Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Sheep, the Goats, and the Lamb

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 23, 2014 (The Last Sunday in the Church Year)

What’s the difference?  How does one get to be on the side of the sheep rather than the goats?  That’s not an insignificant question.  The world is unstable due to the sin of its inhabitants, and headed for judgment.  We don’t know when that judgment will come, and so we are reminded that we are always to be ready.  But how?  What’s the difference between the sheep and the goats?  Our inborn sinful natures see this Gospel lesson and think of good works.  After all, Jesus praises the sheep for being charitable to those who needed help, while criticizing the goats for not doing the same things.  And so it is natural, especially for our self-centered sinful natures which always think of rewards for good works, to have the idea that the way to be with the sheep and not the goats is to go out and do all kinds of works of charity.

Unfortunately, this view of what Jesus is saying here is also completely and totally wrong.  Remember, the sheep were unaware that they had done these good things for Christ.  They saw themselves as poor, miserable sinners, not as great saints and great workers of charity.  They knew that they had not fulfilled God’s law, and so they’re surprised when Christ commends them for doing all of these great things for Himself.  And the goats thought that they had fulfilled God’s Law.  In fact, they protested Jesus’ criticism of them.  They thought that they were “good people”  who deserved to be allowed into eternal life.  The way you see yourself is just the opposite of the way God sees you.  If you think you’re a poor, miserable sinner, God sees you through the filter of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of your sins as a saint and a doer of great and wonderful good works for your neighbor.  If you think you’re a pretty good person, better than those “sinners” out there, then God sees you apart from Christ’s righteousness as a selfish, condemned sinner.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that those things cited by Jesus when He gives the reason for His verdict, are not those things that we normally think of when we hear the word, “sin.”  When we talk about “sinners,” we often to tend to think of murderers and adulterers and thieves and liars.  And of course, these sins are terrible distortions of how God intended us to live, and those who do such things are in need of repentance, and failing such repentance they too will be in danger of hell, because these sins are in fact expressions of selfishness and lack of love for our neighbors.  But that’s not what Jesus talks about in connection with the final judgment in this passage.  Instead He talks about more subtle sins.  He talks about sins of omission, things that are sinful when we don’t do them, rather than when we do.  He talks about feeding the hungry and thirsty, giving the stranger a place to stay, clothing the naked, and visiting shut-ins and those in hospitals and nursing homes and prisons.  He talks about love for the neighbor.  After all, what is the reason we keep the Ten Commandments?  Not simply because it was God who said, “Thou shalt not,” even though that is itself a good reason to keep them.  And definitely not because we are trying to earn heaven by what we do.  Instead, we keep the Ten Commandments because by doing so we show love for God and our neighbor.  But love doesn’t stop with what the Commandments say not to do; love goes beyond that to positive actions of caring and helping our neighbor.  We can see this in Luther’s explanations of the Commandments, which tell us positive actions that go along with the Commandment, such as “help and support [our neighbor] in every physical need,” “help him to improve and protect his possessions and income,” “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way,” and so on.

But more than that, the things Jesus says in this Gospel lesson talk about charity and love for the neighbor because of His own charity and love which He has shown us.  He visited us when we were sick and in the prison of this sinful world.  And not only did He visit us, becoming one of us and bearing all our sin and infirmity; but He healed the sickness of our sin, just as He healed those who were sick with frail and diseased bodies in His Ministry on earth.  He freed us from the prison of our sinfulness.  And just as He clothed Adam and Eve with skins after their Fall into sin, so He clothed our nakedness with the pure white garments of His perfect righteousness in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He feeds the hungry and gives drink to those who thirst with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper.

And so, the description of the sheep in today’s text is first and foremost a description of Christ Himself in the love and mercy He has shown us.  That is the only we can show love to our neighbors, because He has first loved us.  It is His love, His righteousness, His mercy which will be seen in us on that last day.  We cannot see it in ourselves; when we examine ourselves, all we see in our own hearts is nothing but sin and death, from which we cannot set ourselves free.  But by His love and mercy He has declared us to be righteous like He is, and even though we can’t see it He has, in fact, remade us in His image, so that we really are those who feed the hungry and thirsty, shelter the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and in prison.  The Judge will be speaking on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own, but He won’t be lying about us.  We really will be, and in fact we secretly already are, what He will attribute to us on that day.

But why does Christ say that He is present in, with, and under those we are helping through our charity?  From everything I’ve said so far, it sounds like He is the one working through us rather than the one receiving the fruits of our labor.  Well, He is on both sides of the equation.  The poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger are all pictures to us of what Christ became in our behalf.  Because it was on the Cross, in particular, that Jesus Himself was indeed hungry and thirsty; He had gone without food throughout the long night and day of His so–called “trial,” and remember His Words: “I thirst.”  It was on the Cross that He became a stranger, betrayed and deserted by His closest friends and forsaken by His own dear Father.  It was there on the Cross that He was naked before the entire world, while His clothes were divided among His enemies; there that He was “sick” to the point of death, and executed as a prisoner of His own people.

Christ has taken away sickness and hunger and pain and death from His people by taking it upon Himself.  This is why those who are sick and in prison and naked and hungry and thirsty and strangers are pictures of Him for us, because in saving us He was all those things, and if we refuse to help those who are afflicted in these various ways, we are denying that His sufferings for us have any meaning or value.  Christ is on both sides of the equation.  Through us He serves our neighbor, and through our neighbor He gives us the opportunity to show His love for us.  It is not by trying to do “good works” that we save ourselves, rather Christ has given us salvation as a free gift which shows itself in our lives, and will then, in turn show itself in the lives of those we help as well.  This is because Christian charity, unlike that of the government’s welfare programs, carries with it the message about the place where there is no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no poverty, no prisons, and no death.  Christian charity is a small picture for its recipients of the place we will inherit as Christ’s sheep.  There Christ will feed us for eternity with the feast of His victory which has no end.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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