St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 5th Sunday after of the Epiphany
February 10, 2019
“Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”
THE ONLY SERMONS that seem to be universally cited as pure horror and ideological claptrap are those that are aflame with references to fire and brimstone. These come from pulpits that are sweaty with judgment and damnation, leaving their victims in the pews certain they are going to hell. God is described as dangling souls over an abyss of molten lava and deciding whether He should simply snip the strings they hang by. You’re not worthy of anything else, so don’t complain. If He chooses to drop you, or to reel you back up: either may happen, and you have only to thank Him for your saved soul if He, by His caprice, or election, should at last save you. Such pastors sign their letters joyously as In His Grip, or Unworthily Yours.
I’m not one to dodge a challenge, and today’s Gospel raises questions about the damned and the elect that are worthy of review. Christ describes a field of grain sown for harvest, but some evil person has spread seeds of tares all through the sprouting wheat. Tares, or darnel, are poisonous seeds when eaten, and should a wheat harvest be polluted by this grain, it will make a lot of people sick. The trouble is that wheat and tares look almost alike while growing. It’s only when the heads are fully ripe and full that they can be easily distinguished. The farmhands spot the tares among the wheat and tell the landholder. He tells them to let them all grow together until harvest, then first pull out the tares, burn them, and finally gather the good grain.
Christ’s apostles asked Him later for an explanation. It’s best to have His interpretation. “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Mat 13:27-43
The parable is one of judgment. The separation comes between sons belonging to God’s Kingdom, and sons of the devil. It’s a neat dividing line down the center of humanity. The nature of both plantings are so different, you would think we are made good or evil at birth, or before, and thus we can never get out of our destiny. It’s a favorite citation for Calvinist thought.
But you can’t use one scripture to stand against all other scriptures, but must understand all references to a subject and use them to illuminate all others. Christ is making one point by this parable, not all points. No picture of the judgment gives a complete description of the way God determines our eternity. But such a study is worth the effort of slogging through these grim tales of fire and brimstone, for we had better know what’s on the final exam before we take it.
Other descriptions in the Bible may present us with ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom’s procession at midnight, burning their lamps but only some of them possessing enough oil for the entire vigil. Then three servants receive differing quantities of treasure to tend for their lord, and some bring in twice the amount entrusted to them, having used it for commerce profitably. But one returns only the original amount, having hidden it away, not trusting his lord and hating the task he’s been given. He is thrust into outer darkness. And the Son of Man comes enthroned before all mankind, and separates sheep from goats, determining their fate according to how charitably they dealt with their fellow creatures. “As you did it unto the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me.” Mat 25
Yet other words of Christ say that whoever believes in Him, and endures to the end of a faith-filled life, will be saved. St. Paul says that if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart, then salvation is yours. And that saint even says that women might be saved through childbirth “if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.” 1 Tim 2:15
Which is it? Works of charity, preparedness, simple faith, or a totally holy nature? Will we need to bear good fruits into the judgment, for by our fruits will He know us? How are we to be sure He will not simply glance at us and say, “Depart from me: I never knew you!” What was the trick that the good thief knew that won the day as he died?
In reading Rick Joyner’s The Final Battle last Wednesday evening at Prayer Lab I was struck by a new thought. We are given such different illustrations of judgment for many reasons, I think because we need them all to understand God’s complex approach to this puzzle, but also for something else. There are two judgments. One member of our group members pointed that out, though I don’t think of this as two judges and two thrones. There is only one God and there is only one me. But there are two dynamics going on here. Let’s not get them confused. Fuzzy thinking isn’t as useful in the kingdom as it is in politics.
There is one great judgment that separates the future citizens of heaven from the souls that perish in the second death. That death goes on forever. I don’t think theories of being burned up and ceasing to exist hold water, for their worm dieth not and their flame never goeth out. A lake of fire, like the center of an active volcano, describes what we blithely call hell, or eternal damnation. Fire and brimstone, or sulphur that stinks as it burns. You don’t want that place. What gets you safe from that? Don’t ask ‘what’ but ‘Who.’ Jesus described Himself as “The way, the truth and the life,” and also as “the resurrection and the life” so that whoever believes in Him shall never die. I think that’s a sufficient answer for us. Know Who He is, and trust Him. You can take that through the gates of heaven and be safe in Him.
