Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon for Nov. 20th: Matthew 25:31-46

Be a Neighbour to Those in Need

Today at our 10.30 service we are baptising two young children, Sophia and Maria. I must admit that when I was thinking about today’s gospel reading in relation to our baptism service I was more than a little nervous. ‘How am I going to connect the baptisms of Sophia and Maria with the parable of the sheep and the goats?’ On the one hand we have this joyful family occasion, with parents bringing their beloved children to Christ to receive a new birth by water and the Spirit into the family of God. On the other hand, we have Jesus dividing the entire human race into two groups and sending one group to heaven and the other group to hell. One theme is all about God’s love and joy coming into our lives by grace; the other theme seems to be all about the threat of judgement. How are we going to bring these two themes together?

Well, let’s see what we can do, shall we?

When you and I were baptised, God did something for us that we can’t do for ourselves. The Bible uses many different images to describe the miracle that God accomplishes in baptism. It’s like having our sins washed away and walking clean into a new life. It’s like being born again. It’s like being adopted into the family of God as a son or daughter of God. It’s like dying with Jesus on the cross and rising to a whole new life. It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit coming into us and giving us new life and new strength to follow Jesus. None of these things are things we do for ourselves; they are all acts of God. So baptism is all about grace – God’s love that we don’t have to earn, it comes to us as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ.

So much for God’s side of the baptismal covenant. Now – what about our side? We must remember that pretty well everyone who was baptised in the New Testament was baptised as an adult convert. They had heard the gospel message about Jesus; they had been persuaded by it; they had decided they wanted to be part of it, and so they had come forward and asked ‘What must I do to be saved?’ The usual answer was some variation on ‘Turn away from your sins, put your trust in Jesus, and be baptised so that you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and be able to follow Jesus as your Lord’.

We see these things reflected in the questions that I will ask the parents of our baptismal candidates in a few minutes. I’m going to ask them three questions about the life that Christians leave behind: will they renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires in themselves that draw them away from God’s love? I will then ask them three questions about the life that Christians embrace: will they turn to Jesus Christ as Saviour, trust in his grace and love, and obey him as their Lord?

That last question is the crux of the matter. Baptism, on the human side, is a free will decision to put ourselves under the authority of a new Lord. Jesus is going to start from this theme at the end of Matthew’s gospel when he gives his apostles instructions about baptism:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
So to make a decision to be baptized, or to bring a child for baptism, is something we do, first and foremost, because we recognise that Jesus is not just an incredibly smart human being or a wise religious leader: he is the one to whom God the Father has committed all authority in heaven and on earth. To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not just to say something about how I feel in my heart; it is to acknowledge something that is a cosmic reality: it’s true here in Edmonton, it’s true in Beijing and in Djakarta, it’s true on Mars and on Alpha Centauri and in the middle of the Crab Nebula.

And this is where our gospel reading starts:
‘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’ (v.31).

‘Son of Man’, of course, is a title that Jesus has been using for himself all through his ministry. By itself it’s just an Aramaic phrase that means ‘human one’ or ‘human being’, but when Jesus calls himself, not ‘a’ son of man, but ‘the Son of Man’, he is making a specific reference to the Bible. He’s making a reference to the book of Daniel, one of the weirdest books of the Old Testament and as mysterious as the Book of Revelation in many ways.

In the seventh chapter of Daniel we read about four weird beasts who represent four empires that will bring suffering to the whole earth. But then the scene changes. An awesome and majestic throne is set up, and the Ancient of Days – that is, God - takes his place on it; books are opened, judgement is pronounced, and the beasts are killed and their bodies are burned with fire. And then follows this passage:
‘As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man (NRSV: ‘like a human being’) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days’ (NRSV: ‘the Ancient One’) and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:13-14).

Biblical scholars are divided about just who exactly Daniel thought he was writing about when he mentions this ‘one like a son of man’. But everyone knows that when Jesus called himself ‘the Son of Man’, this was the biblical passage he had in mind. And so, in a twist of irony, a phrase which sounds really humble actually becomes a claim to have great authority: Jesus was saying, “I am the one to whom God the Father has given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples and nations and languages should serve me. My dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and my kingship is one that shall never be destroyed”.

