This past week I was driving to a pastor’s meeting at our synod office when I exited the freeway, planning to turn left at the stoplight. There at the stoplight was a man with a sign asking for spare change. There were two left-turn lanes. The one on furthest left would’ve taken me right beside the man with the sign. The one next to it meant that I would avoid him. I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. I took the lane furthest from the man.
When I got to the meeting we pastors did a Bible study on today’s story of the sheep and the goats. As we read the story I remembered the man at the stoplight whom I’d just avoided a few minutes before. Later, driving home, there on the on-ramp of the freeway was a young woman asking for money, with a sign that read, This wasn’t the job I was hoping for. I rolled down the window and gave her fifty cents. She was no better and no worse than the man across the freeway that I’d avoided earlier; only my response was different.
There, within the space of a few hours, I was both a sheep and a goat. Fact is, that’s true probably every day for me. How about you? Sometimes we reach out to help people in need. Sometimes we don’t—too tired, too overwhelmed. We do not feed others, we do not welcome the stranger as we have opportunity. But notice what’s true for both the sheep and the goats in today’s story. Neither is aware of what they’re doing. When did we see you?…they ask. The sheep were doing more good than they thought. The goats were doing more harm than they thought.
Surely that’s a description of the way things are for each one of us. Who of us can fully understand the consequences of our attitudes and actions? We do more good than we know; and, we do more harm than we know. Whether for good or for ill, who of us has the mind of God to see and understand everything?
What is this story about? The popular understanding of Jesus’ story about the sheep and goats is that at the end of time God judges everyone. The question we ask ourselves is, “What happens to me after I die?” It’s an easy interpretation if we take the story at face value. Seems like the meaning is straight-forward.
But if that’s what it’s about, the story stops being about God and it becomes all about us. It becomes, “How can I avoid hell? How can I earn favor with God by doing good deeds?” But in the story the sheep didn’t know they were serving Christ, and the goats didn’t know they weren’t serving Christ!
What if “doing good deeds to save my skin” is not the point of the story? Jesus says, Whenever you did these things for the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it for me. What if the point of the story is this question: How do I recognize Jesus Christ in the world every day? Even though probably every day I myself am both a sheep and a goat—or, as Martin Luther put it—both saint and sinner, how do I become better at seeing the face of Christ in friends, family, and strangers?
Today’s story asks some big questions for Christians in our time. Given what Jesus describes, to what extent do we see Christ in the “Occupy” movement across the globe, calling for jobs and opportunities for ordinary people, not just the rich? To what extent do we see and listen to the “least of these” in the world and how do these “least of these” influence how we cast our votes? Do we set our hearts on the needs of the “least of these”…or on our own self-interest?
The choices we make every day have an impact on millions of people we’ll never meet. And yet, the examples that Jesus uses are more personal, ordinary. We minister to the world, starting by working hard to see the face of Christ around us in ordinary ways every day.
Last Sunday, you experienced something new. Many of you have taken communion for decades. But I’m willing to bet that until last Sunday none of us had received communion from a three year-old. As usual, the grown-ups did all the talking: The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you. But after careful training–reverently, solemnly, intentionally, a little boy served this meal, one among us who might be called the “least of these.” It was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in this church in eight years! For me it was a glimpse into what the Bible describes as the kingdom of heaven, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
As you came forward to receive that bread, did you see in the face of a child the face of Christ?
Maybe you didn’t. And, that’s okay. Neither the sheep nor the goats recognized the face of Christ. So completely do we miss the face of Christ in this life that we often don’t see it right under our noses.
When I say “right under our noses” I mean that literally. When you get up in the morning do you look in the mirror and see the face of Christ? You who are beloved of God, who were created in the image of God, you who are both saint and sinner, sheep and goat—do you see in yourself the face of Christ? Or, did you miss that, too?
There’s a lot at stake. If we don’t see in ourselves the face of Christ there’s a pretty good chance we’ll spend our lives judging—deciding who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy, who’s a sheep and who’s a goat–which, as the scriptures describe it is not our business but God’s business, and God’s alone.
But, if we see in ourselves the face of Christ we may begin to see the face of Christ in others. It could be in the faces of an older man or a younger woman standing at a stop light, asking for change. Or, it could be on Sunday morning in the face of a three year-old serving communion bread— for as the scriptures teach Christ appears in the most unexpected ways.
If in the mirror we recognize the face of Christ, we might find within ourselves an attitude of gratitude welling up inside of us. Instead of needing to see ourselves only as sheep we accept that we are sheep, and goats, and Christ. We are Christ to the world and as we grow into that identity we may find ourselves hearing Jesus’ words in a new way and imitating those words and attitudes. Can you imagine, for example, coming to communion with this attitude toward the one who serves you—even a three year-old: I was hungry and you gave me bread; I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me. This is the heart not of one who judges but of one who sees the Living Christ in the other. Or, what might it mean for us to apply that Christ-like posture toward our identity as a Reconciling-in- Christ congregation? How might we enter more deeply into RIC? What are we missing out on when we fail to see Christ in the other?
This is one of the great lessons of our faith: to the extent that we recognize Christ—in ourselves and in others–we ourselves are blessed. When we create opportunities for the least of these in our society—and in our churches, and in our neighborhoods–they in turn become a blessing to us. May God’s people in this place continue to recognize the face of Christ in the world, and the face of Christ in the Church. May we see the face of Christ in ever new ways—and be grateful! AMEN
Questions to Ponder
- What is the most important point of each of today’s readings? What questions occur to you?
- Where do you find yourself in the readings? What troubles you? What encourages you?
- Many Christians take the story of sheep and goats as a literal description of judgment in the life to come. Is this your interpretation? Might there be other interpretations?
- What is at stake for you in Christian faith? In other words, why are you a Christian? If you knew for a fact that there is no hell, would you live more–or less–faithfully than you do now? Why?
- Charity is short-term help for people in need. Justice is working for change in economic systems that keep disadvantaged people powerless. What are some examples of both charity and justice in your life?