: since the message of the cross, to which they cling, is there. And so, in the final judgment they will be saved, and they will live, eternally.

This is also true. The unbelief of those who are too hardened to accept it, or too blind to see it, doesn’t change that. Heaven, too, is real.

St. Paul, because of the mercy that God had showed to him, knew that on judgment day he would be included among the sheep of the Lord, and would not be cast out with the goats. Do you know? You can know.

You can know that Jesus is your Savior, and that Jesus will be your Savior. You can know now what he will say to you then – when you, and all people of all nations, stand before him.

Since you are still alive, that means that the gospel – the “good word” from God about his grace in Jesus – is still being preached to you. The blessings of this gospel are still being offered to you.

The invitation which comes through this gospel – to know Christ and his forgiveness here in time, so that you will know him and his forgiveness also in eternity – is still being issued.

And you can believe him. Whoever you are – whatever evil you have done in the past, or whatever good you have not done in the past – you can believe him.

Believe him today, when he declares to you that your sins are forgiven and that you are his. And pray today, with the words of Psalm 39:

“Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths… And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in YouDeliver me from all my transgressions.” Amen.