But then there seems to be another judgment. For there seem to be varied levels of reward in heaven. Christ advises us to set our treasures in heaven while we’re here on earth. Good works, in other words, are rewarded eternally. The closer we walk with Jesus in this life, the closer shall our place in Him be when we arrive inside the pearly gates. That’s the second judgment: He has the right to assign to each of us a place closer or not so close to Him, with varying amounts of glory. John saw 24 elders seated in fantastic thrones about the Throne of God the Father, casting their crowns before Him and themselves upon their faces on the crystal floor in worship. That’s very close to Him. Others array themselves also in glory. No one is without that glory, but each in his or her own order. Each star varies in brightness, St. Paul says, in the resurrection.
Now, is it wrong to seek a higher seat in heaven than that of others? I suppose that the real saints who are destined for that reserved section never ask the question, for they aren’t concerned with future reward. They are only seeking to please the Master. They can’t imagine doing anything but what blesses His heart. They find value in complete surrender, a living sacrifice in each moment, giving all that they are to Him and always choosing Him above any earthly pleasure. I imagine so, for I can’t claim so lofty a life myself in each breath, every heartbeat.
It’s not wrong to seek a better place in heaven if that means, in translation, that we want to be pleasing to our Lord. We live in a time when the simple question of getting into heaven vs. being cast into hell is the only one asked. Protestants have their entire theology based in the single Reformation question of “How do I get myself saved?” Meaning, of course, how do I escape the judgment of hell? The other question gets confused with the suppositions of the Roman Church around how a fallen person gets cleaned up enough for a perfect world, elaborately creating Purgatory to deal with the person’s latent sinfulness. It’s an upside-down answer to how a saved person addresses his or her life on earth by making it all about punishment, centuries of hard labor, tortured by angels until the last vestige of sin is scourged out of you.
But even Purgatory has a lesson for us. I rather think that the righteous, or saved, or believing soul will stand for a judgment just the same, a judgment that judges the saints. Our lives will be examined. We are told that every idle word will have its moment before Christ and His angels. Our lives will be shown to us, and we will mourn our every failure.
I have imagined a video of my life being shown to me there, not of my sins, but of what it might have been, had I taken every better turn and done the things I instead choose wrongly, seeking my own pleasure or avoidance of pain. There would I see how many people might have been blessed, or served, or saved, had I only been a better man. That movie would turn me inside out with sorrow, I know. And still I would know that these were the sins of omission that my Lord has forgiven me at great cost to Himself. I would only wish that I had lived a more holy life on earth. And such thoughts encourage me to live them now that I think on it.
It’s the common error I see in the church of our land that just getting into heaven is enough. What’s the least I need to do in order to qualify for the joys of heaven? Jesus did all the heavy lifting, His sacrifice is sufficient, so what kind of pride do I have that adding works can make any difference? I will be so relieved to know I have just made it in the door!
The judgment is something Christians hate to hear about. It’s harsh. It’s final. It’s cruel and we need theories that let everyone at last come into heaven and escape the fate of devils. But that isn’t true. C.S. Lewis sets wisdom in the mouth of George MacDonald in his Great Divorce as he says, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it” Chap. 9, par. 41 “A damned soul is nearly nothing. It is shrunk, shut up in itself.” He says it is not mercy to insist that the damned come to heaven, only in order that they turn it into hell so they will accept it for themselves. We have to let those escape from mercy who will not receive mercy.
For those of us who will receive it, then, we should make the most of it. And while it may serve our purposes to describe the bounties of heaven and the higher seats of glory for us to aspire to, I think rather we ought to turn our minds to blessing our Lord’s heart in what we do for Him, how we may do unto the least of His brethren, how to keep our lights burning, how one word at need may change someone’s life for the better, how we might rescue one precious soul from that first judgment and second death. How, indeed, we might live out one scene from that ideal movie and in fact redeem one important moment for His kingdom’s highest purpose.
Fire and brimstone await only those who reject the king, those pirates sailing ghost ships toward the falls and eternal flame. We should fear and loath that fate, but more profitably seek the face of God and do His bidding while we have the time on earth to fulfill His purposes.