Jesus said to the disciples: “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 the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:31-46
My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 26, 2023) on Matthew 25:31-46.
So about a month ago, a new fuzzball joined my family. She’s about 8 months old, weighs approximately 40 lbs, and barks whenever someone knocks on the door. We named her Pepper and our two cats are finally willing to sit in the same room as her. I haven’t lived with a dog for awhile so I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect when Pepper showed up. But I was honestly amazed by all the things she chose not to do. She wasn’t really interested in toys; she didn’t chase the cats; and when I accidentally left her alone at home for an entire day, nothing was chewed up. Pepper also surprised me because whenever I accidentally dropped food onto the floor, she simply ignored it. I initially hoped I would never need to sweep under my dining room table again now that Pepper was a part of my home. But in this joint process of integrating one another into our lives, I saw how embracing who she was rather than who I expected her to be, would make our relationship thrive. Working through our expectations into something new is, I think, one of the most faithful things we can do. And as we heard today in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus knows just how hard that work will be.
Now this reading is, if we’re honest, a bit difficult to integrate into who we imagine Jesus is. Outside these church walls, many of us are already gearing up for the story of a little baby born in Bethlehem. We’ve already decorated our homes with twinkling lights and we’re watching every Hallmark holiday movie we can find. We’re ready for a wholesome holiday full of eggnog, gifts, and a Jesus that warms us up like a cozy electric blanket. However the Jesus we just listened to is a bit terrifying. He talked about the Son of Man returning to Earth with every one of God’s angels. This Son was decked out in all his glory and when the entire world was brought before him, he immediately separated everyone into two groups. On his right hand he placed those who he’ll bless by fully welcoming them into the kingdom of God. But those he placed on his left will be sent somewhere else. This is the kind of Jesus we’re fine with as long as he’s focused on someone else. But when this Jesus turns his eyes towards us, a lump grows in our throat. We often use an unbiblical theological shorthand to describe who our experience of Jesus is. We pretend that the God we meet in the first half of our Bible is one who is full of judgment and wrath while the God we discover in Jesus is like a puppy dog wagging their tails. Jesus, though, chose his last sermon to his friends before his arrest, trial, and death, to end with a very complete and fiery judgment. And our struggle to integrate this Jesus with the one we expect even appears within the translation itself. We often choose to lessen Jesus’ impact by picking words that don’t impact us very much. For example, the word for “stranger” in our text is not really about the neighbor down the street who we often wave to but haven’t actually met. This stranger is the foreigner, the migrant, or the immigrant who finds themselves to be a stranger in a strange land – which was an experience Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, and Jesus knew very well. In that same vein, the word for “welcome” is all about integrating people into a new kind of community where everyone is changed. And even the word we translate as “care” really means “to serve” which is something we don’t want to do when we feel like those around us deserve the state they’re in. The Jesus we can’t wait to meet on Christmas isn’t like the Jesus we meet today. And trying to integrate those two Jesuses together is a faithful task everyone of us needs to endure.
So maybe instead of ignoring that task or choosing one Jesus at the expense of the other, I wonder if there’s a more authentic way to integrate Jesus’ words into our own. We can trust that Jesus really means what he says but we can also pay attention to what Jesus chose to talk about the most. The actual separation of people into two groups happened before Jesus explained any of his actions. He didn’t send people into a kind of courtroom where everyone saw what they had done or left undone before he shared his judgment on them. Instead, Jesus only used a handful of words to describe that judgment while putting most of his emphasis on the life that people actually lived. Both the sheep and the goats were surprised to learn that this wasn’t the first time they had experienced Jesus. They had already met him through the ones Jesus chose to be with. He was with the foreigner who lived among them and alongside those who were hungry, thirsty, sick, and in prison. Jesus was always there, right out in the open, with the people we often choose to ignore. And while we personally might be a bit nervous imagining Jesus to be a kind of judge, he knows we have no problem being the judge ourselves deciding who is worthy of our welcome, love, and service.
So, in one sense, the judgment Jesus embodies is a reflection of the judgment we’ve already given. And while I personally lean towards the Jesus who chose to grow up and experience the kind of love we are called to bring into the world, I’m also grateful that he won’t let us be the final word on what love will do. Jesus came to integrate us into a holy way of life that breaks through every one of our expectations. That work, though, isn’t always easy since it’s a work we never really stop doing. And it’s often when we’re in a rhythm that feels holy and true when everything changes. That change might be small like discovering after your Thanksgiving dinner that the dog you thought wasn’t food motivated had licked clean every single dessert bowl and plate on the dining room table. But this work can also upend our entire lives when the life we’ve built with other people comes completely undone. Yet through it all we have a Jesus who, no matter what, chooses to be with us. And during those moments when love is hard, trust that you are God’s beloved and Jesus will never let you go. The life of faith is a life that is always trying to integrate Jesus’ love into our own. And while we don’t always know what that looks like, it does, I think, resemble to a small degree what happened when the last runner of the most recent NYC Marathon crossed the finish line. When we wait for each other, support one another, cheer for each other, and include those we don’t even know, we are using all we have been given to serve our God. And while that isn’t an easy thing to do, it is something we can do because the Jesus who has claimed us as his own will be alongside us – forever.