By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 22, 2020
Matthew 25:31–46 (ESV)
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
For most of my life, I have lived within a church that has been focused on the end times. The left behind series was released when I was a teenager, and I read all of them. I believed all of them. I was looking for the signs and trying to figure out when these amazing things were going to happen. But even before those books were released there were other books like them. For the past century many in America have been counting the days down, so to speak, for the end. We have been trying to identify the antichrist and making attempts to explain how or where the mark of the beast will come from. We have been gorging our spiritual lives with the eschatology. I want to ask one simple question about this, what is it worth?
For my entire life churches have been making decisions, politicians have been using eschatological references to spur their bases into voting, and to garner support for foreign policy. It does not even matter what political party us support both sides have used the church to promote their policies, both have twisted the words of scripture to shame and promote their policies. Both sides try to put a divide within our ranks, if you do not follow us you are not a true believer.
The truth of the matter is that we have been living in the biblical end times since the first days of the church. For the past two thousand years the apocalyptic words of scripture have been playing out before our very eyes. We have experienced the end of the age and have been experiencing the end for generations. The first Christians, the followers of Christ believed that the end was upon them, those that lived at the turning of the first millennia believed that the day of the Lord was upon them. Those of us that lived through the Y2K panic also believed that we were going to see that glorious day. But there is something common with all those events. They distracted us from the reality that the apocalyptic literature was attempting to convey.
When we read this passage what is the first things that comes to mind? We focus on the last judgement of Christ, we focus on the end, we focus on justice being executed on those that have different opinions. We focus on the end.
I have been a pastor for most of my adult life. I entered ministry in 2003, meaning I have been active in church leadership for seventeen years. It is hard for me to wrap my head around that because in my mind, I still feel as if I have just started. Last week I talked with James on the phone as he was trying to determine what he wanted to do in the future and we laughed because I had to admit to him that I was still trying to work that out in my own life. In those seventeen years I have been asked many questions, I have entered many conversations and encouraged many people, but there has been one question or comment that has troubled me. That comment is that all Christianity is, is a death cult.
A death cult, for those that do not know what that might be, is a religious expression that glorifies death. Everything that they do is devoted to death. When this person made that comment to me, I was at a loss for words. In a flash, the synapses in my mind were working at lightening speed reviewing my knowledge of church history and personal experience. I reviewed every theological book I had ever read and considered a perspective of an outsider looking into the Church. And considered what they might see. And it grieved my heart. That one statement shook me.
I looked at my friend and I told him, that he was not wrong. That is often how the church is portrayed. We focus on the end. We focus on life after death. We focus and celebrate the sacrifice of our Lord. And we look forward to that time where justice will prevail, where those that oppose our Lord will be vanquished and the world will be at peace. I told my friend that I understood why he said those words.
Do not look at my friend as being an enemy though. We often want to judge those outside of the church as being unspiritual, or not willing to embrace faith. This is not true. This individual, though an atheist, read more scripture than most people within the church, and could speak to the deeper meaning within the words. Those that seek to disprove our faith, are not necessarily people in league with Satan, but are people that are searching and struggling with that of God within themselves. They are looking at the world around and inside them and are attempting to find a way forward. They are just like each one of us, the only difference is the conclusions they have drawn.
This friend of mine would never have said that he was seeking Christ and to be honest most of us would not say he was seeking Christ. But when people make attempts at disproving something, there is a reason. They are seeking to prove the necessity of faith. And his conclusion of Christianity being a death cult had merit in his eyes. What is the point of birth and life when our focus is on death? This has been a struggle for the church for most of our history. We do focus a great deal on the life beyond the veil. Each night as Albert goes to bed, we read a devotional that has been speaking about salvation, and in the words, it says that salvation will give us eternal life with God after death. This is important. But what about everything else?
I have lived forty-one years. I have been a follower of Christ for thirty-six of those years. Some of us have lived much longer while others are just beginning their journey through life. If all that is important is the end why does God require us to linger? Because the dash between the year of our birth and the year of our death is important. That dash is filled with stories of triumph and defeat, despair and hope, and miraculous heroism. That dash is life.
When I attended classes at Friends University, I loved theology class. I loved it because I had a teacher that loved theology. This guy could speak hours upon hours on theology and not once see it as being boring. He spoke about the theology of marriage, the theology of death, the theology of ministry, and the theology of pretty much everything. To him theology was incorporated into every aspect of life. He was also the church history teacher, so you could imagine if he got excited about theology, when he spoke about history, he saw the hand of God in everything. In a discussion about scripture and what needed to be included, he said the funniest thing. We need a fat bible not a skinny bible. By this he meant that we needed the complete bible, and not just the New Testament. He was not a fan of handing out pocket New Testament because he felt like it was not giving the complete story. Without the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament we cannot understand the hope of Christ. This same teacher once asked us a question in class, “what is the most important church holiday?” Is it Easter? Is it Christmas? They are all important. Without Christmas there would be no Easter without Easter there would be no Christmas, and then there is the dash in between those dates. There were Thirty-three years between the birth of Jesus and Good Friday, thirty-three years of life.
