Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gospel Non-Sense

Matthew 25:31-46
April 26, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Years ago, a friend gave me a refrigerator magnet with a picture of Jesus on it. On the magnet were the words: Jesus is coming. Look busy. My friend gave me this magnet as a kind of elbow-to-the-ribs joking reminder of our shared history in the world of dispensationalists.

If you are a lifelong Presbyterian, or if you were gone during our sermon series on Revelation, you may not have been exposed to this kind of thinking, but believe me, it is widespread. The short definition of dispensationalism is that it is a belief in “the rapture,” the second coming of Jesus that will take believing Christians away. This rapture will be followed by a time of terrible tribulation, war and pestilence for those who have been – are you ready? – LEFT BEHIND!

Jesus is coming back.
And he will sneak up on us like a thief, when we are busy doing something rotten, like sassing our teacher, or cheating on our income taxes, or drinking, smoking, dancing or watching a movie, and the trumpet will sound and we will be caught up into the air in the twinkling of an eye. If we aren’t left behind. To suffer. For years.

You know, I have five siblings – an our house was noisy. There was always someone practicing the cello or piano or trumpet, always someone arguing or reading out loud or shouting from upstairs, always someone looking for a lost shoe or yelling at some kid to get their coat on and get out the door, for Pete’s sake, we are late for your dentist appointment. If I came home to an empty, quiet house I thought it could only mean one thing: the rapture.
And I was left behind.

Either way, stay or go, the next big event will be the tribulation, followed by the great white throne judgment. We will all be gathered up to stand in front of this great big white throne, and I suppose the ones who got raptured will be there in special party outfits, while those of us who didn’t memorize our Bible verses like we were told will be in sackcloth pants and itchy hair shirts. And then, Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. If you are saved by grace through faith, born again, you will go to be with Jesus. In heaven. If you are not, you won’t. You will go to hell, directly to hell. End of story…

But there is a serious problem with this logic –and it comes from the Bible.
From this scripture - the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter, verses 31-46.
[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.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let’s face it, this story Jesus tells doesn’t square with our understanding of God’s grace.
It doesn’t square with our understanding that God is merciful, and that God’s steadfast love endures forever. Nor does it square with the rest of New Testament, especially Paul’s writings. It is right there in Ephesians 2: 8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Jesus pulls the rug out from under our theology in this text. It must have really troubled his disciples, too. They have come into Jerusalem with Jesus. It’s the last week of his life on earth. Jesus has been busy, busy telling apocalyptic parables – the fig tree, the talents, the bridesmaids, all of them aimed at letting us know that God’s reign is near at hand. The day of Christ’s coming is unknown – unpredictable – unmanageable. You won’t see it coming. But it is coming, and you had better be ready to give an accounting of yourself.
To Jesus.

And it is not going to be pretty. Because the people who thought they had it knocked, those of us who thought we were righteous, the ones who had already packed their carry-ons, gone through security and were waiting at the pearly gate? Unh-unh. 

They were surprised, in the scene Jesus imagined. Wait a minute, Jesus! Is this some kind of trick? We never saw you like that – we just don’t think of you that way. Sure, we saw the kid at the bus station, looking scared, asking for change. But he certainly didn’t look like you.

And we saw the people lined up at the food pantry, and that young woman who uses her Link card at the market. But we didn’t see you. Never heard about you being in the hospital, or in prison either. You should have called. Sure, we heard the cries for help, but we questioned their authenticity. We didn’t know it was you! If we had known, if we had recognized you….

But look here, Jesus – maybe we didn’t recognize you, but you know us!
We are nice people. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. We give to the United Way, and we buy Girl Scout cookies. We had our children baptized, and we brought them to church any Sunday that we weren’t too tired or they weren’t busy at a soccer tournament or SAT prep. Jesus, surely you recognize us? But Matthew’s Jesus has said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus doesn’t seem to recognize them, the ones whose faith is only in words.
They are not his sheep! They are the goats. He doesn’t even know them!
And the sheep? The people who were just living ethical lives, unaware that they were doing God’s will? The people just feeding the hungry and clothing the naked unaware that they were feeding and clothing Jesus himself? Jesus flings open the gates to paradise for them, rolls out the welcome mat, and they are just as baffled as the goats. They didn’t even recognize him! “Wait a second, Jesus! We didn’t know it was you! We just fed hungry people.”

