Final Judgement: Sermon for Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023
Each Sunday, we profess in the Nicene Creed that we believe that Christ will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” It is so easy for us to roll through each of these lines of the Creed without really thinking about them. In fact, this is why at some of our Masses we sing the Creed – because professing our faith is an act of worship, and music and worship are so closely connected, and to force us to slow down, ponder, and even meditate upon the faith that we are professing.
These past few weeks, we have received many reminders of the reality of judgement in our Lord’s often harsh words in the Gospels. Once again today, an unworthy servant is cast out into darkness and bitter punishment. We have been reminded as well of the existence of mortal sin, of the radical possibility built into human nature of severing our relationship with God through even one gravely disordered action. And we have been reminded of the necessity of conversion and repentance so that we can avail ourselves of the mercy of the Lord who is always ready to restore the repentant sinner to grace.
Another kind of judgement often go unconsidered, though – the general judgement. At the very end of the Creed, we also proclaim that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead.” These two realities – the general resurrection and Christ’s second coming in glory – are closely related. It is easy for us to forget that one day – maybe tomorrow, maybe millions of years from now – this world will come to an end. At the end of time, Christ will come to the world again, not in the humble estate of the infant of Bethlehem, but in terrible glory and majesty. That will be, Christ tells us in St. John’s Gospel, “the hour when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Son of man's] voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
At the Second Coming of Christ, our mortal bodies will rise from the grave to join our souls in eternal reward or eternal punishment – eternal life or eternal death. This is why the human body is so important, and why what you do in the body is so important. The body is meant not just for holiness in this life, but even for eternity in the next. Our belief in the Resurrection of the Body is more important than ever, as we need to affirm the deep goodness of the body in a world that rejects the body as given to us by God, and sees it merely as the playground for human creativity and scientific manipulation.
The general Resurrection, then, leads into the General Judgement. Continuing today’s Gospel passage from St. Matthew, as we will hear next Sunday, the Lord tells us that “Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … And [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The general judgement, then, is different from the particular judgement. The particular judgement occurs for each soul at the moment of death – when the soul is separated from the body. At the particular judgement, each soul will be assigned to heaven, hell, or purgatory. Those who die in a state of grace and have already been purified in this life of all the effects of their sins (by penance, martyrdom, or heroically virtuous living) will go immediately to heaven. Those who die in a state of grace but have not yet been purified of their sins will go to purgatory until they have been purified of the effects of sin (or until the second coming occurs, whichever happens first), and those who die in a state of sin have exhausted the possibilities of repentance and habituated their own wills to choosing what is evil, and so no longer even desire the good, or despair at its possibility, and so concur in the justice of the Lord’s judgement that assigns them to eternal privation of His presence in Hell.
At the general judgement, following the Lord’s Second Coming and the general Resurrection, everyone – every human person ever created since the beginning of time – appears before the throne of justice together, and the deeds of each are made known to all. Why is this so? Why do we need to know everyone’s sins if they have already been forgiven, or if the person has already been condemned? Doesn’t God forgive and forget?
Firstly, as fallen humans, this motivation to do what is right so that our failures might not be revealed at the general judgement can help us in the battle for holiness. Sometimes, we need that extra urge to do what is right. More importantly, though, God does not fail to forgive and forget because He is vengeful or carries a grudge. He remembers our sins – even when forgiven and absolved – because those very sins can become trophies of victory in the Lord’s kingdom of mercy. The crosses of sin that we have carried – addictions, failures, malice, envy, even the gravest and most seemingly unforgiveable of sins – can become signs of the way that the Lord has triumphed over sin in you.
The general judgement is not just about knowing the deeds of our neighbors, though. At the general judgement, “through his Son Jesus Christ, [the Father] will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation … and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God's justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God's love is stronger than death.” (CCC 1040)
“The message of the Last Judgment calls men to conversion while God is still giving them ‘the acceptable time, . . . the day of salvation.’ It inspires a holy fear of God and commits them to the justice of the Kingdom of God. It proclaims the ‘blessed hope’ of the Lord's return, when he will come ‘to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed.’” (CCC 1041)
At the general judgement, then, there will also be accomplished a reality mysteriously alluded to in the Scriptures: the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. What this means is not at all clear, but we know that in this new universe that the Lord will create at the end of time, when this world passes away, “Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, ‘the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ She will not be wounded any longer by sin, stains, [or] self-love, that destroy or wound the earthly community. The beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion.” (CCC 1045)
How is this general judgement relevant to our lives here and now? I am greatly intrigued by the Church’s choice today of the passage from the Book of Proverbs in praise of the virtuous wife, along with Psalm 128’s praise of the virtuous family, to go with the very different themes that appear in the second reading and the Gospel that we have been focusing on here. But perhaps we heard of the virtuous wife, who does things that seem ordinary and relatively inconsequential, to remind us that a life well lived is not so inconsequential after all. Tending to the small duties of everyday life, being faithful and obedient to the Lord’s will in your own state of life, ends up being not such a small thing after all, especially when the Lord finds us being obedient and faithful when He comes again.
The goodness of this virtuous wife praised in Proverbs also relates to the good deeds done in the body, which, as we will see next Sunday, have a big effect on our eternal destiny. “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.” Furthermore, Proverbs reminds us of the fleetingness of that which seems to be important in this life: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
Being aware of the general judgement should fill us, yes, with some holy trepidation about the gravity and consequences of sin, but also just as importantly with a lively hope for the accomplishment of the Lord’s justice. “We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation … and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God's justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God's love is stronger than death.” In this life, the Lord’s ways are so often confusing, and sin and sorrow can seem to have the last word, but there will come a day when the fullness of the Lord’s goodness will be revealed, and the designs of His heart will be made known.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII