Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Christ Service to All

Here's another recent writing. I'm not sure if you want to call it a sermon, homily, challenge, or whatever (though please keep in mind that I did write it with intentions of an oral delivery). The biblical text is the popular Matthew 25:31-46. Again, a similar disclaimer to ones in the past: If this is being read by someone other than the original writer, it is important to note that the way in which something is said is almost as crucial as the words themselves, sometimes even more so. This is one of those cases, particularly towards the end. Take careful note how the words are read.

Read text.

I’m not going to speak today about the future. I’m not going to directly speak about the future eschatology of Heaven and Hell. Nor will I talk about the separation of the saved and the damned. This passage is often preached from to admonish us about our future, and rightly so for it has much to say about the future. But today, I want us to look more closely at what Jesus says here about his followers, what they look like, and what they inherently do as a result of his love within them.

Jesus has much to say about his family in the book of Matthew. The theme of “family” is an important one to him, and therefore, to God. Keep in mind that the Godly family is different than the family most Americans would describe today. Jesus told us back in chapter 12, verse 50 that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my [family].” What we just read is not only the last teaching on family in the book of Matthew, but it is the last major teaching about anything that Jesus gives before he is crucified. We need to take note at the importance of what Jesus is saying in this lengthy passage.

He might seem somewhat redundant. This description or story or parable he tells us of the separation of the “sheep and the goats” could be a lot shorter without the repetition of what the sheep do and what the goats don’t do. But perhaps the intent is blatant. Perhaps it is repeated several times to emphasize to the listener or reader the importance of what Jesus is saying.

Jesus is telling those listening that his love and compassion should not be reserved for a special group – even just believers. But rather, love and compassion should be inherently demonstrated to everyone and anyone. It is easy to read this passage and come to the conclusion that “we must do these things” or “we should do these things” as followers of Christ. These conclusions are true, but miss the point. The point of the whole passage is that we should love and serve everyone around us as if Jesus himself were in front of us. He has the very same love for them that he does for us and therefore, our love should also be the same for them. In fact, if we truly love Jesus, we will truly love the disenfranchised and all others around us.

When we say, as a church, that we will uphold and support one another, it should go beyond the simple statement, “We will.” Have you ever noticed how often we do this to support people? We make corporate statements of “We will” during baptism services, membership Sundays, wedding ceremonies, and so on. Our “we will” needs to go beyond the moment of utterance.

When someone is in trouble, our efforts need to be more than adding a name to the Prayer Chain. When someone comes down with a sickness, perhaps the flu, or a broken leg, or worse yet, AIDS or cancer, our efforts to help should go beyond praying through a prayer list, visiting in the hospital, or even bringing over a casserole dish. When we tell someone that we love them, it should go beyond words to sincere actions. Our hearts dictate our actions.

I read a story online about a prominent member in a church who was leading in prayer using one of the same old phrases which was, “Oh, Lord, touch the needy with Thy Finger.” All of a sudden as he was praying, he stopped. The silence caused people to rush over and ask if he were ill. “No,” he said, “but something seemed to say to me, “Thou art the finger.”

For those of you who are parents, what did you do when your first baby came down with a sickness? You tried to give him a bottle, you rubbed her back, you paced back and forth with him in your arms until he went to sleep, and you rocked her in the rocking chair for hours on end. You read baby books to find out what might be going on. Some of you younger parents went to webmd.com to look up symptoms. Many of you called the doctor, even in the wee hours of the night, to see what you should do. You prayed to God for healing, comfort, maybe even a little patience. You did everything in your control to make your child better because you so loved that child that you would do anything to help.

It is notable that Jesus does not separate those whom we should help from those whom we should not help. This is because there is no one we should not help. Our own methods of separation are interesting today. It is easy to walk by a street peddler and not offer him or her help, using the justification of, “Well, I’m not sure what they’ll do with the money.” Or how about this one, “We only help people who are active attendees of our church.” We’d never say or think, “She got pregnant as a teenager. Her situation is her own fault. I didn’t cause her to have so many kids.” But our actions often say it.

