As Protestants we believe that we are saved by faith alone. That is that there is nothing we can do to merit God’s grace, that it is given to us unconditionally and without price. God’s grace is freely poured out for us. As United Methodists we also believe that we can either choose to accept or to reject this grace, and all that goes with it, but it is still God’s grace that saves us. But then we have this passage which on its face may be seen as saying something else entirely. While I don’t know why someone asked me to preach on this particular passage, I suspect that it might be because of the message the story seems to imply that by doing good works we can earn bonus points, as it were, that will reap us eternal rewards. This is known as works righteousness, that we are made righteous through what we do, and this struggle between works and grace has been a major sticking point between Protestants and Roman Catholics since the time of the Protestant Reformation.
There are five sections of dialogue in Matthew which are interspersed between narrative sections, so that it goes narrative, discourse, narrative, discourse, narrative, etc. The last discourse discusses judgment and right living. It begins with a diatribe of woes against the Pharisees and scribes, in which we are told that we should basically do as they say not as they do. This series of woes sort of bookends the discourses, because the first discourse is the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the blessings, but we end with these woes. Then the last thing that Jesus teaches the disciples, and thus us, in the Gospel of Matthew is the passage we just heard, as immediately after this Jesus and the disciples begin their last journey to Jerusalem.
“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.” The sheep will be put at his right hand and the goats on his left, and the sheep will be welcomed into the kingdom and the goats will be scattered into the eternal flames. Surprisingly, especially considering how much the idea is emphasized by some within the church, this is the only detailed description we find in the New Testament of what might be called the final judgment. Notice that Jesus does not say “did you believe the right things, did you decry the right sins, did you dislike the right people, did you support the correct doctrines and dogma, did you attend the right church, and did you not cross your fingers when saying the Nicene or Apostles creed?” Good then come into the kingdom. Instead he says “when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink; when I was a stranger you welcomed me; when I was naked you gave me clothing; when I was sick you took care of me; and when I was in prison you visited me,” and then concludes by saying that whatever you did for one of the least so you did, or did not do, to me.
I think one of the things we often get confused about is that we think that we get to choose how we will be judged, and often it appear that we think we will actually get to do the judging. Clearly we are good and everyone, including God, is going to agree with that aren’t they? We are quite willing to name ourselves as righteous, but as we will return to in a few weeks, righteousness is an attribute that gets applied to people, we don’t get to say it of ourselves, nor do we get to say whether we are good or not and where we might be separated. What strikes me every time I read this passage is that both sides are surprised by what happens. Neither group expects the decision to happen the way it does, and so if someone asks you, “do you know where you would go if you died tonight,” you should say “No, and neither do you.” Because what we read in scripture is that we are to approach our salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12) It is Christ who will judge, and the criteria Jesus uses, and how he judges and why he judges as he does are not up for our input. We don’t get to decide; Christ does. We are not the judges either of ourselves, nor are we judges of others. Both sides are surprised by the decision that is made, and both sides need Jesus to explain his decision, and I think one group, the ones not chosen, thought themselves righteous, and the other group, the one chosen, probably had been told by others how unworthy they were.
A number of years ago the WWJD bracelets and things were all the rage. WWJD meant What Would Jesus Do, although it quickly gave rise to other interpretations, like what would Jesus Drive, who would Jesus date, who would Jesus Deport, or one of my favorites who wants jelly donuts. The idea wasn’t a new one, because it actually came about at the end of the 19th century. Charles Sheldon, was a congregational minister in and a believer in Christian socialism. One year he preached a series of sermons in which he expounded on what he believed it meant to proclaim yourself as a Christian. He then took this series, and created a novel entitled In His Shoes, which was published in 1896. In the novel, one of the characters, the “Rev. Henry Maxwell encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man has difficulty understanding why, in his view, so many Christians ignore the poor: "I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night,” the homeless man says
'All for Jesus, all for Jesus,
All my being's ransomed powers,
All my thoughts, and all my doings,
All my days, and all my hours.'
"and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside,” he says “just what they meant by it. It seems to me there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn't exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don't understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches have good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin." This leads the novel’s characters when confronted by serious decisions in their lives to begin asking themselves the question, “What would Jesus do?”
