And today’s Gospel reading ends, “. . . at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That is also good news, but not news we like to hear.
Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is gospel truth and we can trust it for our salvation. But our created human nature includes free will. The God who created humankind created us with the freedom to choose. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden teaches us that from the beginning we have freedom to choose to do or not to do God’s will. In The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis put it this way, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ 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. Those who seek, find. To those who knock it is opened.”
Today’s gospel teaches, “the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous.” We are all sinners; we are all sinners saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus teaches the standard of Christian life in St. Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as your self.” Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy “Love God” and Leviticus “Love your neighbor.” In our general confession later in this service we will remind the Lord and ourselves of our failure to live up to God’s expectations.
We know from I John (1:9) that if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and forgives our sins. God forgives the sins we remember, and in his love and mercy forgives what we don’t remember, or can’t recognize as sin. We are made righteous by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But what of those who do not confess, who do not claim righteousness only by Jesus’ death and resurrection? We have to leave them finally to God’s love and mercy. As we have opportunity we show them as best we can a life of righteousness and faith as sinners saved by grace. And we speak and act for truth and righteousness.
God will direct the angels in the last day how to separate the evil from the righteous. His judgment is perfect; our judgment in this life is partial and imperfect. We don’t get to make the final decisions. But we are called from time to time to exercise the good judgment God gives us by his spirit to recognize evil and to deal with it – in our own lives first and then in our families, our friends, and in the communities where we live.
Discernment is not easy. Our natural human tendency is to judge our own behavior by our intentions and others behavior by their actions as we experience them. We naturally tend to be easy on ourselves and hard on others. As forgiven sinners we benefit by looking to other peoples intentions as best we can understand them and then judging by good intentions. When I had done something really dumb my father used to ask, “Tom, what were you trying to accomplish?”
That said, we also have to recognize the reality of evil in the world. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. The 7 capital sins – Wrath, Avarice, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy, and Gluttony – are real. We all know the temptations and we have all fallen into sin. Yes, there may be mitigating circumstances, but when we are honest we can rely on God’s gift of conscience – that quiet voice that says, “Is that the truth?”
When we see evil in our lives and in the world around us we can rely on God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth to speak and do the truth, the Spirit of Power to speak and act, the Spirit of Love to guide and direct us in action. In God’s good time God’s perfect justice will be done. Thanks be to God
So both readings are good news: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And “. . . at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”