It’s a breathtaking claim, but this is who Jesus thought he was. And to be a baptised Christian is to be a person who has accepted that claim. We have to be quite clear about this. Sometimes evangelical Christians talk about ‘making Jesus the Lord of your life’. That’s rather pretentious, I think. Poor little Jesus has no authority, but then I make him the Lord of my life and now he has authority because I’ve given it to him! No – Jesus is Lord of my life whether I choose to make him Lord or not; his Lordship does not come from me, it comes from his Father, who has given him all authority in heaven and on earth. In baptism, I choose to accept that authority over myself, and over my family as I bring my children for baptism.

Now – how does that work itself out in our daily life? What are the things that we do because we acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Our baptismal service in a few minutes is going to name some of them. We continue to participate in the worship of the Church week by week, listening to the biblical teachings, sharing the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and joining in the prayers. We do our best to resist evil and to repent of our sins.  We share the good news of Christ with others, both by our words and by our example. We work for justice and peace and we respect the dignity of every human being.

These are some of the things we do – this is a partial description of the way of life that we followers of Jesus are learning. But I want to focus for a moment on the one promise that I haven’t mentioned so far. In a few moments I will ask the parents and godparents, and all of you who want to renew your baptismal commitment, this question:
‘Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?’
And you will reply,
‘I will, with God’s help’.

It’s a strange phrase, isn’t it? ‘Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?’ It’s as if we’re on a search for Jesus. Where can we find him? Can we find him today as we break the bread and pour out the wine and share the meal he gave us? Definitely. Can we find him as we listen to his Word? Certainly. Can we find him each day as we pray, by ourselves or with others? Of course.

But there’s another, one hundred percent reliable way of finding Jesus in our daily lives today. The place he spends his working week, apparently, is among the poor and needy. If you want to experience the presence of Jesus in your life, one of the most reliable ways of doing that is to go and find someone who is suffering and to help them, because Jesus graciously accepts all such service as if it was done to him. Listen again to what he says in today’s gospel:
‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (vv.34-36).

The ones who Jesus refers to as ‘the righteous’ express some surprise over this; they don’t remember doing any of this for Jesus:
‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”’ (vv.37-40).

Here are our instructions. Do you want to know what you should be doing as baptised Christians, as followers of Jesus in the world? Well, this is a big part of the answer. Those of you who have brought children for baptism, today and at other times, do you want to know how to teach your children to follow Jesus? Don’t leave this part out, because Jesus says it’s crucial: teach them that when they see the face of a suffering person, they are seeing the face of Jesus. The poor and needy are not an embarrassment or a nuisance; they are an opportunity to serve Christ.

This statement confers an incredible dignity on the poor and the suffering! The wicked people in Jesus’ parable don’t recognise that dignity. “When, Lord?” they ask; “When was it that we saw you in trouble and refused to help you?” No doubt their plea is, “If we had known it was you, we would have helped immediately, but we didn’t think it was anyone important!” Jesus, however, sees everyone as important, even ‘the least of these who are members of my family’; each of them has the dignity of representing him to us, his followers. To serve them is to serve him.

Where do we start? Well, the opportunities are endless. Every three seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies of hunger-related causes. One third of the world’s population lives on less than three dollars a day. 29% of the world’s population has 80% of its wealth. There are over 50 million refugees in the world. There are at least two thousand homeless people in the city of Edmonton. And even here, on the prosperous south side of the city, there are senior citizens on fixed incomes who need to ask the Food Bank for help every month because they are having difficulty making ends meet.

And of course there are other kinds of needs too. What about those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling? What about those with mental illnesses? What about those who are chronically ill? What about those who are at the end of their rope because of the stress of modern life?

So this is part of our job description as baptised followers of Jesus. God has poured his love into our hearts, freely and without reserve. Our sins have been forgiven, we have been adopted into his family and given the gift of the Holy Spirit, all by God’s grace. Every one of us here today is a beneficiary of the generosity of God our Saviour and our Father. His compassion for us has no limits.

Well, we are called to imitate the limitless compassion of our heavenly Father. Jesus our Lord calls us to follow him by serving all who are in need. Day by day, as we move through our daily lives, we are to keep our eyes open to the needs of those around us. Jesus won’t ask us to do what we can’t; he’ll ask us to do what is within our power to do. And all that we do for those in need, we will be doing for our Lord himself. This is our way of life as followers of Jesus, so when we leave this place today, let’s get busy about it.

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