Matthew 25:31-36 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
November 20, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 25:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, 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 no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, 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.”
Oriole Park at Camden Yards has a seating capacity of 45,480. I want you to imagine that every seat is filled and the stadium is at full capacity. You are standing in short center field, just beyond second base facing home plate. Start to turn to your right, looking at the stands along the third base line, then out to left field. Keep turning slowly, looking at the crowd in center field, then right field, and finally coming down the first base line back to home plate. You’ve seen the entire crowd of 45,480 people. Now, identify the Christians.
Yeah, right. We can’t possibly look at 45,480 people and identify, by looking at a person, who is or who is not a Christian. Why? Because Christians and non-Christians look the same. People on earth are intermingled and believers in Jesus Christ live side-by-side with non-believers. They are indistinguishable from one another. Between the Christian and non-Christian there is no apparent difference. Think of it this way. In the wintertime, can you tell the healthy tree apart from the unhealthy tree? Maybe if you are a certified arborist you can, but for most of us, healthy and unhealthy trees all look the same. They are both a bunch of leafless branches. It’s not until beautiful springtime that you can tell the difference. The healthy trees bud, produces leaves, and fruit. The unhealthy ones remain lifeless sticks.
How then is a Christian identified? By the leaves and the fruit they produce because they are Christians. What makes a Christian a healthy tree that will grow leaves and fruit? The gift of saving faith in Jesus Christ. The faithless soul of the non-believers will produce none of the leaves and fruits of faith, but the faith-filled soul of the believer will. It is as Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
But here we must be careful. Do Christians always produce the fruits of faith? Let me ask it another way, do you and I always live and act like Christians? Do non-believers always live and act like non-believers? Of course the answer to both is “No.” Sometimes I act the way non-believers act. Sometimes I talk the way non-believers talk. Are you like that too? Peer pressure isn’t just for children and teens anymore. Peer pressure influences adults daily. While our Christian faith says “no” to sin and a life of thought, word, and action that goes against God’s Word, we are daily tempted and influenced by the devil, the people in the world, and our own sinful flesh to do what the non-believer does who lives without saving faith.
Think about the works that people without faith in Jesus do by nature. In Galatians 5 Paul calls them the works of the flesh. See if you have ever fallen into one of these pits. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)
Faithless souls that do not produce the healthy fruit of faith have so salvation. Yet, at times, we Christians act just like these faithless souls. We who “belong to Christ Jesus” and who “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” seem to return to those passions and desires more regularly than any of us would care to admit. And that means that there is no full-proof way for you and I to identify beyond a shadow of a doubt who is and who is not a Christian. Believers and non-believers remain indistinguishable to us in this world. But we are quite distinguishable to the Lord Jesus.
That means that there should be no cause for fear or alarm that Jesus is going to mistake Christians for non-Christians, non-believers for believers. Salvation is not ours because we were just a little bit better than good. Salvation is not ours because we produce perfect fruit. We’ve already seen that even the works we do because we are Christians are not perfect. Salvation belongs to people because of the free gift of God.
That gift of God is His one and only Son, Jesus Christ. That gift of God is the complete forgiveness of sins and eternal life that Jesus won for all people when He died on the cross and rose again from the dead. Salvation is God’s gift to people not because of who they are or because of what they have done, but solely because of who God is and what He did for people by sending Jesus to be the world’s Savior. You see, God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth that Jesus is Savior and Lord. And to make that possible, Jesus died for our sins. He won our forgiveness so God could give people yet another gift—saving faith or trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Saving faith is a gift of God the Holy Spirit given to us by the Means of Grace—the Gospel and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. This faith trusts that Jesus died for me; that Jesus rose for me; that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection I have forgiveness and eternal life not because of me but completely because of Jesus. This is what the precious Word of God tells us in Ephesians 2, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (vv. 8-9)
Christians have this gift of God. Christians have saving faith in Jesus Christ. You and I can’t see faith in the heart, but you know who does. “When the Son of Man comes in all His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Earthly shepherds separate the flock by their type of body—sheep or goat. Christ the Good Shepherd separates people by their type of soul—ones with saving faith in Him alone and ones without saving faith.
You see, even though we have saving faith and we sin, we still are covered by the blood of Jesus and are forgiven. Christ, when He comes again, will not separate people based on good works and bad works but on the basis of who has faith in Him as Savior and Lord and who does not. It is by faith alone that we are saved. Works, the fruits of faith, are just that. They are the works that we do because we are Christians, imperfect and flawed as they are. In fact, most of the time we don’t even know we are doing them. “Then the righteous will answer [Jesus], saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)
One day, Jesus the King will say to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” On that day you can be sure that you are indeed blessed by the Father with saving faith in Jesus and that is your assurance of life everlasting in God’s Kingdom. While someone standing on the field at Oriole Park might not pick you out as a Christian from the other 45,479, you can be certain that Jesus can and will pick you out as His disciple from the billions of people who will stand before Him on the Last Day. He died for you. His blood won your forgiveness. Jesus knows you. He knows your faith. He knows your love for Him and for others that come in response to His great love for you. So come, you who are blessed by the Father, inherit the Kingdom He has prepared for you. Your faith in Jesus has saved you. Go into eternal life in His peace. Amen.