Sunday, November 17, 2013

Inherit the Kingdom

Matthew 25:31-46
Trinity 26
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
Greenfield, Wisconsin

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    When we Lutherans hear a Gospel like today’s Gospel, we may get a little uneasy.  On Reformation Day we recently celebrated the Scriptural truth that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone apart from works the Law commands.  But now it almost seems that the sheep are at Jesus’ right hand and have eternal life because of those good works that they did–giving food and drink and clothes to the needy, visiting those who are sick and in prison, welcoming the stranger, and so forth.  Is the Bible being unclear or contradictory here?  The words of this Gospel are holy and true.  How are we to understand them rightly?

    First of all, we misunderstand passages like this because we don’t listen to them carefully.  We’re naturally drawn to those words that talk about us and what we do.  But before Jesus says anything about our works, He speaks about His grace: “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”  Notice how those words give the basis for everything else that follows.  The sheep on the right hand are called “you blessed of My Father.”  By the goodness  of God alone they have received blessing from Him.  And what’s the blessing?  That they would “inherit the kingdom.”  I will remind you once again, inheritances are not about what you do but about who you are.  If you’re in the family, you’re in the will, you get an inheritance.  If not, no dice.  You who were once children of wrath through your sin have been made to be children of God in Christ.  You are baptized into Him; you are washed clean of your sin by the blood that He shed for you on the cross.  Through faith in Christ, you are truly a part of God’s family.  And so you inherit the kingdom.  You are sheep because you have been given to wear the pure white fleece of Christ, the Lamb of God.  The kingdom was prepared for you by the Father through Jesus “from the foundation of the world,” before you and I were even around. 

    It’s who you are, not what you do that determines if you’re on the left or on the right.  If you’re a sheep, you’re on the right, if you’re a goat, you’re on the left.  Sheep have been made to be what they are by grace, having been brought to penitent faith in Christ.  Goats are what they are by the rejection of grace, through unbelief, disowning God’s family and Fatherhood, turning away from the gifts freely given them in baptism. 

    Now faith by its very nature is active in love.  For our faith is in Christ, who is love incarnate.  And so from the sheep’s faith flow these loving works that the Gospel mentions.  Putting to death the selfish old Adam in us through repentance, we seek by faith in Christ to do good and to help those in genuine need and to bring relief to their suffering.  Those good works will be judged by Christ as righteous and will be commended.  Those works, though, do not save the sheep.  For after all, there are plenty of unbelievers who also feed the hungry and help their neighbor, aren’t there?  There are a lot of charitable deeds done by Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and just plain atheists.  So what’s the difference?  The difference is that the works of the sheep are cleansed and sanctified by Christ through their faith in Him, while the works of the goats are not.  In other words, Jesus not only declares us righteous, He declares our works righteous, too, and receives them as gifts. It is written, “Without faith (in Christ) it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).  Apart from faith in Jesus’ forgiveness, our works remain stained and corrupted.  Isaiah 64 says that apart from Jesus, even our very best good deeds are nothing but filthy rags before God.  Only through Christ can we do anything that is truly good in God’s sight.  As one theologian put it, “People are anxious over the necessity of good works for salvation; God is anxious over the necessity of salvation for good works.”

    And here’s another key point:  Note that Jesus specifically mentions that these deeds done for Him are done for His brethren. “Brethren” is a very particular term in the Scriptures.  It doesn’t just mean anybody and everybody.  The early church fathers took the term “brethren” in this passage to be referring to preachers, Jesus’ brethren who stand in His place and speak His words to His people.  Therefore this passage is talking at least in part about supporting the ministry of the Gospel, as you do with your offerings, and caring for the needs of those who are called to carry the good news of Jesus’ to the nations, especially if they are poor or persecuted or imprisoned as was the Apostle Paul.  To do that even for the least of the brethren, even the lowliest of missionaries and ministers, is to do it for Jesus who sent them.  It is to show forth faith, which desires to hear the living voice of Christ in the preaching of the Gospel.

    The term “brethren” can also refer to all Christians in general, the family of believers, those who have been made to be brothers and sisters of Christ through their faith into Him.  Those who are baptized are members of Jesus’ body.  So to do something for them is to do it for Jesus Himself. This oneness with Christ is renewed and strengthened each time we are fed with His very body and blood in Holy Communion.  When you relate with each other, then, you’re dealing not just with a motley assortment of people but with the body and blood of Christ.  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these My brethren you did for Me.”

    Now the odd thing in the Gospel is that the sheep on the right hand seem blissfully unaware that they did these things.  You’d think they’d remember their good deeds done for the least of these brethren.  But that’s not how faith is. It doesn’t keep a record of good works, it just does them, without thinking about it.  The very best deeds you’ve done are the ones you’ve forgotten about or that you weren’t even aware that you did.  The character of Christian good works is such that they become better and better the less you are aware of them.

    For now because of our sin we still focus on our own good works and remember them and talk about them and take pride in them.  For that we must all repent.  But our faith will be brought to perfection on the Last Day, when the sheep are blessedly unmindful of the things they have done. For faith always focuses on the deeds of Christ.  “When did we do all these things?  All we did was believe in Jesus!”  Faith forgets itself that it may forever remember and Christ and His eternal gifts.

    Our Lord Jesus won those gifts for you by becoming needy in your place.  He was weak and hungry when He was tested in the wilderness.  On the cross He hung without clothing and said, “I thirst.”  He Himself took your infirmities and bore your sicknesses in His own body on the tree.  He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people.  He put Himself into the bondage of your hellish prison so that He might burst the bars of your captivity from the inside by His mighty resurrection. Through Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are released from your sins; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him.  He made Himself to be the least of the brethren so that you would receive the greatest of His mercies.  It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you. 

    That’s how you receive the eternal inheritance, which was prepared  from the very foundation of the world.  It is written in Revelation 13 that Jesus the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world.  The reality of the cross holds sway from the very beginning of creation.  It’s all a gift to you, given through the merits of Christ.

    Let us never forget, then, that the separation of the sheep and the goats occurs at Calvary. That’s where destinies are decided.  It was a goat who was crucified at Jesus’ left, one who mocked Him and didn't believe.  But crucified on Jesus’ right was a sheep who prayed in faith, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”  Brothers and sisters of Christ, you are at Jesus’ right hand.  For you were adopted into the family of God by water and the Word.  All that the Father has is yours.  And so you also are given to pray to the risen Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  And Jesus responds by giving you the Paradise of His own body and blood, where you are with Him and He is with you.  He says to you even now, “Come, you blessed of My Father, come to the altar; receive the kingdom prepared for you, given and shed for you, from the foundation of the world.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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