“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I had the great privilege of growing up as a member of a number of church entities. My Sunday morning church was Canberra City Uniting Church, a fairly progressive, social-justice-conscious, highly liturgical, multicultural church that really loved my family and I. I was also part of the Canberra Tamil Christian Fellowship, which was less about Christian learning, and more about fellowship with other 2nd Generation Sri Lankan Tamil Australian young people, an indescribable blessing. Thirdly, I was part of my school’s Christian group, what used to be called ISCF, but in my time was called SUIS. All three groups helped to form my adolescent faith, particularly after the Canberra bushfires when I was fifteen.
I would say though that the theology taught at City Uniting and the theology taught at SUIS were radically different. Teaching at school was fairly conservative, basically saying that being a Christian meant buying an insurance policy for the afterlife. We were told not to concern ourselves with this world; that we needn’t bother ourselves with the poor, the hungry, the stranger – unless of course in doing so, we might sell them that insurance policy, thus adding a notch to our holiness belt. To give this some context though, the vast majority of students at my school, Canberra Girls Grammar School, were from incredibly affluent families, so the deteriorating sub-standard housing around the corner, let alone the homeless outside our gate, were not our concern.
I then moved to Sydney for university, and a couple of years later met my now husband, and the church community he was part of, called Christian Students Uniting, the university group on campus at Sydney University. A couple of friends and I decided to visit his church in Leichhardt one Sunday (for totally pure reasons of course), and the preacher, Rev. Dr. John Hirt, preached a sermon that included this sentence: “my heart for the poor is rooted in my Christian faith.” And I remember looking at this guy and thinking: what are you? Some kind of unicorn? But from that day, I slowly realised that there was a whole world of Christians who take Matthew 25 seriously, who really believe that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the sick, we do so to Jesus’ own self.
The Uniting Church in Australia is known for its passion for social justice – it’s one of the things that make this church home for me. In fact, Australian studies have shown that most Australians, when asked to think about what they know about the Uniting Church, will inevitably talk about its work in social justice. And so many of you work tirelessly in a myriad of ways to serve the poor, and your desire to do this is informed by your Christian faith, as well it should be. Soon after meeting Adrian, I heard another sermon that said we are the only feet and hands that Christ has, so we are called to be little Christs out in the world. And I guess to a large extent this is true. So I could preach a sermon about how actually caring about the poor is part of following Jesus. But I actually think most of you are already on board with that notion.
And as tempting as it seems when we read a Gospel text like this to think: “look! Even Jesus agrees with us!” – we are probably missing something. And we can so easily replace the conservative-personal-morality-insurance-plan-for-the-hereafter checklist with a liberal-social-justice, here’s-what-Christianity-REALLY-means checklist. Either way we end up not really needing Jesus so much as needing to make sure we successfully complete the right list of tasks on any kind of checklist. Because in the end, every form of Checklist Christianity leaves Jesus essentially idling in the back corner of church while we say “Thanks Jesus…but we can take it from here.”
So while we as people of God are certainly called to feed the hungry and cloth the naked, my concern is that the whole Christian “blessed to be a blessing” thing can be quite dangerous. It can be dangerous when it starts to feel like we are placing ourselves above the world waiting to descend on those below so we can to be the “blessing” they’ve been waiting for, like it or not. It can so easily become a well-meaning but insidious blend of benevolence and paternalism. It can so easily become pimping the poor so that we can feel like we are being good little Christs for them. This is my concern with a lot of international charity organisations really – that they end up being rich people donating to poor people so rich people can feel good about themselves.
So I had these dangers in the back of my head as I read Matthew 25 a little closer and had a profound realisation. I realized this: Jesus says I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Which means…Christ comes not in the form of those who feed the hungry but in a hungry person being fed. Christ comes not in the form of those who visit the imprisoned but in a prisoner being cared for. And to be clear, Christ does not come to us AS the poor and hungry. Because as anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh and blood people knows…the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christ like people. And those who meet their needs are not a romantic special class of Christ like people. We all are equally as Sinful and Saintly as the other. No, Christ comes to us IN the needs of the poor and hungry, needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known. And folks, we are all the needy and the ones who meet needs. Placing ourselves or anyone else in only one category or another is to tell ourselves the wrong story entirely. Christ is made known when needs are met.
Earlier this year, I had the distinct displeasure of playing music at the funeral of Margaret Goodwin. Margaret was the wife of Rev. Martin Goodwin, minister at Rockdale Uniting Church, and her son and daughter are good friends of ours. Margaret was spending the day in Bowral with her two sisters when the umbrella over her got struck by lightning; she was instantly killed. It was perhaps the most emotionally charged funeral I have ever been to. Margaret’s two sisters were so weighed down by guilt – why did she die, and not them? Martin had just lost his best friend and the love of his life; Robyn and Andrew lost their mother, and the young grandson had lost his beloved grandmother.
Anyway, in the part where we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, I looked over and noticed that my dear friend Robyn was almost heaving from the pain, so weighed down was she by her mourning. So I decided to pray that prayer twice as loud, because my grieving sister in Christ could not pray herself. And after the service I offered to pray with her, and she thanked me and agreed. I committed to pray for her every day since, and I continue to check in with her through text messages.
This is really not me blowing my own trumpet. With all my heart, I believe I was not the one who allowed Christ to be revealed in this encounter. It was Robyn. Because Robyn allowed herself to bear a need that someone else, however imperfectly, meet. And when the grief of my sister in Christ was cared about, Jesus was cared about.
I myself am a terrible example of this. I hate asking for help. Even while heavily pregnant, I find it torturous to admit that I need help setting up chairs for something here, or respite so I can rest. It is as though I think I am less deserving of the care I hopefully offer others, which is actually deeply arrogant of me. So when I read this text, I wonder about how we withhold Christ from each other when we pretend we have no needs of our own, that we are A OK. When we are the only ones being the blessing to others, do we keep Christ from being revealed in our own needs that could be met by another? For sure it is our role as Christians to love our neighbours, but actually the commandment tells us to love one another, which means we must receive love, too. God has no use for airbrushed Christians. I’ll use the quote again from Abigail Van Buren that I used a few weeks ago: the church is not a museum for saints; the church is a hospital for sinners.
I just don’t think that the economy of grace includes two separate classes of people: one who hunger, and one who offer food. The fact is, we are all both sheep and goat. We are all both bearers of the Gospel and receivers of the Gospel. We meet the needs of others, and we have our own needs met by others. And the strangeness of the Gospel is that, like those who sat before the throne and said: when did we ever feed you Lord? – we never know when it is that we feed Jesus in all of this.
All that we have, friends, is a promise that your needs are holy to God. A promise that Jesus is present in the meeting of needs and that his kingdom is here. And that Jesus is a different kind of king who rules over a different kind of kingdom. Because it looks more like being thirsty and having someone you don’t even like give you water more than it looks like polishing a crown. It looks like giving my three extra coats to the addicts at Kings Cross than it looks like ermine trimmed robes. It looks more like visiting residents at Villawood than visiting a magnificent cathedral. This is the surprising scandal of the Gospel; the surprising scandal of the Kingdom. Let me sing from a favourite hymn of mine: To the lost, Christ shows His face; to the unloved He gives His embrace; to those who cry in pain or disgrace, Christ makes, with His friends, a touching place. You know who those friends are? You. You know who the lost, unloved, crying ones are? You. This is the body of Christ. Amen.