Christ the King Sunday / November 23rd, 2014
Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
Well—there it is. Last week I told you Jesus was going to turn the apocalyptic up to 11. In my Bible study with my colleagues, one of our pastors said, “I’ve been trying to be a do-gooder all my life, and still, when I read this, I’m terrified.” And whenever I hear this story, I’m with my colleague. I’ve been working for the church since I was 19 years old, thinking, probably falsely, that this was the best place to be a professional dogooder. Although I can’t say that I’ve always tried to do good, I can say that I have tried, and whenever I hear this passage I’m still frightened. I don’t want to be a goat. I want to be a sheep. But have I fed everyone who was hungry? Have I clothed everyone who was naked? Have I visited those in prison? What have I done? Christ comes as merciful Savior, and it is by that very mercy shown to us that we feel the sharp and cutting judgment of our Redeemer. The standard of the judge is the standard of Christ who came for you when you hungered, who came for you when you thirsted, who came for you when you were cold and shivering. Now he asks us: did you come for me?
I have often heard interpretations of this parable that emphasize the face of Christ. The sermons will tell a story of seeing God’s face in something good the preacher did, or something good someone else did. And then they’ll end by commending the hearers to service, so that they may also see Christ’s face in the poor, the sick, the needy. But the interesting thing, for me, is that the people in parable, the sheep, were not looking for Christ’s face. It wasn’t their motivation, it wasn’t their desire. “When did we see you?” they ask. They did what they did because the people were in need. There wasn’t any other motivation. They just did it because it is right to give where there is need.
Part of the beautiful aspect of this story—and it is beautiful in the end—is that it reminds us of what human beings are. At the very beginning of the story of our relationship with God, we read, “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him; male and female he created them.” It requires no special theology to know that when we behold the face of another human being, behold the face of God. That was God’s purpose from the beginning, that when we look at one another, we look at a reflection of God’s own self. And the law that commands us to love one another assumes that we do so as God loved us. To love the neighbor is to fulfill the law. John Calvin wrote, “For God has so depicted his character in the law that if any man carries out in deeds whatever is enjoined there, he will express the image of God, as it were, in his own life.” And so, just as the people who served their neighbors did so unaware that they were serving Christ himself, so too they must have been unaware that they were also expressing in their deeds the same image of God.
What image could that be? It is the image of God of the generous provider and tender caregiver, the God who welcomes any to his table no matter how grave a sinner he is. God is merciful, and we know it because God performs mercy. And God is love, and we know it because God loves us, and we can feel it. And when we show mercy and love, the image of God intensifies in us and reveals itself in the needy. No matter who they are, the needy deserves our love and mercy, because they are human beings, period. Calvin wrote, in what I think is the most amazing of all passages in Christian ethical theology, that every person“…should be contemplated in God, not themselves.” For when we turn our gaze to God, we know what we are to do. We are to love as God loved, not because of some demonstrated worth, but because the needy need love. And all of us are in need of love.
The Catholics, as they often do, have a nice list to help us. “The Spiritual Works of Mercy are: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead. The Corporal Works of Mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick and to bury the dead.” Both, I think the spiritual and corporal works are necessary, I think. But I also like the Protestant way of thinking about this, that all these works are held together by grace, and that all of us, sheep and goat alike, must be contemplated in God, that no matter what the character of the person on earth, we love him and try to meet his need as best we can, and allow them to meet our needs.
And could there be no better example of this than our immigration debate? You should know that this past week every single Bishop in the ELCA signed a letter supporting the policy reform announced by the President. Please note I said the policy reform, not the President. But if we truly believe what our Scriptures and theologians tell us, the debate about citizenship is secondary to the debate of compassion and hospitality. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we also celebrate a whole lot of illegal immigrants from Europe that chose to settle in a land that was not their own, without permission from the ones who ruled. But we give thanks anyway, for the forgiveness of sins and God’s continual providence, whether we, or our ancestors, deserved it or not.
You know, if you think about the Ezekiel reading, you’ll see that God is a surprising and interesting God. Where I grew up, people loved to go to the state fair, and compete in the State fair. I knew a guy who went every year, every year with a cow called Steak. Each one was huge, and he sold it for thousands of dollars, saving up for college. These sheep that God loves are not State Fair sheep. They’re the ones you leave at home. But they’re the one God loves. Just like the ones that God loves are the not the ones that rest on their wealth, but use it to hold up the lives of the poor—they’re not the ones you’ll see in a commercial. And I think these passages remind us that God does not care how rich we are. God does not care about how ‘successful’ we are. God does not care about any of that stuff. That’s not how God measures our worth. We are worthy simply because God created us so God could love us. That’s all. And God meets our every need simply because God loves us for us, his lost and redeemed creatures. God loves all of us, all we skinny sheep, and when we hold out our hands, God blesses us, every needy one of us. Amen.