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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
March 26, 2023
Grace to you and peace from God, our creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The readings over the last few Sundays have been building up to this one, which we most often hear in November on Christ the King – or Reign of Christ – Sunday at the end of the church year. At that time of year, we’re focused on Advent and preparing our hearts for both Jesus’ birth and his return.
So, there’s an inherent sense of urgency built into this reading because of where we’ve placed it on our calendar. But as we’ve been talking about and are being reminded of, the sense of urgency is different when we hear this reading, and the ones before it, during Lent as we follow the timeline of Jesus’ life.
At this point, Jesus is preparing himself and his followers for what will come at the end of what we call Holy Week. His time on earth is coming to an end and he knows it. He’s reminding them of what he’s been telling them all along about what it means to be his followers and live according to his way. Only instead of speaking plainly, and maybe more gently, like he did before, he’s using extreme images to get their attention.
This particular reading is often used to incite fear and it’s been weaponized to scare people into saying that they believe in Jesus. And it’s often only interpreted as a parable of judgment.
But the disciples and the people in Matthew’s community heard it as Jesus saying, “This is what it means to follow me. It’s in the way you see and care for one another because it’s in the way you see and care for me.”
It echoes back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells the crowds who he is and what that means. And it answers the question, “Who’s the greatest?” that the disciples asked on Ash Wednesday, as the disciples tried to fit Jesus’ way into the way the world worked within the Roman empire because it’s what they knew, and they couldn’t envision a world without that type of ranking or hierarchy.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew is clear that, for Jesus, what matters is the way people treat one another and not necessarily what they say about what they believe in terms of their faith in God.
What matters is how they relate to other people – and specifically to the people who don’t have status in the world as it was created by Rome. And recognizing that the relationships within the community of believers are the most important thing, because they’re the foundation of the community.
Taking all of this together, this reading is encouragement for the disciples and Matthew’s community to live the good news of who Jesus is and who God is; to live this good news even when it’s hard to do, and especially when it’s offensive to the powers-that-be.
And that living this good news – this grace, the values of God’s kingdom, leads to true and lasting transformation at the heart-level because it helped them understand that the people who are least among them bear the image of Jesus.
Remembering that is the beginning of eternal life.
So, the sense of urgency that the disciples and Matthew’s community heard was the importance of remembering that as they continued to live and follow Jesus even in the wake of what was to come – both at the end of Jesus’ life and in what Matthew’s community was facing. To continue to seek Jesus in those who are least and to care for them as they would for him.
Not out of fear of what will happen on judgment day if they don’t, but so they could experience life with him as they lived.
This, of course, carries through to us today. Every person who is least among us bears the image of Jesus. Remembering that, and caring for them as we would for him, is the beginning of eternal life. Sounds easy enough, right?
Most days, yeah. But it’s sometimes easier to remember that on some days than on others. Recognizing Jesus in those who are least among us means living the values of God’s kingdom all day, every day. And that takes work even though we know it’s what we’re called to do.
But remembering that he is there, and recognizing him, does more than just cause us to say, “Oh yeah – that’s Jesus” and go on our way. It helps us remember the sacredness of their lives as people.
It helps us remember that they are people. Human beings created in God’s image whose lives are precious and holy, and whose lives need tending – and that we were commissioned in our baptism to care for them.
And when we care for them as we would care for Jesus, from the heart, it’s the beginning of eternal life with him.
We know that we will encounter Jesus in the “least of these” – and there are all sorts of ways to define what that means. We know that Jesus comes to us in people who are hungry, and the thirsty. In people who are strangers to us, and who are naked, sick, or in prison.
But Jesus also comes to us in people who are transgender and anyone in the LGBTQ+ family. In people who are of a different political affiliation. In people whose immigrant status may be undocumented.
Jesus comes to us in people whose skin color is different than ours. In people who are in a line of work we may not agree with. In people that may surprise us, when we least expect it.
However we define it, though, if we go through life and only see the “least of these” as “other” – and hold them at arm’s length or farther – we go through life lonely, isolated, and afraid. That’s the beginning of eternal punishment.
But if we see the “least of these” as Christ, and share bread and clothing and freedom in Christ with them – that’s the beginning of eternal life for us and them.
When we read this parable, it’s easy to get stuck on the literal images of sheep and goats and try to figure out which one people are, and genuinely worry about whether we’re one or the other. But we’re actually both. It kinda takes the pressure off.
By nature, we’re goats. We’ve all failed to see and care for Jesus in people who are “the least of these” at least once in our lives.
But by God’s grace, we’re also already sheep. So, we have no reason to be afraid or to worry.
And as the body of Christ, we’re always all together – sheep and goats. And it isn’t our job to figure out who’s who and separate one from the other. Our job is to remember that Jesus reveals himself to us in those who are “least” among us – however we define that – and to care for him.
Because when we do, we experience eternal life – life with Jesus here and now. We don’t have to wait for it. Jesus gives us that gift today and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.