Sermon for Williamstown
26th of November, 2017
Recently I had a short street debate with a couple of Muslim men. It was a Saturday, and I was in the city on my way to a protest march. As I walked up Swanston Street I found two competing groups of evangelists on two different corners of the Swanston-Bourke Streets intersection; a group of Christians and a group of Muslims. As I walked past the Islamic group something they were saying about the Bible caught my attention and I stopped to talk to them.
The two men I talked to were comparing the Bible to the Koran. I don’t know anything about the Koran, but I know enough about the Bible to be able to agree with them. Yes, I agreed, some parts of the Bible contradict other parts. Yes, I agreed, the gospels were most likely written by people who had never seen Jesus themselves, people who were writing stories that had been passed down to them through oral traditions. Yes, I agreed, in the gospel according to Matthew Jesus is reported as saying that: ‘just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth’ (Matthew 12:40) and yet Jesus would only have been in the tomb for at most two nights. Basically, I agreed with all their arguments for the fallibility of the Christian scriptures. Why, then, they asked me, was I Christian? I explained that it was because I experience God’s love for me in Jesus. So, they said, it was blind faith. I said that I wouldn’t call my faith ‘blind’ but I agreed that it was faith.
The quieter of the two then asked me, what if I was wrong. And I said that if I was wrong, then when I faced God after death I would rely on today’s passage from the gospel according to Matthew. I would hope that even if I got everything else wrong, I could still be counted as a sheep and not a goat. Then I excused myself and went to march.
I know that my final answer didn’t actually end the debate. If I agree with the men that the Bible isn’t infallible, and I do, then how can I rely on this one part of it? And as a Reformed Christian I know that my salvation comes only from the grace of God, and not from anything that I do. I’m completely aware of the contradictions in my position. And yet whenever I am accused of not being a real Christian because of something I do or don’t believe, I reply that I am a ‘Matthew 25’ Christian. And whenever someone tells me that the Uniting Church is a false church (and over the past couple of months different people have told me that the Uniting Church is an apostate church because we ordain women, or because we welcome LGBTIQ people, or because the Preamble to our Constitution recognises that God was present in Australia before Europeans arrived) I say that even if we’re wrong, we are still a church that seeks to live out Matthew 25, and so can hope that we will be blessed by the Father.
Today’s part of the twenty-fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew is a prophecy, not a parable, a foretelling and forth-telling. Unlike the readings of the last two weeks, when we have had to decipher who the bridesmaids or the slaves or the master or the bridegroom might be, the identity of the characters in today’s story is plain. Jesus, the one about to be betrayed and executed as a criminal, is the king, the Son of Man, the one who will judge the nations. This is what we mean when we confess that Jesus is the Christ. We affirm that he is the ruler of our life, the one with the right, responsibility, and power to judge us. No other leader, no government, no philosophy, no party politics, no family member, has that right. In a world becoming increasingly secular, where faith is seen as a personal and private choice, we say firmly that our first allegiance as Christians is to Christ. We’re Christians before we’re anything else.
The Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations. Today’s reading is the culmination of the stories we have heard over the past few weeks: the stories of the ten bridesmaids and the three slaves. Five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish; two slaves were rewarded and one was cast out. Now, in today’s story, we see the basis on which those judgments were made. It is a judgement based on how well we have lived out the two commandments on which all the law and prophets hang: the commandment to love God and love our neighbour. The criterion of judgment is how well we have loved ‘the least of these who are members of my family’.
The Son of Man judges the nations on the basis of how they have treated the least. It appears that what God cares about most is not how we think, but how we live. Four times the criteria of judgment are given: twice by the Son of Man, positively and negatively, once by the sheep and once by the goats: 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. Four times – to make sure we really get it.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ Throughout the gospel we have seen what the will of the Father is, and here in Jesus’ very last teaching we have it confirmed. It is not enough to say, ‘Lord, Lord’. The sheep are distinguished from the goats on the basis of their care for the little ones. This is a complete surprise to both groups. At the end time, how many non-Christians will find themselves among the sheep, and how many Christians will find themselves among the goats? I have no idea. That’s none of our business. As Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ Our concern is not with how God will judge other people. Our concern is with how God will judge us. And this prophecy tells us that.
This is why I think that recent debates in Australia about ‘religious freedom’ are misguided. Christians are not free; at least we are not free to discriminate against other people or to impose our faith on them. We are only free to love and serve. We are free to feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and those in prison. We are free to live the way of life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount. This is religious freedom for Christians.
This is also the link between salvation by God’s grace alone and these works of love. It’s because we are absolutely certain of God’s love for us, and convinced that through Jesus we have become God’s beloved children, that we’re able to be sheep. Living as sheep rather than goats isn’t easy. We human beings have a propensity for selfishness and exploitation. We tend to care most about ourselves and those close to us and forget those out of our sight. Looking at the world around us, we see humanity’s violence and hatred and indifference. The way that we are treating the men on Manus Island, people who have sought refuge in Australia, is one of the worst examples! But knowing that we are people created in the image of God and loved by God, we are free to love and serve all the other people made in the image of God and loved by God, regardless of their race or nationality or gender or sexuality or age or religion. We are free to see Christ in the hungry and thirsty and strange and naked and sick and imprisoned. We are free to love God and our neighbour, in response to God’s love for us. This is our freedom.
In the hymn we’re going to sing immediately after this sermon, we will sing: ‘your bondage is freedom, your service is song’. (TIS 626) Any Christian who claims that they should be free to reject people rather than to welcome them, and to deny them service rather than to serve, is not following Christ.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the troublesome Corinthians: ‘Let all that you do be done in love’. (1 Corinthians 16:14) That’s what we are called to as followers of Christ. It’s how we live out our confession that Jesus is the Christ, the one true king. It’s a high and difficult calling that Matthew reveals to us, but through the grace of God it’s a calling that we can fulfil. Thanks be to God.