Life is important. All of life. That dash between the beginning and the end is filled with the most important and most meaningful events. It is the things within the dash that encourage generations and are spoken of during our memorial services. Jesus came not just to die, but to live life, to show us life. He came to restore all of creation to life.
This is the point of apocalyptic literature. It is not to strike fear in our minds or to worship the end. It is to jumpstart our minds to remember that we are in the dash of our lives, the end may be soon, and at this moment we still have time to live. The apocalyptic literature is there to encourage us to reexamine the current trajectory of our lives and to make necessary course corrections. The church is not to focus on the end but it should live.
Jesus, for the past few weeks has been speaking in apocalyptic language. He told stories of the kingdom using illustrations of ten bridesmaids and the stewardship of servants. In each of these stories there is something to look forward to, a feast or the joy of the master which is a welcome home party. But the most important aspects of those stories were not the end but what was going on during the space between the beginning and the end. In the story of the bridesmaids, the focus was on the availability of the oil. The whole point of the story was being able to complete the mission set before you when the time comes. The point is to be prepared, and the apostles understood that theme and Peter taught us that we should always be prepared to give an answer to the hope that we have.
The story from last week dealt with the Stewards of the Talents. I asked a question about how we are investing the uniqueness of our lives, which is what God invested in us. The point of that story again is to boldly live our lives, investing into the lives of those around us, and not cowering away in fear. Live the lives of our faith boldly entrusting every aspect of our lives in the lifestyle of Christ.
Today we see the culmination of these shorter parables. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will gather the nations and separate the sheep from the goats. This imagery speaks deeply to Hebrew spirituality. Israel began as a nation of shepherds, even their greatest king began his life as a shepherd. Throughout scripture Israel is often called sheep. The people of God were seen in their scriptures as God’s sheepfold. Jesus spoke of this as well. He said that his sheep hear his voice and respond, but he extends this imagery out to those outside Jewish heritage by saying he has sheep in other folds as well. The goats are a different story. Goats are often used to signify those outside of God’s influence, even today those that claim to follow pagan religions associate with the goat. But the goat has significance to the Hebrew people. The goat was used during the celebration on the day of atonement, it was a goat that carried the sins of the nation out into the chaos of the wilderness. Jesus in this parable brings the nations together and separates the sheep from the goats. He separates those that follow the ways of God from the ones that carry or bear the sins of the nations.
But what is the criteria of separation? As much as I would like to say that the criteria is something as simple as a prayer it is not. During the past generations of the church we have made attempts at fine tuning our faith, even the Friends have participated in these activities. We have whittled the law down from over six hundred and focused on ten, but for much of church history those ten laws were accompanied with means of grace called the sacraments or mysteries. We were required to follow the commandments and participate in the sacraments for our atonement. When the reformation occurred, these things were again revised to some degree. The commandments remained, but the means of grace were minimized to only two of the seven. Friends in their attempt to purify the faith made the bold statement that all of life is a sacrament and that we should live our testimony daily, this kept the commands but distilled the means of grace to one thing, a life lived. The problem is that through all of this we institutionalized religion, we made it into a series of rites, or a checklist of sorts and as long as our cards had all the proper marks we were assured by the keepers of the institutions that we have obtained our salvation.
This is not what Jesus describes. The nations are brought before the Son of Man and are separated. Like the bridesmaids both groups were attending the church, because both call the Son of Man Lord. It is those that ministered and encouraged those that were thirsty, hungry, naked, imprisoned, sick, and provided hospitality that were brought into the kingdom. It is not the amount of knowledge we possess or marks of religious adherence, but how we interact with those around us.
We are saved by grace through faith. This is the crowning theological achievement of the reformation and one that I fully agree with. We cannot work our way into heaven because it is only through Jesus that we have access to God. What Jesus is pointing out is true faith bears fruit. True faith is not just something that we have in our heads, but it is where we entrust every aspect of our lives to the direction of God. Faith is not something we believe only but it is lived.
These words of Jesus were being spoken to people that claimed faith, yet their faith did not reach their hearts. They may have been clean on the surface but deep within remained aspect of sin and rebellion. Where are we in this story? Where is our church? Where is our nation? Are we sheep or are we goats? Are we living our lives as visible testimonies of God’s provision and grace or are we seeking to control our own destiny?
Jesus is calling out to us in this passage. He is calling for us to repent and turn toward him. He is calling us to follow him, to take on his life and lifestyle. He is encouraging us to make it our custom to love God in worship together in our community, to embrace the Holy Spirit in prayer, and to live his love as we serve and minister to the needs of those around us. This is our purpose and our mission. This is true faith distilled to the purest essence, loving God in all that we are and do, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
As we enter this time of open worship let us examine our lives. Let us recognize the areas in ourselves where we may be falling short and let us repent and turn toward Christ more fully. And let us be open to God’s Spirit and become willing to become a blessing and instruments of hope for those struggling in the chaos of our world.