On Earth As It Is In Heaven – Nov 26, 2017
Are you a sheep or are you a goat? I’m not sure how one can hear our Gospel passage today without that question rising in one’s heart, mind, soul. Perhaps there are some who can brush it aside and not wonder, but I suspect that for the majority of us, we hear these… difficult, comforting, ominous… words of Jesus with the question rising in our souls: Am I a sheep or am I a goat? What is my destiny?
We are near the end of the Gospel according to Matthew and at the end of Jesus’ fifth and final major speech in the Gospel. The next chapter begins the narrative of Jesus’ passion and so today, on this last day of our church year… this day of ending, we hear the end of Jesus’ major teaching… and what an ending it is. Jesus speaks of a great division… a great sorting between those who are blessed and those who are accursed. Eternal punishment and eternal life. Sheep and goats. Who am I?
This culmination of Jesus’ teaching begins with a heavenly, other-worldly scene: “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.” All too quickly, however, the angelic image of glory gives way to an all-to-earthly image of sorting. With all the nations gathered before him, the people are separated one from another, some at his right hand, others at his left. The heavenly king then turns to those on his right, the blessed, and invites them to inherit the kingdom prepared from the beginning, “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.”
Good news! Those in this first group are blessed by God to receive eternal life… and yet rather than elation, their response is confusion: “when did we do all these things for you? This feeding and watering and welcoming, this clothing and caring and visiting…?” The heavenly king answers: “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.” And then the king turns to the others. On the other hand, condemnation is pronounced and an equal confusion is expressed: “When was it that we ignored your need for food, water, welcome, clothing, caring or visiting?” And the same, but opposite, explanation is given: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” As one commentator describes: “To the reader’s surprise ([both] ancient and modern), the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment…” (NIB, 455)
For decades, maybe longer, the focus of Christian life has been on belief. Do you believe in God? Do you believe Jesus died for your sins? A great many people have worked very hard to explain core Christian beliefs, particularly in light of modern scientific knowledge. In the last decades of the 20th century critical biblical study reached the point of being able to deconstruct many of the historical “facts” of our sacred story. And so many people of faith have been adrift, wondering how to reconcile modern knowledge with sacred experience. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, the central place of belief has waned. Early in the fall, I wondered if I had perhaps mis-named the study series. While the initial guiding question was “How Now Will We Believe?”, the answer that came as we explored 21st century theology addressed a wholly different question: “How Now Will We Live?” The focus of Christianity for many in contemporary times has moved away from focusing on belief, particularly as understood as assenting to facts, to rest instead on faith beyond belief. Theology is now explored in and through the act of living, through the course of the fullness of our lives as thinking beings, certainly, but also beings who feel and act. Theologians write about paying attention to our gut-level desires as much as our thoughts, and to our actions more than our head-long intent.
Today we hear a Gospel that seems to state this shift in focus so clearly, so unequivocally, with the criterion for judgement not our intent but actions, not our belief but our faith lived out in our self-giving care of others. When God created the world, God declared all of creation, us included, to be ‘very good’. God gave us very good selves so that we can give to others, each in our own important and unique way. Jesus shows us this way of self-giving through the fulfillment of God’s promise of new and abundant life for those who follow. And the Holy Spirit encourages us by putting God’s power to live this faith in our very hearts and minds, heads and souls.
Notice there are no time limit or caveats in Jesus’ description of the self-giving criterion of judgement. There is no point at which we get to say “no more…” I have done my part. God’s call to loving, self-giving service changes over the course of our lives but it does not end. It’s just that who we are and what we have to offer as children is different than when we are adults. The spiritual director of my retreat this past week spoke of her growing passion for spiritual eldering… a desire to encourage what she called “a more responsible eldership,” as she enters her later years, as I reflected on my experience of these middle years of my life. Our roles and responsibilities, our gifts and expectations, change over the course of our lives… if we are blessed enough to have an abundance of years. But the ways in which we give of ourselves for the betterment of the whole community, changes. The call to feed and to water, to welcome and to clothe, to care and to visit remains the same and provides the outline. It’s up to us to work out the details of how we fulfill God’s call not just to believe, but to live out our faith in every season of our lives.
At the heart of our Gospel today there is a kind of riddle expressing an answer to our questions about belief and action. The mystery of God’s final judgement is hidden in plain sight. It is that when the hungry are fed and the thirsty are given drink, when strangers are welcomed and the naked are clothed, when the sick are cared for and those imprisoned are visited… the kingdom of God is there in their midst. When justice is done, through sacrificial, self-giving, loving care, eternal life is made manifest. No angels required. No supernatural magic needed. This, my friends, is heaven… heaven on earth… just like we pray for each week in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”
What then is hell? you might wonder… What is the eternal punishment of which Jesus speaks? Maybe it is just doing… nothing. Maybe it is living disconnected from the needs of others and thereby from the needs of our own souls. Maybe it is not knowing the joy and fulfilment of contributing to the community of saints by being concerned only with ourselves. Maybe hell is believing we are “the least of these” rather than answering God’s call to care for the least of these and thereby experiencing communion with the divine.
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, we celebrate the end of the Christian year by looking to the end of time with Christ returns in glory. It is a day when we hear about judgement… hardly a favourite topic of anyone… and yet within the scene of judgement, Jesus describes a most profound hope for the redemption of our souls and the salvation of the world. For when earth and heaven unite, hunger and thirst, estrangement and shame, loneliness and sickness, come to an end because the righteous are doing their part, in partnership with God. Today Jesus tells us that eternal life is within our grasp, here and now, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so. May it be done.