The Reign of Christ is About What We Do – Not What We Believe

A sermon based on Matthew 25:31-46
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 23, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Michelangelo (the famous Renaissance artist, not the Ninja Turtle) spent a lot of time dealing with Vatican bureaucrats. As a part of his masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel there is a section on the last judgement.  In the lower right corner is a political practical joke—there’s a figure portrayed as Minos, Master of Hell, but it is in reality a portrait of Biagio di Cesena, Master of Ceremonies to the pope and a Vatican bigwig who protested violently against Michelangelo’s painting [what Cesena called the] shameless nudes [in the chapel]. . . [S]o Michelangelo put Cesena into his own vision of Hell, giving him jackass ears and painting in a serpent eternally [tormenting Cesena in a not very nice way].
Furious, Cesena demanded that the pope order [Michelangelo] to paint his face out, to which [the] bemused pope . . . reportedly replied “I might have released you from Purgatory, but over Hell I have no power.” 1  . . . So to this day Cesena’s portrayed in hell.

This morning’s Gospel Lectionary text is meant to touch upon and relate to Reign of Christ Sunday which many churches around the world commemorate today. It’s the Sunday that wraps up the Christian liturgical year. See, Christians start their church new year with Advent, the promise of the coming of Christmas, and we end the year with the promise of the coming of the Reign of Christ.

The Bible text we heard from Matthew discusses the “Son of Man,” Christ, in images of the Shepherd and the King. It describes judgement day under that king. Matthew records it as one of the stories Jesus told, and in it Jesus tells us his understanding of the last judgement. Actually – and interestingly– this story is the only New Testament description of the last judgement. So we have to rely on Jesus alone if we want to hear the Gospel Truth about the last judgement under the Reign of Christ. I’m good with that.

We are going to consider this text again in a few weeks from another angle because it has so much to tell us, so many facets and a deep, deep Truth. This text, Matthew 25:31-46, is one of my favorite scriptures in all the Bible, and it is my go-to-text whenever the issue of judgement by God comes up. Much of Christianity seems to focus on that, “the judgement of God.” We hear and read and see movies and stories and books and sermons about God’s judgment at the end time, “HIS” last judgement. Mostly it’s portrayed as judgement and severe penalties for not believing in Jesus Christ in the manner the authors or movie makers or preachers tell us we must believe in their movies, stories, books and sermons.

From these sources the Reign of Christ would seem to be mostly about getting right with God through belief in Jesus as your personal savior in order to save yourself from what today’s text calls “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” We have all heard this stuff. The details may vary but the gist is we are going to suffer in hell like Michelangelo’s nemesis, Ceseno, if we don’t believe right.

Despite all those details and threats of hell for the wrong belief come judgement day, as Jesus’ tells it . . . that’s not how it works. Not at all. The Gospel Truth is far, far from all that believe this or go to hell stuff. Today’s story – and remember it is the only New Testament assertion of judgement day– tells us under the Reign of Christ our qualifications for inheriting the kingdom – or going to the eternal fire– is much more difficult than a belief, after all it doesn’t take much effort or sacrifice to claim beliefs alone.

But to do something like love those whom we consider the least among us, well that takes some effort. What effort? We might ask. Outward action to help those in need is actually the qualification Jesus claims as the litmus test for inheriting the kingdom of God. Come the last judgement the question is “Did we do this?” Did we tend to Christ in others, not just our friends and relatives, but to the outcasts? Even if they are the ne’er-do-wells of the culture. Even if we don’t like them – or what they do, or don’t do. According to Jesus – not me, but Jesus– the last judgement for people and nations is about doing or not doing good to the poor, the sick, the stranger and imprisoned. Why? Because Christ is in each one of those outcasts, those the culture considers ne’er-do-wells and lesser beings. The people we may not like individually or collectively.

According to Jesus doing for – or not for– the least of us is what it all boils down to on judgement day. Getting beliefs right –unless they help us get our doings right– means nothing.

