What is life eternal?

A sermon of His Grace, Bishop Parthenius of Antania, Abbot of the Holy Bigorski Monastery, delivered on Meatfare Sunday during the Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Great Martyr George the Victory-Bearer on the 7th of March 2021

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… the righteous go into life eternal.

(Matthew 25:34-46)
My dear faithful from Struga, first let me thank you for inviting me, the smallest and least worthy among the Bishops, to celebrate today the Eucharistic Mystery in this wonderful church, built by our God-loving and noble ancestors. Also I’m very grateful to the main priest of this church, protoereus Vasko Golabovski, my faithful spiritual child, who works diligently on the field of God and indulged the wish of the faithful who wanted me to be with you here today.  But above all, I would like to convey my special gratitude to our most respected Metropolitan of Debar and Kichevo, His Eminence Mr. Timothy, who gave his blessing for this Holy Eucharistic gathering.
Today through the Evangelical text we have just heard, the Church reminds us about the Day of the Last Judgment. We have heard the meek words of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, who tells his humble and beloved children: Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… (Matthew 25:34) Actually this Evangelical story reveals two great realities before us: one is the eternal life which is the Kingdom of God and constant delight from seeing the face of our wonderful Lord Christ, and the other – the eternal torment and hell.  In order for someone to inherit the Kingdom of God, he should, first and above all, believe and love God. We could say that man has two instigators, two motives which make him direct his eyes towards God. The first motive is the fear from eternal pain, the eternal punishment i.e. hell, as described in the Gospel, and the second motive is love, the yearning, the desire to see the face of God, to perceive His inexplicable beauty and kindness. The main motive for our inclination towards God should be the second one, i.e. – love. Of course, fear also contributes a great deal for people to stay closer to God, but the main factor of our communion with Him should be love, because He is love. Today, however, we see that people no longer fear God; they have lost the fear of what they should really be afraid of – sin, addiction to passions, harmful behaviour towards others, evil acts. I believe that even you have come to the conclusion that this normal reasonable fear is gone. On the other hand, today we have many unnatural, unreal fears. One cannot even begin to tell just how many different phobias are there among the people of these modern times! Inexplicable fears, panic attacks, anxieties, fears of magic spells and superstitions… Today the psychiatrists are flooded with such cases. People have abandoned their fear from God, but therefore, as the Psalmist King David has said: There were they in great fear, where no fear was (Psalm 53:5). Still, my dear ones, as we have said, our fear from hell should not be the main reason for us to approach Christ, but rather our love for Him. St. John Chrysostom explains it in this way: “Our suffering should not be from the eternal fire, but rather from the fear that we might be deprived of seeing  that most wonderful sweet face of Jesus Christ.” You have probably felt in your lives how much inspiring is just to look at the person you love. The parents, for instance, would endure anything, would overcome any difficulty or temptation only to see their child healthy and happy. Therefore, love and the presence of the most sweet face of our Lord should be our imperative too, if we want to be with Him in all eternity. That’s because the Kingdom of God and the eternal life begins here and now, in this life. In the Church we are given opportunity to live the Heavenly Kingdom even now, while on Earth. Our Lord Jesus Christ was incarnated once and then became poor in order to make us rich. We can see His image on the holy icons. He became a Man, visible to us, so that by seeing Him and uniting with Him, we could become citizens of Heaven even in this life. The attaining of this citizenship for eternal life happens here in the divine temple, where through the holy mysteries of the Church, we have the opportunity to unite with the eternal Christ.

But, my dear ones, it is of great importance to know that in order to be close to Him we should recognize his image in the souls of our neighbors. In fact we should be especially careful regarding His two greatest Commands: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength… Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself! (Mark 12:30-31) It’s not possible for us to be close to our Saviour if we cannot attain true loving relations with all the people around us in this world. He is the real Spring of love from Whom we should drink and then convey this love to our neighbors. In today’s Gospel He clearly says to those on His right side: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. (Matthew 25:35-36) Take notice the way He, the Merciful One, is present in every human being, is identified with the smallest, the most insignificant; He stretches His hand before us as a beggar, so that He could give us the eternal life. He presents Himself to us as a beggar, prisoner or ill person. That’s right, He came to save every man and despises no one in this world. Therefore if we want to be true Christians, to be truly Christ’s disciples, it’s essential that we have good relations with all His children. We too are His children, but so are the others around us. That’s why we should never measure the love we give the others. We should give it abundantly, without expecting anything in return. Then we could truly be called disciples of Christ and inherit the Heavenly Kingdom. 

