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“A Sermon on the Subject of Judgment Day”
Christ the King Sunday
Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew chapter twenty-five. And, every time it rolls back around, it calls to mind James Forbes’ memorable observation, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”
In today’s gospel lesson, nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the hungry, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner and the poor. All the people of
every nation are gathered before Christ the King, and those who have shown kindness to those who are most in need of help and hope go to eternal life, while those who haven’t go to eternal punishment; a “salvation by works” kind of judgment day, which lands at an odd angle on our “saved by grace” ears, but which actually fits the pattern of Matthew’s gospel, where judgment day is almost always more about how we lived, than what we believed. The gospel of John is the favorite gospel of popular evangelical Christianity because, in John’s gospel, what we believe about Jesus is the critical question on judgment day. However, in the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, judgment day is almost always more about how we live, than what we believe.
Not unlike the four gospels, the letters of Paul are also home to varied voices concerning the subject of judgment day. In Romans 10:9, for example, it is those who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead who will be saved; putting the salvation decision in our hands. But, in Romans 11:32, Paul says that God included all in sin so that God could include all in mercy; putting judgment and salvation back in God’s hands. After which, I Timothy 4:10 strikes the ultimate compromise; “God is the Savior of all people (Romans 11:32), especially those who believe.” (Romans 10:9)
Then, there is the book of Revelation, where judgment day excludes, from the city of God, those who failed to be strong in the face of persecution. However, the gates to the city are left open, never to be closed, leaving open the possibility that those originally excluded might, eventually, get to come in, especially since Revelation 5:13 envisions an eternity in which all creatures and all people sing glory to God, together, forever; an outcome which Colossians 1:20 anticipates when it says that, in the cross of Christ, God was reconciling to Godself the whole creation. (Which is why every time I drive past that 100 foot tall cross in front of Berry’s Catfish Buffet on Highway 49, I think to myself, “Too small.”) According to Colossians chapter one, what happened at the cross was so enormous, and so effective, that it reconciled, to God, the whole world, and every person in it.
All of which is to say that, when it comes to judgment day, the Bible speaks with varied voices; none of which should be taken literally, but all of which should be taken seriously.
Including this morning’s gospel lesson, where no one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor; a judgment day when our eternal destiny will hinge on whether or not we have shown kindness to those who are most in need of food and clothing, shelter and safety, hospitality and welcome; friendship, help and hope.
The point of which is that, to decide to follow Jesus is to be called to a life of kindness.
Or, as the poet William Blake said so many years ago, “We are put on earth for a little space, to learn to bear the beams of love.” That is our great calling in this life; to learn to let the love which has come down to us go out through us, in specific acts of kindness and compassion; feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger, and giving care to the sick, the sad, the left out, marginalized, ostracized, lonely and alone.
Just to be clear, if we are not living that way, if we are not living lives of welcome and friendship, kindness and compassion, generosity and hospitality, that will not cause us to go to hell on judgment day. To say that would be to take literally today’s gospel lesson, which would be as wrong as taking literally John 3:16-18, John 14:6, or any other Bible passage which seems to say, with settled certainty, who will be let in, and who will be left out, on judgment day.
However, not taking this morning’s gospel passage literally does not mean not taking it seriously.
To take today’s gospel passage seriously is to know, at the deep down center of our soul, that every day is judgement day; each new day, another day when we get to decide, all over again, whether or not we will live lives of kindness and compassion; deciding, in each new situation, and conversation, whether we will, or will not, sit down with, and stand up for, the same people Jesus would sit down with, and stand up for, if Jesus was in that same situation or conversation. Each new day, another judgement day, when we get to decide, all over again, to live a life of courage and kindness; letting the love which has come down to us go out through us, to whoever is most in need of help and hope.
Which, according to this morning gospel lesson, is like being kind to Christ the King himself, who is reported, once to have said, “Inasmuch as you showed kindness to the least of these, you showed kindness to me.”