Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 24, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
Sermon: "When did we minister to you, Lord?"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus said, "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."
When did we minister to you, Lord?
Last Sunday after Pentecost - November 24, 2002
The man standing at the microphone was the mullah, the priest in our vernacular, of the Muslim group in the prison. He had just attended a three day Christian weekend in the institution. He was invited to attend by the prison chaplain. He is a big African-American man with a sharp intellectual mind. He also has gifts of leadership. During the past year the tension between the Christians and Muslims in the prison was growing. The chaplain invited the mullah to the event to help create some common ground. Now, at the end of the three day program where a group of fifty men and a support team of another forty men and women from outside the prison were involved, this man goes to the microphone to speak. He grabs the podium in his large hands. He leans toward the microphone. He begins his story: "I was raised in Chicago near the Italian side of town. My first experience of the Christian church was the mafia. They were involved in the drug and racketeering business. They did all kinds of things on Friday and Saturday nights. Then they went to church on Sunday, received absolution, and then went back on the streets to do the same bad things all over again. To escape this life my family moved. I spent my teenage and early adult years in Alabama. Here I got introduced to the KKK, another organization professing Christian ties. They beat and killed people over the color of their skin. With these two examples I thought if this is the Christian Church I don't want any part of it. So, I became a Muslim. I have studied and I lead the prayer services here in the prison.
I just want you to know. If I had experienced Christianity in my earlier years the way I have experienced it over the last three days, my life may have been different. I may not even be here speaking to you right now. This weekend has been a credit to the Christian beliefs and principles.
This story is directly related to today's lesson from Matthew. Jesus is talking to the disciples about the final judgment. All of the people will be gathered before Christ. As the people come before Christ they are separated. They are separated into two groups. One group is told that they have cared for Christ. They cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, lonely, and naked. They have taken care of Christ when He was sick and when He was in prison. By contrast, the other group has not done any of these things for Christ. They did not give Him even a morsel of food to eat.
Amazingly neither group can identify when they responded to or refused Christ. Neither group understands when they had the opportunity to be with Christ. Both groups are puzzled. Jesus sees their puzzled expressions and hears the confusion in their voices. Jesus tells them they either responded to Christ or refused Christ when they had opportunities to help other human beings. According to their response they are divided into the two groups of sheep and goats. I believe Jesus' words here teach us two very important points.
The first point is that all people will come before Jesus, the Son of Man. This includes Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and even atheists. Everyone will come before the throne. No one in the world will be left out of this judgment. In other words just because we claim to be Christians does not mean we have first bidding. Jesus does not say, "Christians over here and everybody else over there. Then we'll sort the people over there. Christians just take a seat and wait while I take care of unfinished business. You are already in." Everyone will come before Christ on their own. Everyone will be sorted according to their response to Christ through compassion to others.
This response to Christ leads us to the second point. Responding to Christ by actions of feeding the hungry, and giving water to the thirsty seems to sound like works righteousness. If we do good works then we are in. If we do good works then we are one of the sheep. All we have to do is good works and we are assured a seat in heaven. If we believe that statement then we are wrong and we will find ourselves with the goats.
Responding to Jesus is not like a job. Responding to people in this world is not like a job. We all have jobs and many people are not happy in their jobs. I once heard a youth minister say, "I hate junior high kids." He was hired by the church to work with youth from 6th to 12th grades. All he wanted to do was work with senior high. He could have cared less about the real needs of the junior high kids. As a result his heart was not in it and he went through the motions. He planned the programs. He played the songs. He was not serving Christ in those youth. He was only doing his duty as far as those younger kids were involved. He did not love the junior highs the same way he loved the senior highs.
The point is we respond to the needs of those in the world out of true love. True love is centered in Christ. True love is exemplified in the love between God the Father and God the Son. True love is the love that Jesus showed as he died for us on the cross. True love says I give you love the same way God has given me love, freely and unconditionally. To love someone else, to have compassion, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison is the result of acknowledging that Jesus is present in all people. We may not like them. We may not like what they do, but we love them as Christ loves us.
The most important aspect of true love is that it is given without a thought of receiving a reward, even a heavenly reward. We give to others the love of Christ because we have so freely received His love. The mullah, the prisoner, turned to the group of Christians gathered. If I had experienced Christ in the way I have experienced him this weekend my life may have been different. Who knows what would have happened for him if he had experienced the true love of God from the Christian community? We do not know what will happen when we give love to someone else. All we do is give the love freely. All we do is reach out to everyone we meet. All we do is share the true love of God in the little ways we can, not to receive a reward, but to hope. We hope that love shared will always make a difference. And the people responded, “When did we minister to you, Lord?” Jesus said, “When you fed the hungry, when you gave water to the thirsty, when you clothed the naked, when you visited in prison, you ministered to me.” When we share true love with others, we exhibit our love for God and God's love for us.