Since we are a week away from the Great Lent, the Church invites us today to look carefully into ourselves and see which path we have taken, what kind of Christians we are. Are we like the ones our Lord blessed today in the Gospel, saying: Come, ye blessed of my Father… He delights with them because they were merciful, virtuous, filled with love. God forbid if we should come to be like the others! Although they constantly went to Church and read the Holy Gospel, knew about God, which is evident from the story, they had no deeds of mercy. Remember also the parable with the ten virgins of which five were wise and five unreasonable. The unreasonable ones did not bring oil for their lamps at the reception of the Bridegroom. The oil represents the good deeds and they weren’t able to welcome their Bridegroom Christ. All the girls were virgins, probably prayed a lot, fulfilled the rules, but five of them forgot the most important thing: they were not merciful, did not have enough love for their neighbors. That’s why the gates of Heaven were closed for them.
We have seen, my dear ones, that the Evangelical reading reminds us of the two realities: the eternal life and the eternal torment. But what is actually life eternal, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? Can it be expressed with human words or compared to anything of this world? Certainly not. Then what should we say about life eternal? Let us repeat the words of St. Apostle Paul who says: But as it is written, eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9) Our mind can not imagine that because if we are to desire for a certain object, we need to see that object first. So what can we say about this concept which is above any notions of this world? Of course, we cannot define what it is. We can only say what it is not. Thus, life eternal is not anything from this world. In that life, it says that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain (Revelation 21:4) So there will be no pain, no sadness, no cry, no sigh. There will be no death. Through the word of God we learn that Christ Himself is life eternal. He says, I am the life. The immense joy and delight which come from the gazing of the wonderful face of God – that’s life eternal.  The final door at the entrance to life eternal is death. All of us, although we know and speak about life eternal, and read about it in the Holy Bible, just by thinking about this final door are overcome by fear. And that is completely natural. Remember the way, our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ expressed fear when he was supposed to go to voluntary suffering. The human nature in Him got frightened and he started to pray in the garden of Gethsemane with these words: O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me (Matthew 26:39). Which cup? The cup of death, martyrdom and crucifixion! Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matthew 26:39). We see that faced with this ordeal the man trembles, but in the end he  overcomes it. Just like our Lord Jesus Christ shed tears when He stood before the tomb of His friend Lazarus, who lay dead in his grave for four days. Why? Because death is not something natural for man. In the book called Wisdom of Solomon it says that God didn’t create death. Consequently, since God didn’t create death, it is one of the things which don’t exist essentially. It is an intruder. Death entered the life of man because he voluntarily committed sin and opened the door to it. Therefore it is quite natural for him to feel repelled by it. But the faithful, like his Saviour, have overcome death. 
Let’s wake up, my dear ones. We have the Great Lent before us, the Forty-days long Spring, which we have to go through, before reaching our biggest holiday. A good fasting feat can do a lot. None of us should despair and say to ourselves, “What can I do? Even if I struggle, pray and fast? Can I change anything? ”Of course you can. First you will attain salvation, and in this regard, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the great Russian saint, said: “Save yourself and thousands more will be saved around you”. Let us, therefore, encounter with joy and a positive disposition that blessed feat of restraint, accompanied, certainly by our acts of mercy, good deeds, by the love for all people. Some might  say: “Well, I can not help the poor, or heal the sick.” Yes, but we can give them a word of consolation, offer them some of our time, our attention; we can pray for them – we can help in any way we can. The lonely and the sick, above all, need comfort and encouragement. It is the most beautiful medicine for them. We have seen, my dear ones, that the Last and great Day of our Lord will be very simple. God will not ask us how many prayers we have said, how many prostrations we have made, how many times we have been to church, but rather how merciful we have been, how much love we have had. The main criterion, therefore, during the Last Judgment will be love. For he who has love for his neighbor fulfills all the Commandments of the Lord. In this context St. Apostle Paul says that against such virtuous man there is no law because he fulfills the entire Law of God. 