This notion of not distinguishing between whom we help becomes quite evident when he notes that the sheep visited those in prison. He gives no distinguishing between those who are in prison by accident or the innocent who are in prison. So when we visit people who are imprisoned, we are visiting those who are there for even the most hideous of crimes. He is not speaking of just the jailed-by-accident or the falsely imprisoned like the persecuted church. He is speaking of all the imprisoned.

Or when we feed the hungry, we don’t distinguish between those who are hungry by their own doing – such as the drug addict or the alcoholic. As followers of Christ, we don’t ask them how they got where they are. Our priority is not figuring out if we should help them, but how we should help them.

You know, God has a lot more to say to us about the disenfranchised throughout scripture than I think we Americans like to admit or perhaps even notice. With the emergence of American Society out of the American Revolution and other revolutions – political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. – comes a tendency to care for the individual of the self. We are an individualistic society, built on the self-made man (or woman) and individualism. We are taught to look out for ourselves and that to climb the ladder of success, sometimes we have to push others down as we go up.

You have heard the saying, “To climb the ladder of success, sometimes we have to push others down as we go up,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the saying, “This is a dog-eat-dog world and to survive, do in Rome as the Romans do,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the saying, “The last one standing wins,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the teaching, “Go on the offensive, throw the first punch, come in first place, be the first in all that you do for the good of yourself,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the teaching, “Look out for yourself first, and when you are able, help others,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”

Is this a biblical mandate that we should feed the hungry and quench the thirsty and welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned at least once a day, every day? No, of course it’s not. What Jesus is telling us is that to be a part of the kingdom of God, our hearts should be in a place that when an opportunity to do so arises, we should respond as if Jesus himself were standing in front of us. Better said, our hearts should be in a place that when an opportunity to do so arises, we would respond as if Jesus himself were standing in front of us.

You see, the sheep didn’t even know what they had done. They didn’t put “feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned” on a checklist every day to make sure it was done. Rather, they had simply lived a live out of which compassion flowed freely, without thought as to should or must, but with a heart that just always did. Our hearts dictate our actions.

The call to love and compassion really isn’t simply a call to do something. It is a call to be someone. Be one of love. Be one of compassion. Be one not simply to recognize the hurting, the lost, or the disenfranchised, but the one who doesn’t know any difference but to help the least of these. Our doing will come out of our being.

The Christian community – that is, the corporate body of people who follow Christ – that is, the Church – is one that looks out for the rest of the world as if Jesus were walking all over the place. No, this isn’t an accountability thing for us – we don’t do just to please Jesus, but we do what we do for someone else because our doing would please Jesus himself. Jesus is our model, not our accountability. Certainly we want what we do to demonstrate who we are. But first, we need to look at who we are in our very hearts. Our hearts dictate our actions.

Lastly, it might be goodly challenging for us to notice something about this passage. This is the only picture Matthew gives for any judgment. Again, I’m not talking about a future Final Judgment, though it is very likely that this is what the passage is describing. But rather, I’m talking about judgment, here and now. The passage has a lot to say about who is in the kingdom of God and who isn’t in the kingdom of God. Let’s look at the criteria he gives us for those who are in the kingdom of Heaven and those who are not. Better said, let’s take a look at the criterion (singular) for those who are in the kingdom of Heaven and those who are not. Is it justification? No. Is it salvation? No. Is it forgiveness for sins? No. Is it sanctification? No. Though it can be easily shown that each of these is important, Matthew takes no time to do so here. Jesus says that those who show the same love and compassion to fellow human as they would to he himself – the very God of the universe – are in the kingdom of Heaven.

I think the words of John Wesley will best challenge us today in response to this message,
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

1 comment:

  1. Can I respond to my own blog?

    I'd like to say that "Our doing will come out of our being" is a much better statement than "Our hearts dictate our actions."

    Again, I use Derek Webb to illustrate: "You'd be surprised what you can do with a hard heart."

    More illustratively, the Pharisees did a lot of good, but their heart was not in what they did.

    - J