“Discipleship: Go” (2 of 2)
Matthew 25: 31-46 & Psalm 100 ~ Northwood UC ~ November 19, 2023
Can I go on record, as we begin, and share that I’m not very comfortable with this morning’s gospel text. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew is not heartwarming, or comforting, or immediately pleasing. Perhaps you didn’t much like it either? Another week of judgement you might be mumbling? Last week’s judgement upon our readiness with the parable of the 10 maidens, and this week we hear judgement upon our actions. As we come to the end of the Christian year, our New Year’s Eve celebrations do not promise to be bright and beautiful. Rather, they seem to be ones filled with judgement. Jesus, you sure know how to ruin a party!
So why are we not comfortable with this text? Hmm…I guess I’m not immediately comfortable with this passage because I know that my actions don’t always hit the mark. Listen to the stern challenge: “when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you”. As I review the ways that I might ‘measure up’ to these standards, I’m not sure how well I would do. Do I give the hungry - food, the thirsty - drink, the naked – clothing, the stranger – welcome, the sick – care, the imprisoned - a visit? The truth is that this text makes me very uncomfortable. And then I realize that I am looking at it the wrong way. It is to be looked at as a parable.
One way that I would suggest that Jesus intends this parable is akin to the medical check-ups we get every year or so. When we attend a medical check-up, we go in for no apparent reason. Yet, the check-up could very well save our life. This troubling text is a wellness check on our life and faith. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare us, but rather to provide a snapshot of our overall spiritual health, on our development in faith, on our learning to follow in the way, and on our growth that leads to the habits of new life. A medical check up provides an overview of where we are and where our physical health should be. Is our heart healthy, our weight within range, you know all the measures that we worry about. Our medical personnel want us to flourish and be vital through our lives. So does God. God wants us to live vibrant, flourishing lives. And a wellness check serves as a warning to those who are living unhealthy, self-centred ways that lead us, and our world, further and further away from God.
One of the vigorous areas of debate that theologians wrestle with in this text is that there is no mention of grace. On the face of it, judgement is offered based on our actions or lack of them. There is vigorous debate within the theological community about the many mentions in scripture of how we are saved by grace; of how our relationship with God begins with grace; of how things begin with God’s grace. And this is true, and sound biblical knowledge. God first reaches out to us in grace and love. God’s initiation commences the powerful spiritual relationship we each have. We are, as Paul puts it “saved by grace”. However, once that relationship has been established, the natural indication of a person of faith is how they live out their lives. We don’t live ways of faith, as being described in this text, to prove our worthiness to God. We do live out these ways of faith as a natural reaction of being some of God’s beloved children. God reaches out to us first; we reach out as instruments of God in the varying ways we are called and abled throughout our life.
An important part of our analysis is to consider how this parable of Jesus is told, amongst the many other ones. Matthew’s 25th chapter is all about judgement. We begin, as we did last week, with the judgement of one’s readiness in the parable of the 10 maidens: 5 lamps stocked with oil and 5 lamps empty. Have we filled our lamps with oil to get through the night? Are we ready? Mathew continues with the second parable of the talents: the Master goes away and entrusts his servants with different amounts of talents ~ 5 to one, 2 to another, 1 to another. To the ones who invested the talents, he rewarded. To the one who hid the single talent, he punished. Another parable of judgement here. This time as we consider the importance of using our talents and not hiding them away. And finally, we come to the third parable of Matthew 25 and we view what a glorious expression of God’s grace on our earth it might look like when we live out our faith.
Princeton theologian Elaine Pagels suggests that Jesus’ words are the basis for a radical new social structure based on a God-given dignity of every human being. Human beings are not to be hungry, or thirsty, or unhoused, or unwell, or in chains. Pagels encourages us to view this text as a challenge to look at the systems that create such injustices and work towards a world where this is increasingly non-existent. God’s Kingdom is a place Jesus describes as: the hungry – are fed, the thirsty – given drink, the naked – given clothing, the stranger – offered welcome, the sick – given care, the imprisoned – never alone. God’s kingdom is a place where we all have a role in expressing our faith. God’s kingdom is a place where Christ reigns over all other powers and principalities. God’s kingdom is a place where we see the human face of Jesus in each person and treat them with the dignity and worth of our friend, our Lord, and our Saviour Jesus.
So, how are we doing? How would we fare in the health check up? We have all been in church long enough to recall Pierre Burton’s The Comfortable Pew. In the early 1960’s, the Anglican Church of Canada asked the renowned Canadian historian to write a book examining its denomination. Despite the fact that the post-war ear was experiencing a boom in church building and attendance, many within the church feared decline. Burton offered an analysis: The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age. Burton had strong critiques towards the Anglican church, and many denominations (including our own United Church), as well as the Roman Catholic Church. You might recall his reference to Christianity being ‘the handmaid of Western cultural imperialism’ and his challenge to us ~ back then ~ of lagging behind in the fight for racial justice. Burton’s challenge, back then, was for us to update ourselves to reach the younger generations, utilize the latest technology, and divest ourselves of the vestments and attire of the church of old. The church, at its best, should be preaching not just about biblical interpretation. It should be speaking about application in the social realm as Burton imagined politics, nuclear war, and sexuality to be among the topics.
Last Sunday, we commenced this discussion on discipleship as we considered the importance of being prepared and ready…ready, set. And it is good and wise for us each to be ready: private prayer, meditation, study and devotions. Be ready with worship, study and song. And at some point we shift from readying ourselves to doing…Go. Discipleship is about the body of Christ ‘firing on all cylinders’, engaging in ministry, doing the specific task that God has equipped us for at the age and stage we are at. Do I think that discipleship is about one disciple doing it all? Absolutely not! Do I think that we each have a small, and significant, role to play in the body of Christ alive in the world…absolutely. One person cannot do it all! They cannot give food, drink, clothing, healing and visitation. Well…ONE person can. But for the rest of us, we can play one small, and significant, role in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God. What if we were to look back upon our Christian year that is coming to an end now and consider the way that we fulfilled this mandate? In a world that teaches us to take care of number one, how were we caring for others in our own ways? How did we feed and quench other souls? How did we support healing? How did we offer love to those in chains? I notice on the bulletin that our next food ministry at Cloverdale Community Kitchen is coming up on December 1st. Join with us and slice and dice, cook and prepare and serve. Less mobile? Arrive a little later and sit at table and make community with those who have arrived. I also notice that our Shoebox Winter campaign is up and running. Bring in a few toiletries or make a donation to this project as we seek to fill 100 shoeboxes with the essentials for people spending much of their life on the cold streets. Offer a smile to a stranger sitting in need; call someone who is alone; be a blessing to others in the unique way that only YOU can be! See the face of Christ in all who you meet!
I think this text is a strong statement about God. The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible is not a remote, supreme being up on a throne in the clouds. Jesus is teaching us that God is to be made present…here…now…in the messiness of and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in the neighbour who needs you. And that one criterion ~ health measure of our soul ~ is whether or not we saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not we gave ourselves away to love in his name.