This is just non-sense.
This story will not fit our understanding of how God operates. It is a theological reversal, this story – an eschatological prophecy that is not even a parable, really – more like a simile. It is imaginative language, rather than descriptive. But while it is not meant to be taken literally, it certainly needs to be taken seriously. This story is a prophecy -- cosmological, political, and symbolic.

It is cosmological in that it will not submit itself to simplistic thinking. Because God’s salvation story is bigger than a mathematical equation – of grace plus repentance plus good works equals eternal life. Trying to reduce it to that is like claiming that knowledge of all the building blocks of life makes us able to create that life. We can map the human genome, but we don’t know what makes the wood frog, frozen solid, come back to life and mate in the spring. Every spring.[1]

This story is political, as well.
It is political in the way that many otherwise kindhearted Christian people do not like. There is no means testing, in this story. There are merely people: hungry, thirsty, strangers – naked, sick, and in prison. There is simply the preferential option for the poor, without regard to whether or not they are deserving. We don’t even know whether those people said thank you after they ate, whether they straightened up when they were paroled, or whether they went and found work when they got well.

When I hear this story, I’m reminded of my dad, who grew up poor, one of nine children of an abusive alcoholic father. Dad and his brothers and sisters had nothing when they were children – they were always hungry, seldom warm, often frightened. During the Depression, they survived on food from “government relief.” If the kids earned a little money, they would give it to their mother before their father could take it and drink it up.

If their mother managed to get something nice, like, say, dishes, their father would break them in a drunken rage. They scrounged up the parts to put together a bicycle, and their father ran over it. When the little kids began to cry, he backed up and ran over it again. My dad was a sucker for kids who were disadvantaged. He’d take Christmas gifts to them, give their dads jobs, help them out with gym shoes and car repairs and school activity fees.

One time, my brothers, both attorneys like my dad, got worried about a young man dad was helping. They were afraid he’d go out to my parents’ secluded country place looking for a handout, and that he’d harm my mother or father. Dad scoffed at their concerns, so my brothers took a different tack. “Dad!” they said. “He is just going to take advantage of your generosity.”

Dad laughed and said, “Well of course he is!”
And that was the end of the conversation.

Because Dad saw this kind of caring as a requirement –not a charity, but an obligation. This care for the poor, whom Jesus loves, the least of his brothers and sisters, is a requirement of Christian life. I think it may be safe to say it is THE requirement of Christian life. Making sure that hungry people have food is justified by the fact that generosity and kindness are rewarding in and of themselves. We do it for Jesus.

Finally this story is symbolic, not in a one-to-one allegorical way, but in a larger and more existential sense. These sheep, deemed righteous by their kindness to Jesus, whom they did not recognize, were clearly not acting out of any explicit faith commitment. They did not hold a Thanksgiving dinner at the church in Jesus name. They just fed hungry people.

They demonstrated, by their actions, the Son of Man, the human one, could be found outside the walls of the church as well as inside. And just as Matthew warned that no one can know the hour or the time when Jesus will come again, none of us can schedule the moment when we will have the opportunity to meet Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

Here’s the thing: we may not be able to recognize Jesus – we may only see human beings, in need. They may not be people we know, or like, or want to hang around with. They may not meet any of our criteria of eligibility. But our care for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned is necessary, because Jesus said we should.

Our call to follow our Risen Lord is grounded in more than intellectual assent. We know that our good works are a product, not a cause, of God’s grace. We understand ourselves to be people who have responded to God’s grace by offering ourselves in ministry – ministry to the least of these. After the receiving and believing, we act. And maybe, just maybe, we act first, before we ever receive and belong and believe. Maybe one of the ways we reach out in faith to those outside our community is by inviting them to work alongside us, to belong before they ever believe or behave like Christians.

In fact, that scripture I quoted earlier, about being saved by grace, through faith – there’s more to it. Here’s Ephesians 2: 8-9 - For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. And here’s the next verse, verse ten: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Our way of life – feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting, caring. Because Jesus said we should. 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. 

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