Jesus Calls Us To Action
(Sermon Preached By Aileen Deas - From Bethany Christian Trust.
Read : Matthew 25 : 31 - 46
As an ex High School girl this time of year after the Christmas season meant prelims, panicked revision and the dread that as sure as eggs was eggs I'd have studied the wrong bit of the course and the questions wouldn't fit what I'd swotted up on. If only we could know the exam topics in advance how great that would be, we'd be sure to pass!
In the passage in Matthew 25 we read this morning Christ not only gives us the exam topics, He gives us tips on how to prepare for them too! It relates to Christ's second coming and really tells us what we should do to be ready for it.
I think that this chapter makes a compelling case, not just for Christian social action per se, but for each of us to be actively involved in it. What will happen is that Christ will look at how we have lived our lives. He will assess our lives and He'll do it by setting us an exam. The thing is that at the time He comes the exam will already be over. We should already have completed it and submitted it for assessment. Remember that sinking feeling when the invigilator said "time up" and you had to hand in the paper for marking whether you were finished or not. That's the way it will be when Christ comes again. As much as we have done [with our lives] at that point, that much we will be assessed on. We will be classed as sheep or goats; those who did or did not live up to Christ's expectations.
So the story of the sheep and the goats tells us what Christ will be looking for. We are told that we will be assessed on how we have responded to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the sick. In other words we are to be judged on how much we have had compassion for and provided for the needs of the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable in our communities. So how well do we feel we are we doing so far?
Bethany Christian Trust runs the Acorn Group; a drop-in service for young mothers. A group of women come along regularly with their children. They share fellowship, some food and discuss issues that affect them as women. Just after the group finished one day, one of our staff was walking back to her office. A girl whom the staff member recognised as the daughter of one of the women asked if her mum had been at the Acorn Group that day. When the staff member said that she had, the girl's face lit up with a big smile. "Great" she said. "That means we'll have rolls for tea tonight". The girl's father uses the family's money to finance his own habits and lifestyle to the extent that they often go without food. The girl knew that her mum would have been given some left over food from the Acorn Group to share with the rest of the family that evening.
Now there may not necessarily be that degree of hunger in this or similar neighbourhoods in the city. You can guarantee though, that there are other forms of hunger and thirst very close by in this and in any other community. There are folks all around who have a hunger and thirst for affection, for meaning in their lives, for a sense of belonging, for Christ. There are the children whose parents abuse them, are not there or are not interested enough to give them the attention they need. There is the person who knows that there must be more to life than working and sleeping but doesn't know what; the person newly moved in and who is still finding their way around and looking for acceptance.
Similarly there are strangers in our city. Asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants, incomers who move into Edinburgh for of all sorts of reasons come to mind. There are also those who are strangers because they are estranged by the rest of us by virtue of their disability, ethnic origin, financial status or anything else that sets them apart as different. Christ will be looking for the extent to which we invited these strangers into our homes, our churches and our lives. He will be looking to see whether we noticed those who were hungry and thirsty around us and whether we did anything about reaching out to them; making them feel welcomed and cared for. What are we doing about it?
In verse 36, the New Revised Standard Version talks about those in need of clothes. Now if there were large numbers of unclothed people roaming around the city of Edinburgh, I think the Evening News and the Sunday papers would be telling us all about it in all too graphic detail. However the Message translation talks here about homelessness rather than nakedness. There is homelessness in Edinburgh. Different people become homeless for different reasons. Let me share a couple of examples with you.
14 months ago Andy had a job and his own house, becoming homeless was the last thing he expected. He admits now the only thing he knew about homeless people then was what he'd seen on TV and he thought they were all drug addicts and alcoholics.
Andy left school at 16 with no qualifications. In the Borders where he lived he could get work either fishing or farming so he got a job on a farm and moved into one of the farm cottages. It was coming up to his 19th year working there when the farm went into receivership. It was a total shock. Everyone was made redundant and because his house came with the job he lost that as well. He tried to get into a council house but was fighting a losing battle because he wasn't seen as a high priority case. In that area housing is scarce. He didn't know what to do so he came to Edinburgh to stay with friends but that was just a short term solution.
Someone suggested that he go to Bethany House. He was a bit wary. Out in the country he had heard about stuff going on in places like that, but he decided that he couldn't afford anything else. At first it was difficult being there. He'd never been around people with drug problems before. Once people got to know him and he got to know them things got better. He had been struggling to get benefits because he wasn't in the system and didn't know how it worked but the staff at Bethany House helped with all of that. Between last March and September was the only time Andy hadn't worked since leaving school and he found it really frustrating. He started to feel that he was useless. One of the staff at Bethany House suggested volunteering as a porter on a Bethany van. Volunteering really kept him sane. Life is ten-fold better now. Andy has a full time job as a van driver/team leader and has moved into a Bethany flat.
Like Andy, a lot of the people at the hostel think of themselves as useless. It's important that we do not to give up on them and encourage them not to give up on themselves. As caring individuals we can point people in the right direction and give them the support they need. For Andy it was Bethany staff who came alongside him and showed the love and support he needed to get his life back on track again. The relationship he had with his support worker was key to his recovery.
Surely the Church more than most organisations has a key role to play in bringing healing, developing and building supportive relationships; in coming alongside those whom others have chosen to ignore or reject. In Matthew 25, Christ uses very clear and strong language to show us just how important He thinks it is for His church to engage with and help vulnerable people.
So returning to the passage how do we interpret the parable of the sheep and the goats? As always we need to be careful to always interpret scripture with other scripture and to do so wisely. Taken on its own, this passage could be used as an argument for salvation by works. We know that salvation comes by grace, so what are we to take from what Christ is saying here? In this, as in other parables, I think Christ is exaggerating to make a point. I don't think that He is saying our salvation will be assured if we engage in social action or be stripped from us if we don't.
I think Christ is saying that salvation comes by grace but once it is received, certain behaviour is expected of us as Christians; as the church. Central to that behaviour is care and compassion for the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable. That was how Christ led His life and that is how He wants us to live our lives too. Remember we said that the sheep and goats story tells us about what Christ will do when He returns.
With that in mind, I think that there are two very simple messages in the parables. Firstly, we are to put time and effort in preparing for Christ's coming. Secondly we are to make good use of the resources God has given us, investing them wisely in what we are told He is concerned about and not to waste them.
Are we willing to take the resources God has given us and invest them in our communities; making a difference in the lives of those vulnerable people? Or will we be the ones rushing about unprepared, wishing we had done something earlier? What sort of spiritual return do we get from how we spend our time, our money, our gifts and abilities, our prayer life? Do we invest in working with the vulnerable in our society and produce a return in changed lives? Or do we bury our resources away in ourselves, our families and Christian groups for fear of risking them on so unpredictable a venture as reaching out to those who seem so very different to us? We know from the parable that whatever we do, the one thing we cannot do is nothing.
As always, with free will, the choice is ours. We need to make that choice wisely. Often you don't have to do much to make a difference, just care (with the love of Christ) and act (in faith). Volunteering with an organisation or service that works directly with vulnerable people is a good way to get involved. Get involved, join with other Christians in your area to make a difference in someone's life. You never know what you say and do may make a turning point in someone's life.
Christ's message in Matthew 25 is clear. Christ, three days before he knows He is going to die, wants to be sure his church will follow His example and spend its time, energy and resources on helping the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. That is how He will assess our lives on His return.
We are all able do something. We are all called to do something. We are not allowed to do nothing. What will you do?
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