Really the question we should ask ourselves is not what Jesus would do, but instead what are we going to do? It’s really impossible for us to know exactly what Jesus would do because we are not Jesus, and nowhere in scripture does Jesus say become me, instead he says “pick up your cross and follow me.” We are seeking to become more Christ like in our behavior, to pick up our cross daily and to follow, and thus today’s passage is not about works righteousness but instead it is about our willingness to pick up our cross. We don’t do good works because they get us eternal rewards, instead we do good works because that is what Jesus tells us to do. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that the only appropriate response to accepting God’s saving actions in the world was to act on that in the world, to help those in need. With theological affirmation comes ethical action. With belief comes deed. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said there is no cheap grace, grace comes with a cost, and that cost means that we have to be working in the here and now. Jesus actually didn’t really talk all that much about what is to come, he talked much more about how we were to live our lives in the present. If we want to participate in the kingdom to come, Jesus is saying, then we must participate in God’s kingdom now. Accepting Jesus is not the end of our journey, instead it is merely the first step. We do these acts of mercy and charity because we are commanded to by Christ.
When we read in the James that faith without works is dead, he is not advocating works righteousness, he is saying that if you proclaim Christ, but then don’t do anything about it, you are not really following Christ. It’s like accepting a job, but then never doing any work. That’s a job which you are going to get fired from. Or an even better analogy is that it’s like getting married, entering into a covenantal relationship with another person, but then never interacting with your spouse, never doing when they ask of you, but of course expecting them to everything we ask of them, which of course is what many people expect of God. In the fall I quoted from the Rev. Dr. Zan Holmes who said that churches are often guilty of the son of low expectations. I don’t think that is something of which God is guilty. God has expectations for us, and sometimes we are guilty of saying, “Oh, you were serious about that?”
Jesus tells a story, which is part of this same section of discourse, in which a father asks his two sons to do something. One son says that he will, but then doesn’t, and the other son say that he won’t do it, but then he does. “Which does the will of the father,” Jesus asks? The one who simply mouthed the words his father wanted to hear, but then didn’t do what was actually asked, or the one who actually did the work. Saying that Jesus is your Lord is not enough, because that’s simply mouthing the words, and that’s only the beginning. The truly hard work begins in becoming a disciple of Christ and doing the things that Christ tells us to do. Or as Jesus says earlier in Matthew, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (7:22)
What does the Lord require of you, is the question that the prophet Micah asks, and the answer? To do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. We often hear this passage incorrectly, or at least I always have, because what we like to do is to love justice and to do mercy, but that’s not what it says. Instead we are to love mercy and to do justice. And that’s a much higher and harder standard to live into. We forget sometimes that there is a judgment element to the gospel message. There is no question that we are saved by grace, but we also see and hear that once we accept that grace that God holds us up to a higher standard. That when we accept Christ and accept God’s grace, when we accept the call to pick up our cross and to follow, that we also accept Christ’s commands to help those in need, for as we do to the least of these, so we do to Christ himself. And notice that Jesus does not make any judgments, nor does he allow us to make any judgments about those who are in need. He doesn’t say, you fed those who were hungry, except those who are too lazy to go out and get a job in order to be able to feed themselves, and how dare they try and buy crab legs when they are on food stamps, they should subsist on peanut butter and jelly and be grateful for receiving it, and as for those in prison they did the crime they deserve to do the time, and who exactly walks around naked?” I’m sure the goats probably said, “If we knew it was you Jesus, we would have helped you, but we didn’t know, it was just one of those people we can’t stand, you can’t hold that against us.” Matthew 25 should make us uncomfortable, and I think it’s designed and told to make us uncomfortable.
Since today we are celebrating our graduates, and maybe they haven’t gotten enough life’s advice yet, but Mother Theresa once said, “At the end of our lives we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.’” Someday we will all meet out maker and we are told that we will be judged. What is it that we imagine Christ saying to us at that moment? The picture on the cover of the bulletin this morning actually comes from the parable that is told just before today’s passage, in which the good steward is told “well done my good and faithful servant.” That is certainly what I hope to hear Jesus say to me, and I imagine that’s true for you as well.
We don’t do good works to help those in need in order to gain eternal life, as those who were called righteous were surprised they were even chosen. We don’t do it because it can gain us anything, we do it because it is the right thing to do, because it is what we are called to do. We are called to help those who are the least of these, to have compassion, which means literally to suffer with them. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and so are we, we are called to be Christ to the world, and to see Christ in everyone. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed with the problem and say that we can’t do anything to solve world hunger, or war or poverty, but Jesus does not say when all my children were hungry, he says when I was hungry. He is dealing individual to individual. Dealing with the immediate need before us, that doesn’t mean we ignore those we don’t have in front of us, because we know about them, but we also deal with the immediate. We are saved by grace, that is the good news, and we are called to serve. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.