When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’
Matthew 25: 31-40
Last week I was driving into town and I noticed a church sign that said the following “ Even the demons tremble and believe.” Now, I thought to myself, that must be one exciting church… I could just imagine the potential for hell-fire and brimstone on that sign-post, and I lost myself in visions of what sort of sermon that sign might be speaking of.
But for all my fascination and surprise—Presbyterians don’t often get the demons into their sermons, much less their church signs—I also found that, over the course of this week, my mind has gone back again and again to those words… “even the demons tremble and believe.” The quote is from the book of James, and the author’s main agenda is to remind his readers that there is so much more to faith than what a person says with his tongue—what she says with her feet, and her hands, and her hearts, is equally important, if not more so, because it is with hands and feet and hearts that Christians demonstrate the character of belief in God.
And it was as I entertained these thoughts in my mind that the news began to filter in about the earthquake in Haiti. News reports and images of overwhelming devastation flooded international and local news service, stories of thousands dead and more injured, of families torn apart and of the glaring need for a concerted response to the tragedy.
I began to wonder, what is it that we are called to be when things like this happen? And so I turned to scripture, and to the church for answers. I turned to Matthew 25 and it was there that I began to find an answer to my question. In this story, Christ, is speaking to his disciples when he tells them a story about sheep and goats. The word disciple is a latin translation of the word μαθητεύω, which means to follow. The book of Matthew, then, could be understood as the book of “following,” of discipleship, for that is what the name Matthew means.
The story of the sheep and the goats, then, is a story about discipleship to disciples, people like us who have committed their lives to Christ and who are trying to learn how to live faithfully in to that commitment. In it, Christ tells a parable about sheep and goats in order to illustrate a central point of discipleship; That our actions matter.
He says: when God comes, how you LIVED your faith will matter. Your membership in God’s Kingdom will in some way depend on how you responded to God’s grace. And in case there are questions about the nature of response, Jesus makes it simple: he says, when I was hungry, you fed me, when was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was homeless you gave me room, when I was shivering you gave me clothes, when I was sick you visited, and when I was in prison you offered companionship. And that you did this when you acted in such a way to those around you, the overlooked and ignored.”
There is a story about a desert monk who once posed a question to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.
Do you see what I am getting at here? Christ offers us in this parable of the sheep and the goats something critical about what it means to have faith. He says, If you believe, you will respond to suffering in others. In fact, he says even more. He says, your salvation, your citizenship in the Kingdom of God, depends in some way on the nature of our response to God.
Now, some of you may be wondering, doesn’t our faith teach us that it is by grace alone that we are saved? Certainly, it is true that Calvin observed long ago that nothing we can do will overcome the chasm that separates us from God, and that Christ alone provides a means to salvation. But even Christ teaches us that he did not die for nothing… As Paul says, do we sin so that Grace may abound? By no means! Rather, we are justified by grace THROUGH faith… in other words, we respond with compassion and with action BECAUSE we are saved, and that is one way by which God’s Kingdom is made manifest in the world.
Now, I don’t need to tell you for you to know that there are hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and imprisoned people suffering in Haiti right now. Thousands are homeless because their homes have collapsed in Port-au-Prince. Drinking quality water has and continues to be a problem in Haiti. They have NEVER had enough food. Hospitals cannot handle the need, and there are still people imprisoned in the rubble and trapped by conditions of poverty on that tiny island.
And friends, our faith demands that we respond. Ours is a faith that finds its center in a yearning for justice, a yearning that is not our own but is shared by God in the figure of Christ who suffered and continues to suffer that all might be made well in this world. Our Lord suffers with the people of Haiti, and is grieved when we choose to turn a blind eye to the suffering that lies before us.
I saw a billboard on my way up to Belvidere this week—it was for the Marines and had a picture of a well-dressed young man, very clean-cut, saluting off to the front of him and next him were the following words: ‘Commitment to something greater than oneself.’ That is what faith in God is like. Many churches have chosen to downplay songs and hymns that imply militaristic images with respect to our relationship with God, but in this case the analogy is apt. Discipleship to God demands that we commit ourselves to something greater than us: we commit ourselves to God, and to God’s plan for the world. This means that we are sometimes called to respond with love and compassion to the tragedies that beset the world, whether they happen in our back yard or not.