Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Fifty-two Sundays. That’s what we get each year. Advent and then Christmas; Epiphany and then Lent; Holy Week and Easter; Ascension and Pentecost and all those green Sundays which follow; a smattering of saints’ days and other observances mixed in, and it all marches forward to this: The Last Sunday of the Church Year. A Sunday on which we hear of what will take place at the end of the age, when the Savior returns to separate believers and unbelievers, the righteous from the unrighteous, those who will be saved from those who will be condemned.
And, having proclaimed and confessed over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, year in and year out, that we are saved only by grace through faith for the sake of Christ’s suffering and death alone, and not because of works, what do we get as the capstone to the church year? We get a Gospel lesson about doing good works.
What’s more, we get a lesson that seems to scream out that doing good works gains you admission to heaven, and that not going good works gets you cast into the eternal fire of hell. Wow! How do we reconcile this? Is God speaking out of both sides of His mouth, trying to confuse us? Is it any wonder that some pastors bail on the lectionary, choosing instead to preach on Bible passages that are less problematic or better suit their own personal agendas? It’s an easier path than dealing with sections like this, that’s for sure.
There’s always the temptation to pick and choose sections of the Scriptures that we like, or understand, or find easy—and to set aside those we don’t. That’s what heretics and false religions do. However, if we’re going to accept the whole counsel of God as the Bible reveals it to us, we can’t tiptoe around the hard parts. We’re going to have to wrestle with them, struggle with our frequent confusion, and finally surrender to the reality that we just don’t know it all. Nor can we always figure it out with our limited human intellect.
It’s been a fundamental principle of Bible interpretation for a long time that we are to use the clearer portions of Scripture to understand the less clear. We are fortunate, then, that this Gospel reading from Matthew is paired up with the day’s other lessons—those from Ezekiel and 1st Corinthians.
These readings—along with many, many other portions of God’s Word—help us to avoid the error of taking small snippets such as today’s Gospel lesson and spinning a mistaken understanding of just what causes human beings to be judged as sheep or as goats.
If you look first at the Ezekiel text, you will note that it is God who is the source of all the positive activity found there. God does the searching and the seeking. God does the gathering and the rescuing. God does the feeding and provides the resting places. God binds up the injured and strengthens the weak.
It is His enemies who do the scattering and create the danger, cause the harm and the straying, who push and thrust at His flock. But in the end, it is God who will do the judging and will unite all who are His own under one Shepherd, one Prince.
Likewise, in our Epistle lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth, we see a distinction between the horrible harm caused by the sin that arose out of the rebellion of humanity, and the great good brought about through God’s restoration in Christ. Through Adam came death; through Jesus comes resurrection and life. By God’s enemies come oppression and the separation of humanity from God, but by His glorious action, Christ destroys all things that are not of God. He delivers us—we who comprise the kingdom of God—to His Father. Not our doing—His doing.
That seems to run counter to what we hear in Matthew 25, however, doesn’t it? Yes, the Son of Man—Jesus Himself—will still do the separating of the sheep and goats, the righteous and the evil. But it appears on the surface that His judgment will be based upon our actions; on our good works toward those who need our assistance.
It’s often said that “ignorance is bliss,” and it seems on the surface that in unknowingly doing charitable things toward the downtrodden, we are made righteous. Those called to inherit the kingdom are those who have no recollection of feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick or imprisoned. Is it possible that a person can unwittingly earn their way into heaven by doing good works? Does carrying out the social gospel provide a means to salvation?
A closer examination of the text helps answer those questions. First of all, note that the first words of the King, the Son of Man, to those on His right are: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Not, “you who bless others,” but “you who are blessed.” As is always the case, we are merely passive recipients of what God wants us to receive.
The fact is: We bring nothing of value to God, and nothing of value to others which God has not provided to us in the first place. As Luther said when he was nearing his own earthly death, “We are all beggars, it is true.” Beggars have nothing to offer; beggars can only hope for the grace and mercy of another.
A bit later on in the text, the King—Jesus—replies to the surprise of the righteous ones, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me.” But we must remember that Christ’s brothers are not the totality of humanity; His brothers and sisters are only those who have been adopted into the family of God. His brothers and sisters are those who—by baptism and the gift of faith—are made sons and daughters of the Father. Those who reject God’s offered gift of faith are not Christ’s brothers and sisters, but instead remain alienated from the household of God.
