Address by The Most Revd Alan Harper OBE
Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

But about the day or the hour no one knows

The apocalypse will come upon us unannounced. Paul thought it would be in his day. He got it completely wrong! The instructions he issued in 1 Corinthians 7 on the assumption that

The appointed time has grown short; from now on let even those who have wives be as they who have none, and those who mourn be as those who were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of the world is passing away.
[1 Cor. 7.29-31]

Those instructions exceeded his authority, for 'about the day or the hour no one knows'.

The reality is that the present form of the world has not passed away, and we must somehow grapple with and make sense of that fact. Whether the cosmic event which scripture attests and which Christ anticipated occurs in the next ten minutes or is delayed for centuries or millennia, what response is required of those, like us, who take seriously the 'end time'? The Gospel of last Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King points to an answer.
Matthew describes the Last Judgment:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left...

In that definitive judgement day, Matthew, quoting the words of Jesus, is very clear: every nation under the sun will be evaluated. No one is left out on the basis of nationality, race, language, creed or colour. The Son of Man is an equal opportunity judge.

The criteria for judgement are also clear. It is not right belief that the judge will examine, he will not ask us to recite the creed, it is gracious and compassionate conduct, concern and lifestyle that counts. The judge himself, the Son of Man, is completely identified with the victims of society, even those who have been properly sentenced as criminals:

I was hungry... I was thirsty... I was a stranger... I was naked... I was sick... I was in prison... and you ministered to me, you had compassion on me.

The principal criterion for the Last Judgement is compassion.
The implications of this for Christian men and women are clear. These disclosures from the record of the writings sacred to Christians, applicable though they are across the earth to every nation and society, have been given to us to act upon and also to share. They do not give us either the right or the responsibility to judge other people. They do lay upon us the priorities for the ordering of our lives. They particularly require us to seek a world in which fairness and compassion are established as the framework for all citizens and the problems created by inequality are seriously addressed.

You might think that those in business who take home in remuneration each month 1000 times more than the median income of their employees might be slightly uneasy about it. Not at all. Lord Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs and former adviser to Baroness Thatcher defended higher inequality as, 'the way to achieve greater prosperity for all'.

Yet, while the income gulf has soared and continues to soar, the promised pay off in economic progress has eluded us. More, not fewer, people are unemployed. More, not fewer people are seeking the protection of bankruptcy. More, not fewer people are turning to organisations like St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, agencies that help the aged, and parishes and congregations that try to assist those in trouble. More, not fewer people are turning to the Simon Community and other charities that address homelessness.

As a result, we do not have a society at ease with itself, we have a society destabilised by inequality and demotivated by hopelessness. As a headline in The Tablet put it, 'The rich get rich and the poor get laid off.'

I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was homeless, I was sick, I was old, I was lonely and isolated, I was a stranger in a strange land, I had to choose between heating and eating, and you said, 'It will be OK because some day, when I am richer than ever, life may get better for you!'

Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander's shocking hymn sums it all up:

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly,
and ordered their estate...
All things bright and beautiful...

Just for a moment, let's accept her premise that God indeed 'made them high or lowly', that he did indeed 'order their estate...' it is clear that he did so to give the rich greater and greater opportunities to change for the better the lives of those who are the casualties of society.

The Advent theme is the anticipation of the Apocalypse. It is our annual reminder that an apocalyptic, cosmic judgement is coming and that we must prepare for it no matter how distant the final event may be. In other words, unlike the expectation of St Paul, we cannot rely upon the end-time beginning soon, no one knows the time or the hour. Therefore a ministry of compassion and a striving for fairness and kindness is a daily and sustained requirement of all of us.

The cautionary tale that reinforces this understanding – the tale of the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate – is the gospel tale of Dives and Lazarus.

Both men died, the rich man, Dives, and the poor man, Lazarus.

By way of digression, let me remark that it is at least interesting that Jesus should have named the poor man in his parable after one of his closest friends, at whose grave he wept and whom he raised from the dead.

But back to the parable: both men died. Lazarus found his experiences in life transformed in death. He took his place with the ancestors and patriarchs, in Abraham's bosom. Dives had the opposite experience. He found that life beyond life was to be for him a time of perpetual torment and perpetual separation and isolation – an unbridgeable gulf was established between him and all that made existence sweet and rewarding. Even when he faced up to his fate, he still found it impossible to rid himself of the sense of his own superiority, demanding that Lazarus give him water and become a messenger to his brothers – the master servant mentality was still so strong.

But a divide that existed in life could not now be crossed in death. The pattern was established. It was now too late to alter the consequences of a lifetime lived in utter disregard of the poor man at his gate.

I wonder how often, as he passed Lazarus, lying at his gate covered in sores, Dives comforted himself with the thought that his own increasing wealth would be good for Lazarus in the long run. The reality was that both died before ever finding out.

The Advent proclamation needs to be heard even more in Canary Wharf than it does in next door Tower Hamlets: no one knows the time or the hour but judgement awaits, and the criterion for judgement, whether now or in the indefinite future will be, 'For as much as you did it, or did it not, for the least of these my brethren, you did it – or did it not – for me.'

Throughout the gospels, the apocalyptic message is clear and inescapable. Mark's description is typical:

In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then you will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heaven.

If we are to survive this 'great and terrible day of the Lord'; If we retain the slightest hope of being adjudged to be among the sheep rather than the goats; then we are required to work ceaselessly for a society wherein the marginalised are cherished, the weak, sick, isolated, lonely and alienated are cared for and included; and the rich use their wealth, specifically and determinedly to enhance the lives of the millions upon millions of Lazaruses of this world.

This is the message and this is the mission of the Christian Church: that by faith we believe in an ultimate judgement, proclaimed by and in Jesus Christ, and that a favourable judgement will be delivered only towards those whose lives have been rich in compassion.

For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes. And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.