And one more thing. Christ’s return to Earth is a joy for the true believer, because he longs for His most beloved face every day. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh (Luke 21,28). Hence, those intimidations about Dooms Day  which are popular today, unfortunately, even within the Orthodox Church, are completely wrong. Coming here, a spiritual child sent me a message: “Dear Bishop, do not take the corona vaccine at all, because the Antichrist wants to kill us all! If we are to die, at least let us die for the sake of Christ.” Of course, this long-time believer wrote the message to me out of love, because she respects me, but look how much that false apocalyptic propaganda has penetrated the Church and fed the souls of the faithful with harmful food, with something foreign to Orthodox theology and tradition. This is what Christ meant when he spoke of the ending times: Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For false Christs and false prophets shall appear, and shall shew great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive even the elect (Matthew 23,24). And you should know, this goes not only for the infidel and heretics, but also for the Orthodox clergy and believers, all-knowing, who understand everything, know what vaccines contain (and do not listen to the medical experts and science given by God who have the responsibility to say whether the thing is harmful or not). They even announce the Coming of the Lord. And they insist on imposing all this on others, spreading fear and creating doubts in their souls. Do you understand how wrong those unhealthy insinuations are regarding the End, the Last Judgment and the Second Coming of Christ? Yes, we believe and know that the linear course of history will come to an end, that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, but we, as believers, should rejoice in His coming. And we will rejoice if we are with Him in this life. I have to wait for Him and long for Him every night; I should rejoice in the face of our Lord every day; should seek Him, long for Him every day. Magnificent is the dialogue found in the last chapter of the Revelation of St. John the Theologian: “Lord, when will you come? Come, Lord Jesus, hasten! ”Yes, I am coming soon! Both the Spirit and the Bride say: Amen! Let it come! Lord Jesus! Who is the Spirit? He is the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church. And the Bride? The Bride is the Church. So, the real faithful, my beloved ones, the one who really knows Christ, he longs for Christ and says to Him: “Come, Lord Jesus!” That is a true Christian. He awaits Christ as a Redeemer; a Redeemer from sin, from suffering, from death. And the exact time of the End and of the Last Judgment is not ours to know. Christ Himself speaks plainly about this: But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only (Matthew 24,36). He wants to tell us that we should not deal with it, but rather strive to be with Him every day. You know, even in the first century Christians thought that Christ would come and the world would end. If you read, for example, the Epistle of Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, you will notice his paternal reproach to them regarding this: “How many times have I told you of the Second Coming of Christ! “Until the antichrist appears, Christ will not come.” The Apostle scolded them because some of them, as soon as they heard that the Lord was coming soon, left their jobs, closed their shops, and began to walk from door to door, idling  and judging. We should strive and work as if we were going to live long, and prepare for the final encounter with Christ as if today were our last day. For we are much more likely to stand before  our personal Judgment, than to witness the Second Coming. How should I know that tonight My Lord would not take my soul? If we think like this, we will be righteous Christians.  My dear ones, let us pray that God gives us the most important thing – love. Seek it constantly, love one another, and be of one mind; then the Lord will multiply you and give you eternal life. If we love one another and are like the Christians whom the Lord set at His right side in today’s Gospel, I assure you, this temple would be too small, we would need more churches, more people would be saved and enter the Kingdom prepared by the Father since the creation of the world. I wish you to be true Christians, who will only fear what they should – sin and not some unreasonable projections of their mind. But above all, I want you to be  Christians who will love devotionally and long for the beautiful and most beloved face of Christ, our source of joy and love. Because He Himself is the Kingdom of Heaven, the eternal life, as St. John the Theologian, says: And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (John 17,3) May you all be blessed and I wish you a God-pleasing Lent!