“The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
This is not a bit of the Gospel we like to hear. The idea of throwing all evil people into the furnace of fire where they will weep and gnash their teeth is somewhat premodern. Unfortunately, Jesus quite often says things that don’t sit comfortably in our nice middle class world. He said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, and when his disciples said “Who then can be saved?” He said “For man it is impossible.” Now most of us may not mind if the rich are those filthy rich billionaires who destroy the environment, exploit the poor and spend their money on things we don’t even want. But actually Jesus probably thinks that most of us fall into the category of the rich. We are not poor, as poor people are poor. We can rely on our savings, our income, our social security to keep us going. We don’t really need God except as a kind of hobby. Will that be enough to get us into heaven? We may cling to the fact that we are Christians, and Christians are assured a place in heaven. But Jesus said, “Not everyone who calls me, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of heaven.” He also said that prostitutes and sinners will go into heaven before the scribes and the Pharisees. That may not bother us until we realise that scribes and Pharisees were the good people in the Jewish religion – very much like us, the well behaved, faithful Christians of today. Can we really be saved?
Until recently it was possible to avoid this question, or to say lightly – God is good. Of course we shall be saved. The coronavirus has changed that. Until recently we could collude with the rest of the world and pretend that death is something so infinitely far away that we don’t really need to take these questions seriously. That has changed. Most of us, at least the older of us, have had to recognise the corona virus could get us, and could kill us. Of course, cancer could do that, or heart disease, or car accidents, but we are used to that; the current virus, however, stares us in the face. Death is possible. Death is real. Death cannot be avoided. Of all people Christians should be able to take that seriously and say something useful to the world about it. On the whole, we haven’t. Our message over the past few months has been the same as society’s: stay safe.
Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus say “Stay safe”. Nowhere in his Epistles does St Paul say “Stay safe.” If Christians had stayed safe in the first centuries there would be no Christian faith around today. If Christian missionaries had stayed safe in the nineteenth century there would be no vibrant Christian Church in Africa today. Is this the best message we can give to a confused and frightened world? No. There is much more we can say.
The first part of our Gospel text is a call to repent. It tells us sin is serious, sin is destructive. You do not have to believe in eternal hell fire to believe that sin is immensely destructive both in this world and the next.
The second part tells us that those who do repent and can receive the righteousness that God will give them “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”. I don’t know exactly what that means but it does sound like enormous fun. Jesus had many fierce things to say about the serious, destructive nature of sin. He also left us with wonderful images of what happens if we repent: of a Father welcoming his penitent son home with a great party; of there being more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents; of a king giving a banquet to which we are invited; of a wedding feast to which we shall go; or a feast where the wine is excellent and never runs out. If we are Christian, if we repent, if we try to do the will of the Father, then this sort of joy, multiplied infinitely, awaits us on the other side of death. Is not that a message worth preaching?
We worry today about the declining numbers in the Church in the West. What do we offer people who come to church – the chance to sing nice hymns? the chance to see good liturgy? a chance to mix with nice people? a bit more meaning in our lives? Is it surprising they decide they can find all this and much more, elsewhere?
We are mortal and death comes to us all – sooner for some of us, later for others. It is a frightening prospect, an unpleasant prospect. The process of dying is hardly ever nice. When plagues came in the past people were encouraged to confess their sins. All of us who have confessed our sins properly know just how liberating and joyful that can be. When plagues came in the past people fixed their hope on Christ – not necessarily a severe, judging Christ, but a Christ such as we see in the Gospel, a Christ who says “well done good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master”; a Christ risen from the dead, full of joy and love, full of life and even fun. That’s a message we need to preach to a frightened world. But maybe we need to tell ourselves about it first.
Nicolas Stebbing CR