And honest, while I sometimes get heat as a pastor for preaching this kind of stuff– as if its new fangled and recently made up as a part of some plot, this is basic Christianity (as you can hear it is literally in the reading!). Here’s how the mainstream Bible commentary Feasting on the Word puts it:

Students of the New Testament know that the only description of the last judgement is in Matthew 25. There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word in the passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether you gave yourself away in love in his name. 2

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Jesus’ teachings can be summed up by these four shorthand ideas: (1) God is love; (2) Believe in love; (3) Love love; and (4) Be love.
I also mentioned that it is the fourth idea that matters most to Jesus. For him all that really matters come judgement day is being love– that is were we love in the world? Today’s text is about just that.

Being love is about desiring and tending to the well being of others– especially the least among us, and Jesus specifically lists the hungry, thirsty, stranger, poor, sick and imprisoned. When we take care of the least among us we take care of Christ. And according to Jesus we will be judged on whether we did that or not–and not just as individuals but as nations.

We may not like to hear that. We may not want to take care of these types of others. We may insist or want to believe it is how we believe that matters in the end, but that’s not how Jesus tells the story. That’s not the last judgement laid out in the New Testament. Jesus provides no opt out for those who don’t agree with the message. He provides no opt out for those who don’t want to do what needs to be done. He provides no opt out if you think any of these people deserve to be poor or sick or strangers or imprisoned. And he provides no opt out for right beliefs (whatever that might mean).

Conservative, moderate and liberal Christian beliefs – or conservative, moderate or liberal anythings for that matter– make not a whit of difference when in comes to inheriting God’s kingdom or going into the eternal fire. What matters is conservatively, moderately and liberally somehow, some way doing what needs to be done to tend to Christ in everyone.

An actual real literal reading of this texts means that theists, atheists and agnostics can each inherit God’s kingdom or can all go into the eternal fire depending on their actions – not their theological point of view. The make it or break it point is not belief. Belief – and unbelief– are not a part of Jesus’ criteria . . . at all.

Kinda startling isn’t it. Sounds heretical doesn’t it? But listen carefully to what Jesus says– I am going to read the verses again only this time from The Message to help us maybe better hear it:

“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.’ “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because— I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’ “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’ “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’ “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

Under the Reign of Christ, those who inherit the kingdom of God– those who get into the Reign of Christ, those who bring it into existence – are those who tend to Christ in the least of us.

Under the Reign of Christ, those who depart from the Reign are those who fail to tend to Christ in the least of us and cause hellish existence.

Under Christ, the Son of Man, the Shepherd, the King the criteria for judgement is as Jesus sums it up “just as you did it to one of the least . . . you did it to me.”’

That’s good news for a lot of us condemned by religious leaders for not getting our beliefs up to their snuff, in that the last judgement is not about beliefs at all. But it’s not so good news for those of us who have not taken care of the poor, sick, imprison and stranger because the last judgment IS all about that. For in each of them (the least among us) whether we or the culture like them or not, whether we or the culture think it is true or not, in each of them, is Christ. And so come the last judgement how we treat Christ in them is going to make all the difference whether in our existence we inherit the kingdom of God or the eternal fire.

We can hear this as applicable to existence in this life, bringing in the Reign of Christ on earth for the living, as well as bringing it about after life. Either way, the Reign of Christ’s existence for our souls now – and later- requires proper action, not proper beliefs. One way of living leads to doom. Another way – JESUS’ WAY!– leads to God’s Kingdom and the Reign of Christ. May we all be led to strive for the latter, JESUS WAY, the way of love tending not to just our needs, but to the needs of the least among us, any and all we and the culture put on the bottom rungs. Because to God no one is on a bottom rung, in every human being is Christ whether we like it, believe it, or want it to be so.

That’s the Gospel Truth.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. http://www.reidsitaly.com/destinations/lazio/rome/sights/vatican_sistine.html
2. Buchanan, John, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, p. 336
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