Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31-40
Our passage today is one of much theological debate – especially within most Protestant traditions. Three of the five major theological tenants developed from the Protestant Reformation are sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), and sola scriptura (by scripture alone). This is where we get the basic Protestant Christian theological idea that only by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in scripture, does one attain eternal salvation. And different denominations developed diverse demonstrations of how one is saved by “faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone” and therefore identify as “Christian”. Whether it’s baptism, praying the “sinner’s prayer,” talking in tongues, taking confirmation, or personal revelation – there are numerous ways in which Protestant traditions argue that one is assured of their salvation by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in scripture.
Each of these expressions of faith emphasize the action of God within the individual resulting in one professing that they “believe” or “have faith” in Jesus, establishing their religious identity as “Christian” and assuring them of their salvation.
Yet there is another expression of faith that is rapidly growing, especially among younger Christians. It’s an expression of faith that has always been a part of the historical church’s mission and ministry, but in the Protestant tradition has been hotly debated as to whether or not this expression of faith is a sign of one’s salvation – a sign that one actually believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In some Protestant circles and even in the culture at large, this expression of faith is seen as “anti-gospel” and even “political.” It’s not always seen as an expression of Christian faith because “anyone could do it” and in fact, it’s more often done by those who are NOT Christian than those who ARE.
This expression of faith is known as Christian social justice, where one sees that things within our world are not the way God intended. Therefore, the individual or church – out of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and assurance of their salvation – perform the acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility just as Christ did and commands in the parable: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, offering hospitality to strangers, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. However, this idea that one can “earn” their salvation through such good works runs against the solas of the Reformation. Meaning that if we can earn our salvation through our good works, then we are NOT saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit in scripture. We are simply saving ourselves. And yet you look at a text like today’s and you start to wonder: “Then why is Jesus teaching this parable? And how does this work within our theological tradition?”
Jesus says that all the “goats” – those who ignore the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner – will “go away into eternal punishment.” Jesus is saying that if you do NOT do these things, you will “burn in Hell.” And that’s true if you read this passage from a perspective of fear. Of trying to frighten people into being good. But then again, if people are doing these good works only to avoid “eternal punishment” then they are not doing them with the right intentions anyways. They are doing them for selfish reasons, out of an expectation of a reward – NOT out of genuine generosity or for the sake of justice for others.
Meanwhile the “sheep” – those who DO these acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility – they do them without knowing there will be any reward. Their actions come from a place of authentic compassion for others – of wanting for others what they already have. And we know this because even the “sheep” ask Jesus – “When was it that we saw you hungry…or thirsty…a stranger…or naked…sick or in prison?” The sheep have no idea that Jesus is present in these places. Therefore, they do not do these actions to win Jesus’s favor. They do not do these actions out of fear of “eternal punishment.” They do these actions because they are truly righteous. They do these actions because those who authentically identify as “Christian” instinctively perform acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility. As a Christian, you do these actions because when you know you have freely received the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit in Scripture – the only appropriate response is to live by doing justice, loving mercy, giving generously, and walking humbly with God. Faith in Jesus knows that everything you have is not yours to keep but is a gift from God to be stewarded for the good of all people.
That’s the good news in this passage. It’s not that you should do these things out of fear, otherwise you are not authentically Christian. It’s that you are blessed with the opportunity to do these acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility because you are Christian. The truly righteous will do these acts without fear of change, without fear of condemnation, and without fear of one’s own abilities.
Fear can paralyze us. Stop us from moving forward. But faith in Jesus Christ is not about staying in place, but about moving forward from the current reality of this world into a new reality called the Kin-dom of God – which we help God to build in the here and now.
Fear can be used to by people to dominate the world – just like the Roman’s used fear to create the Pax Romana where if you don’t obey the rules, you’re simply slaughtered. But faith in God moves us away from the rules and punishment of the Empire – which only lead to condemnation – to the freedom and grace of the Kin-dom of God – which leads us to our salvation.
Fear can fixate us on what we can NOT do, on what we have NOT done, or how we are NOT successful. But the faith in the Holy Spirit moves us into personal reflection where we realize that the work the Spirit is calling us to is not complicated. Is not difficult. Is not easily measurable. It’s just different. And the faithful trusts the Spirit to equip us with the skills to perform these good works. We just need to be willing to take a risk and do them.
As one commentator put it: “Food, water, clothing, hospitality, companionship: these are not only the most necessary elements for communal life; they are the most readily available to give.” And there are moments when we – as a church – fail at accomplishing these simple tasks, and there are moments as a church where we greatly succeed at these tasks. There are moments where we behave like goats and moments where we behave like sheep. Moments where we are representatives of this world and moments where we are Christ’s representatives.
Recently we, as a church, have behaved as both goats and sheep. On this past Ash Wednesday, a student from my World Religions class attended our pancake supper and service. This student, who is highly active in her own church, wrote the following in her reflection:
“…the congregation’s welcoming was not the best. I showed up for the pancakes and sausage supper but did not eat anything because I did not know what I supposed to do. I was not originally welcomed when I first walked into the church. I sat in the corner of the dining room for 10 minutes by myself, there were people who kept glancing at me, but no one came up to talk to me or greet me. After feeling like loner, I found my way into the chapel where I still sat by myself until the sermon started. When I was sitting alone in the chapel there were ladies that walked past me but did not talk to me. I was spoken to by 5 people in total, however only two of the people who talked to me made me feel welcomed, they were Pastor Noah and Jamie. The other three people said hello to me, but I think it was only because I kept getting in their way when I tried to find my way to the Chapel. I felt unwelcomed and ignored, kind of like I was unwanted and did not belong in the church… I thought the sermon was a great experience and if I had to judge, I would attend the church again based on the sermon alone… However, I also must factor in how I felt like an outcast when I stepped inside the church… If I was looking for a home church for me to attend, I would not pick your church because I did not feel like I was welcomed."
