Written Sermon

Proper 29A: Christ the King Sunday; Damned if You Don’t

Leonard Vander Zee

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When a teacher announces that the material for the day will appear on a test, there is usually a rustle of paper, a snap of pens, and some special attention given to the lesson for that day. The same thing is true of life. If life is merely a languid succession of days and years, a weary ticking of the clock until death arrives, then it doesn’t require much attention.

But what if life is a prelude to judgment? What if there is to be a cosmic reckoning? What if every word we utter, every thought that flits through our brain, every action we have taken, or not taken, every attitude we struck is to be examined and judged? What if we face a judgment day? Life acquires an instant significance. We might pay attention.

Our passage today (the lectionary reading for Christ the King Sunday) is familiar to many of you. It’s the capstone of Jesus’ teaching just before he enters the night of his passion. Though often called the parable of the last judgment, it’s not really a parable in the usual sense. Unlike the others, it’s not a homespun story emerging from the ordinary activities of life. It’s a stylized description of a cosmic event at the climax of history.

It’s an awesome vision. Jesus says, “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 (here’s the only metaphorical or parabolic element) a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Wow! All the angels–all the nations. This is quite a gathering.

Take note: the world will be judged. That’s where history is headed, that’s where you and I are headed. Life is a serious business, my friends. Our choices, our actions, big and little, have an eternal weight. Our everyday life is packed with ultimate responsibility. It is a prelude to eternity.

As I looked at this passage once more, and I must have studied it dozens of times, I was struck by the person of the judge. It’s Jesus, now called first the Son of Man, and then the King. Somehow I thought that God, the Father, was the final judge. But the Bible is quite explicit about this. Just one example of many: Jesus says of himself in John, “[the Father] has given [the Son] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” (John 5:22) We affirm it in the church’s most essential creed– I believe he (Jesus Christ) shall come again to judge the living and the dead.

I noticed something else. This is a judgment scene, not a courtroom scene. There is no testimony given, no witnesses, no questions– did you do this, or that? All is known. All is already decided. Here the sentence is meted out and a great separation takes place.

But why are these people on the right invited to come to the Kingdom party? How did they get tickets? The answer is disarmingly simple and profoundly disturbing at the same time. “You see, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to eat, I was a stranger and you showed me hospitality, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

There’s an apparent problem here for those of us schooled in that great theme of the reformation—sola fide, faith alone. On this great judgment day that Jesus pictures it’s all about works. It’s action, not words. There are no catechism questions. No one is asked if they invited Jesus into their heart or had been born again, or even baptized. It’s what you did, not what you believed, how you acted, not what confessed.

This isn’t as surprising as it seems. Every single time judgment day is mentioned in the Bible, works are the ultimate criteria. Earlier in this gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but whoever does the will of my Father in heaven.” Paul says, “All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done…. (II Cor. 5:10)

Here is the Bible truth, we are saved by grace through faith, but judged by works. If God’s grace, God’s mercy does not so penetrate our hearts so that it results in gracious and merciful behavior, it will, in the end, only condemns us. Grace that does not flow into loving action putrefies; it stinks to high heaven. In that bedrock text from Paul it says, “for by grace you have been saved, through faith…. But then he immediately goes on, “…created in Jesus Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

My friends, when the books are opened, the issue will not be what you believed, but how that faith transformed your life, your behavior, how it inspired your love. As James put it, “Faith without works is dead.” What counts in the end is a grace that works its way into loving action.

They’re surprised! I mean all those on the right, destined for the Kingdom, are surprised. In fact, as Jesus pictures it, the whole judgment day is a big surprise. “When did we see you thirsty or naked or hungry or in prison or sick?” Well isn’t it obvious, when you did to the least of these, you did it to me. Mother Theresa used to say that in the poor we meet Jesus in his distressing disguise.

(Now I have to take a little aside here. Our translation has it “the least of these my brothers and sisters you did to me.” Some have said that it’s only fellow Christians, even Christian missionaries Jesus has in view here. It’s certainly plausible, and no less than John Calvin agrees. But, with most commentators on the text, I can’t imagine Jesus identifying with and calling us to love and care only for those who are certified Christians. Do we ask for their baptismal certificate, hear their testimony, make sure they’re saved? As Paul says, mercy begins in the household of faith, but it doesn’t end there.

Now, back to the dramatic judgment scene. Isn’t it astounding that the things for which Jesus commends the blessed are so basic, so simple? Little ministries, not big miracles. It’s not healing the sick, but caring for them. It’s not liberating the prisoners, but visiting them.