These alienated ones are those whom the King orders to depart from Him; the ones He calls cursed and whom He casts out into the eternal fire reserved for the devil and his angels. These are those whose relationship with God is all about trying to stay on His good side, who want to attempt to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Yet, in doing so, they neglect to live and serve as Christ did—bringing blessings to the undeserving, without thought of self and with complete trust in the heavenly Father to guide Him along the difficult path and to provide all things needful.
And make no mistake, you and I are the undeserving. We are all beggars, for we are all sinners. “No one is righteous, not even one,” the Scriptures say. Therefore, to be called righteous, something must take place outside of us, and then that righteousness must be bestowed upon us by the one to whom it belongs.
It is not by our initiative; it is not by our character or our attributes or our actions—it is a righteousness that is completely alien to us, but it is a righteousness through which—by God’s grace–we are naturalized and made citizen of the heavenly kingdom.
The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson are both a warning and a comfort to us. They ought to give us pause to contemplate our horrible fate if we had not been chosen to be welcomed into the kingdom of God. It’s a warning against the easy but dangerous cop-out we hear so often: That of being ‘spiritual but not religious’.
Just what does that mean? It means someone who wants to have the blessings of emotional serenity without truly surrendering one’s self to God’s ways. It means giving lip service to some higher calling while keeping one’s own priorities intact. It means wanting to live on the mountaintop without living down in the trenches with Jesus, without answering His call to action which indicates the presence of a vibrant, Spirit-led life.
You might answer, “But the Bible tells us that no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Quite so, and I rejoice that you confess just that. But woe to those who set self-determined boundaries for the Holy Spirit in their lives, who wall Him off into a little compartment called “Sunday morning, once in a while.” Woe to those who have a haughty intellectual grasp of the faith, instead of a humble, ingrained faith in which God grasps and moves them, daily.
Woe also to those whose faith is selfish and measured on a hidden balance sheet in their hearts, rather than a generous faith which knows and trusts that God has called them to be an instrument of His love and mercy to others.
We are called to care for both the spiritual and the practical needs of others. His kingdom come, His will be done, first and foremost, to be sure. Forgive those who trespass against us, absolutely. And, insofar as we can, be a channel by which daily bread comes from our Father in heaven to His creatures here on earth.
Having said that, we aren’t to lose sight of Jesus when we cast our eye upon the hungry, thirsty, lonely, ill-clothed, sick, or imprisoned, either. The social gospel is not the Gospel. The social gospel does not save either its recipients or its givers. It preserves and improves temporal life, it’s true.
It may even open doors for the proclamation of the real Gospel: The message that Jesus Christ, crucified for the forgiveness of sins and resurrected to provide everlasting life, is alone our Lord and Savior. But it does not provide salvation.
In understanding this; in believing this; in confessing this; and—very importantly—in living this, we come to realize that this text and all of God’s Word does not advocate salvation by works, but both salvation by faith and works by faith.
Those who are God’s sheep of His right hand; those who are called blessed by the Father, are not those deserving of it on account of their works toward the undeserving—for Jesus came not to save the deserving, but the least deserving: You and me, sinners through and through. He is the only one whose actions are worthy of praise and thanksgiving; He is the only one who can earn salvation.
With what He has earned, though—and by what He has paid at the cost of His pierced body and His spilled blood—Jesus has bought you back; Jesus has redeemed you; Jesus has rescued you from the clutches of the devil and the eternal punishment and fire which awaits those who reject God’s gift. He gives; we receive. He pays; we enjoy. He acts; we are blessed. He moves; we are brought from sin and death to righteousness and life. He presents us with our neighbor’s needs, and gives us the strength and opportunity to fill them.
Our Hymn of the Day says it so eloquently, particularly the final stanza, and I hope you didn’t miss its message as you were focusing on the singing:
Lord of glory, You have bought us
With Your lifeblood as the price,
Never grudging for the lost ones
That tremendous sacrifice;
Give us faith to trust You boldly,
Hope, to stay our souls on You;
But, oh, best of all Your graces,
With Your love our love renew.
As we observe the Last Sunday of the Church Year and contemplate the things of the End Times and of eternity, let us not lose sight of that which God has given us to do in the present: To trust in His promises; to care for His people; and to receive with praise and thanksgiving the foretaste of the feast to come: His Son’s body and lifeblood, sacrificed once for you as the only good work which brings forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. In Jesus’ (+) holy name, Amen.
And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, until the day He comes again in glory to take you to the kingdom His Father has prepared for you. Amen.