So here we had an opportunity to provide food, water, hospitality, and companionship – 4 out of the 5 things that Jesus mentions in this parable – to a young person, and we failed to do that. We acted like goats. We were representatives of the selfishness and fear of this world. Simply avoiding being mean is NOT Christian hospitality. Christian hospitality means treating every person who enters our doors like Jesus himself just walked into the church because – as this parable clearly teaches – that’s exactly what is happening. When you deny food, water, hospitality, and companionship to these people – whether it’s directly or, in this case, indirectly – you deny it to Jesus himself. It is not their responsibility to know what to do. It is the responsibility of us in the church to graciously welcome them into our life as a community as if they’re a dear friend you haven’t seen in a long time. And the only reason why you would not be able to do that, is if you truly do NOT trust in your own salvation.
On the other hand, just this past week, this same church was successful at a simple task. At behaving like sheep. At being Christ’s representatives in this community. This past Tuesday we began our new program called The Welcome Table. Initiated by our new members Suzanne & Diane DeWitt Hall, unanimously approved by Session, and supported by 12 volunteers from the community – The Welcome Table served a meal of hot soup, bread, fruit, and deserts to 44 people last Tuesday night – only 6 of which were members of our congregation. Two of the people in attendance were literally homeless. The energy in the room was wonderful. Total strangers sat together, got to know each other, and left as friends. Last Tuesday night, this church provided 4 out of 5 of these simple elements of food, water, hospitality, and companionship to every person who arrived. No one cared about comfort zones, or backgrounds, or church attendance. We just cared for others like Jesus did. Like Jesus commanded us to do. (Love your neighbor as yourself?) And the only reason why we can do this mission is because the people involved trust in their own salvation. Because when you truly believe that – justice, mercy, humility, and generosity such as this is simply a part of your everyday existence.
Now I don’t know about you, but The Welcome Table is the church that I dream of. That I pray for every day. I dream of a church where “success” is measured in hunger fed, thirst quenched, nakedness covered, strangers welcomed, and people visited the other 167 hours of the week instead of butts in seats for one hour on a Sunday. I dream of a church of self-sacrificial sheep instead of a church of selfish scape goats. I dream of a church where the members are not representatives of the world but are Christ’s representatives to the world. I dream of a church that becomes what the Church was always supposed to be – a community of love, grace, and generosity – until our culture made it all about self-righteous rules, damnable doctrines, earned rewards, and self-satisfaction. Because it’s our culture that has change our view of God so dramatically, that we now believe we have to earn God’s love.
One commentator stated: How we think about God is inextricably related to how we live our lives and interact with the world around us.” In other words, if you think that God is all about rules, judgement, earned rewards, and self-satisfaction – then you will treat others the same way. But if you believe that God is about communities of unconditional love, undeserved grace, and abundant generosity – then you will offer the same to others. And those who know your salvation will find this easier than those who don’t. Because those of you who struggle to know your salvation in Christ will always feel “less suitable for the work of the church, less likely to engage in it, and thereby less likely to have the very experiences that will inspire the faith [you] feel [you] lack.” In other words, you’re not going to get the “self-satisfaction” from church you desire unless you engage in the actual work of the church outside of worship. Because while your initial profession of faith in Jesus Christ – your justification – while it may come through an act of baptism, praying the sinner’s prayer, talking in tongues, confirmation, or even personal revelation; maturity in faith – your discipleship – comes only by serving the presence of Jesus in every person you encounter – and that takes acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility. Being a Disciple of Christ means providing the simple elements of food, water, clothing, hospitality, and companionship to everyone you encounter – whether you think they deserve it or not – because Christ gave those things to you even when you know you do NOT deserve it. To do anything less is to be ungrateful to God.
So while good works do not earn your salvation – especially if it’s not for the right reasons – it is a good indicator of what you truly believe about your own salvation. And therefore, as a church, we can no longer measure the church’s success only by attendance on Sunday morning. We must also measure the numbers of lives changing outside of worship the other 167 hours of the week. If someone doesn’t attend worship on Sunday mornings but serves in our ministries on other days of the week, do we consider them to have less faith than the person who shows up every Sunday but never darkens the door of the church all the other days of the year? If someone doesn’t quite have their beliefs figured out but tries to live out their faith through their good works, are they less faithful than the person who knows all the “right answers” but fails to ever put that faith in action? If someone can’t attend on Sundays, but attends bible studies and prays with others outside the church, are they any less faithful than those who only recite the prayers and listen to the sermon on Sunday morning? Any church that dreams to still be in existence in the next decade better address these questions. Because ultimately, the answers to these questions will reveal what it is we truly believe about our own salvation, and whether or not we, as a Church, are truly Christ’s representatives.
Whether or not we truly see Christ in others.
Turn to someone near you, and say to them,
“I see Christ in you.”