No social structures are changed; no injustices are reformed. Of course we should work on those things too. But Jesus never lets us take our eyes off the individual– that needy, maybe irritating, possibly “undeserving” person right in front of us, because in that one single person, we, in fact, meet him. And, having had a rough time of it himself, he’s very particular about how he’s treated.

Foster parents, jail visitors, and soup kitchen volunteers. People who stick up for the defenseless, the unborn, the disabled. Who listen to women who’ve had abortions, accompany people with addictions. Who bring tuna casseroles to a grieving family, visit the institutionalized schizophrenic, befriend their gay or lesbian neighbor, or serve as a hospice care-giver. These are the things that count when the Kingdom books are opened. In these little ministries the big mystery of eternal salvation by God’s grace is revealed. I’m always amazed to discover how this stuff happens, unheralded, all over this congregation.

It’s not easy. I love the old story about a Monk awakened late at night by a monk at the door. The monastic rule was that you always have to welcome the stranger. So he trudged to the entrance, peeked through the hole, and said, under his breath, “Christ, is it you again? “

That’s a simple, but by no means easy rule by which to live. What if with every person you meet, especially the ones who you tend to regard as the least important, the most irritating, the least deserving: you say, “Jesus Christ, it’s you again.” Then what? We all have direct access to Jesus through someone in need.

Biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter pointed out another surprising feature of this judgment scene. There’s no mention of sin, at least in the way we would expect. This is the judgment we’re mostly afraid of isn’t it? Jesus will drag out all our sins, all those things for which we are so ashamed, and want to hide. But he doesn’t. All he talks about is how the blessed served him through simple acts of love and kindness to the least. Why is that?

Well, Prof. Schlatter says, sin is not an issue at the judgment because sin has been forgiven. The whole sin problem was taken care of at the cross. All debts were cancelled. The basis of this final judgment is that sin is already forgiven. What matters is what you and I do now that we’ve been set free from all our sins by the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who will one day be our judge.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a certain kind of sin that shows up at the last judgment. You can see what I mean by looking at those who stand at the left of the judge, those who are thrown into the outer darkness. Why are they condemned? There’s no mention of some great sin–murder, stealing, lying, adultery, even gossip. Amazingly, they’re not condemned for what they did but for what they didn’t do.

Many of us have learned there are two kinds of sin, sins of commission and sins of omission. (As the old Prayer Book confession puts it, “forgive us for what we have done and for what we have left undone.”) Well, it seems that at the last judgment, the sins of commission are pretty much forgotten, or shall we say, forgiven. What counts in the end is not so much the wrong we do but the right we fail to do.

To me that’s a stunning thought. I don’t know about you, but I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid sins of commission, so to speak. It’s not that they don’t matter. They matter immensely, because Christ has liberated me from their power and they can ruin my life and the lives of others around me. The biggest reason to avoid sin, it seems to me, is because it’s offensive to God, stupid, self-destructive, and causes untold pain all around. I don’t run away from sin because it’s unforgivable, but because it’s destructive.

The most unnoticed and therefore problematic sin in our lives is not what we do, but what we fail to do. We guard our self-centered existence; protect our time and our stuff so well that we fail to see Jesus in his disguise. We fail to see Jesus when we are careless of the basic needs of people around us. We fail to see Jesus in the stranger on the street, the grumpy old man next door, the refugee family in our town.

One more thing. Everyone’s surprised, the blessed and the condemned. What does that mean? It means that people who live out the gospel in love don’t do it to get brownie points with God. As Jesus so colorfully put it, “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.” We don’t need brownie points with God because we’re already accepted, already forgiven. Whatever we do in response is free, not calculated.

If you’ve ever met self-conscious sanctimonious do-gooders you would soon understand why most needy people would rather go hungry than take a piece of their obligatory bread. This is not the land of law; it’s the land of gospel. And because it’s the land of gospel, people act self-forgetfully out of love.

I suppose the others, the ones on the left, are surprised because they thought they were in. They did their religious duties, went to church and Sunday school, tithed, and were seen at the community prayer breakfast, maybe even preached. Their lives never had even a sniff of scandal, and no one would dream of calling them sinners. “When did we see you? If we knew it was you, why, we would have helped, of course.”

Surprising as this all seems, there’s really nothing new here folks. Nothing is changed. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Now we know what believing really means. It doesn’t just mean that we accept a set of doctrines, or that we go through a set of religious rituals, or even that we “make a decision for Christ.” It means, as Jesus often said, that we follow him. And following him means we will meet him in the least of these, his brothers and sisters. Following him means that we live a life of self-giving love, as he did. There is nothing new here. It’s the same old gospel: faith working itself out in love.

– preached on November 16, 2014 at Neland Ave. CRC, Grand Rapids, MI

©Leonard J. Vander Zee


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