30 April OS 2021 – Thursday of Thomas Week; St. James the Son of Zebedee, Apostle; St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov), Bishop
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Christ is Risen!
Today’s Gospel reading, John 5:24-30, is the passage we read at the funeral service:
The Lord said to the Jews which came to Him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.
St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on the Lord’s words, elucidates the nature of the Dread Judgment:
“And they shall come forth: they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29).” This is how everything ends! As each river flows into its own sea, so the flow of each of our lives comes, at last, to a place in accordance with its nature. Those who will be resurrected unto life will also be at the Judgment; but the Judgment will only seal their justification and the fact that they are appointed to life, while the others will be resurrected only to hear their condemnation to eternal death. Their life and death are characterized even now – because some perform living works, while others perform dead and deadening works. Living works are those which are done according to the commandments, with joy of spirit, unto the glory of God. Dead works are those which are done in opposition to the commandments, with forgetfulness of God, to please oneself and one’s passions. Dead works are all those which, although, in form they may not oppose the commandments, are done without any thought about God and eternal salvation, according to some aspect of self-love. God is life; only what contains part of Him is alive. And so whoever has only dead and deadening works is bound directly for death, and on the last day will come out into the condemnation of death; but whoever has all living works is bound for eternal life, and on the last day will come and receive it. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 91-92
God does not need our works. He gave labor to our first father Adam for Adam’s sake, as a penance for sin. God designed good works, so that, used properly, they will cleanse the heart of sin and bring us into union with Him. Ultimately God wants not our works but our hearts.
The foundation of our salvation is Faith in the Son of God, from which flow living and life-giving works, characterized by forgetfulness of self, complete dependence on God’s grace, and the determination to do His holy will. Apart from the true Faith in the Son of God, there is no salvation. A man who spends his life building a thousand hospitals for the poor and gives everything he has to help others, but who does it not in obedience to God’s Word and without Faith in the Son of God, but based on a false religion or a humanistic code of ethics, has only dead works, and on the Last Day he will go where dead works lead. Sadly, every good deed he does is another nail in his coffin, because it increases his pride. By contrast, a man who has led a selfish life but awakens to his spiritual peril, has a profound conversion to the Orthodox Faith, and manages to do a little something for others, in the name of Jesus and for His glory alone, all the while thinking himself utterly unworthy and unable to do anything worthwhile…this man has a firm hope of salvation.
If you are ever tempted to believe that you have “made it,” and that your works make you pleasing to God, pick up St. Matthew, chapters five through seven, and read the Sermon on the Mount. Based on the measuring stick described there – love of enemies, absolute absence of impure thoughts, absolute absence of anger, complete non-possessiveness, absolute forgiveness of those who have wronged you, complete love of neighbor and forgetfulness of self – ask yourself, Do you live up to the Lord’s command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? No? Well, join the club: St. Ignaty Brianchaninov, whom we commemorate today, writes in The Arena that even the greatest saints are imperfect in regards to the commands of the Gospel. In the same work, however, he also reminds us that Orthodox Christians will be judged by Christ at the Dread Judgment based on these very same commands of the Gospel. Where does that leave us? It leaves us utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God, which we receive by the Faith of the Son of God, Who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Now juxtapose this with the Lord’s description of His Second Coming at the Dread Judgment in St. Matthew, chapter 25. The blessed are oblivious to having done any good; the damned are oblivious to their failure. As it turns out, the blessed have accomplished a great deal, but they do not notice. They do not think that they were doing anything special. They have acquired humility.
Let us this day, this hour, this minute, resolve to love God above all, and to do His holy will. It is impossible to overestimate the power we acquire when we are determined to do God’s will. With this determination comes that forgetfulness of self, that humility, which characterizes all works that are truly pleasing to God. With it comes the power of the infinite divine grace which alone can save us.