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Meeting Christ's Least Brothers and Sisters in

based on Mat. 25: 31-46
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A sermon by Rev. Frank Schaefer

Today we celebrate the first day of a new year and one would expect the Scriptures to offer a hopeful word for the future.  Well, our texts do offer hope for the future--just not for eternity, but also for the immediate future. The message according to Mat. 25: 31 is that how we live in the here and now will have an impact on how we will live in eternity.

The scene described in our Scripture passage is awe-inspiring: the Lord of righteousness is seated on His thrown to preside over the biggest trial ever; the defendants are you and I and all people who ever lived. Another passage suggests that books are being pulled from the shelves, the files that contain all deeds of everyone: the A-and-B work, as well as the C, D, or even the F work. For some reason, when I envision this scene of judgment, I cannot quite...get into the spirit of what Christians should joyfully expect as  Judgment Day. In fact, the idea of a personal evaluation by God Himself triggers uncomfortable images in my mind.

Today we live in a world of examinations, evaluations, tests and quizzes. We go through personal job interviews, physical examinations, annual staff evaluations, and, of course, final exams and research papers, right Martha? And we do not always do as well as we would like to. Perhaps it is understandable for twentieth-century people to come to this Great Trial passage with reservations.

Moreover, its message seems so radical in today's pluralistic world. We do not read about an elaborate grading system from A to F used in this examination, there is not even a category for "average." The verdicts are: pass or fail, heaven or hell. And so, Christians throughout the ages have asked themselves: Who will make it, and who won't? Who is in and who is out? Who is this group that is identified as the sheep? United Methodists? Well, just look at our good Sunday school program and the generous support for world missions. Southern Baptists? Yeah, they know their Bible pretty well. Catholics? Well, they’ll probably make it, after going through purgatory. But then, there are others about whom we’re not so sure.

Emo Phillips describes the issue well in one of his sketches about a man who discovers a man about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. He tries to talk the man down from the bridge by witnessing to him. Let me read you a part of this conversation:

I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu or what?"

He said, "A Christian."

I said, "Small world! Me too. Protestant or Catholic or Greek Orthodox?" He said, "Protestant."

I said, "Me too! What denomination?"

He said, "Baptist."

I said, "Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Baptist."

I said, "Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."

I said, "Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist."

I said, "Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Eastern Region?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region."

I said, "Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or 1912?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great

Lakes Region Council of 1912."

I screamed, "DIE HERETIC!!!" And pushed him over the edge.

Who will make it, and who won't? In our text, King Jesus praises those who did charitable works. They are welcome to enter the kingdom of heaven because they showed compassion to...well to whom exactly did they show compassion? "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me," we read in Verse 40. Some scholars argue that this group Jesus identifies as "the least of his brothers and sisters" must be his followers, Christians; and everybody who accepts them and their gospel message is in, the others are out. Others say that this group is the remnant of the Jewish people, and whoever treats the Jewish people with compassion is in, the others are out. Still others say this group are the poor and the needy. Whoever helps those unfortunate is in, whoever doesn't is out.

So, who are the ones we are supposed to clothe, visit, feed, and welcome? That seems to be the question everybody is asking of this passage. It is that familiar question again that keeps popping up in the gospels: The rich young ruler asks, "what do I need to do to get saved? The Pharisees ask, "Who is my neighbor, that I am supposed to love?"

But what if this was not crucial question to ask at all? What if Matthew left us in the dark on purpose? What if Jesus deliberately did not point to anyone in particular when he said "these least brothers and sisters of mine"? I think that Jesus purposely kept silent about who his least brothers and sisters are.

Notice that the righteous in our text ask the Lord: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?" These "blessed by the Father" as they are called, did not really know who Christ’s least brothers and sisters were. They were not even conscious of their good deeds of kindness, they flowed from their Christ-like lifestyle. They didn't run around with a good-deed-check-off list, always ready to make new entries: "Knocked at three doors today to invite someone to church, helped an old lady to get across the street.... No, what King Jesus sees in this group of good people is their attitude of kindness.

In Great Britain, a story is told about a man by the name of Dean Hole, who among other things, was quite successful in growing roses. In fact, his roses were so beautiful, they were the talk of his neighborhood. At times people who walked by his front yard would stop just to behold their beauty, and to take in the sweet scent they exuded. One day, a neighbor asked Mr. Hole to share his horticultural secret ready to jot down the name of a special fertilizer, or some special clipping technique. He was quite astonished when Mr. Hole replied: "He that would grow beautiful roses in his garden must first grow them in his heart."

Likewise, good deeds toward others must grow out of our attitude toward others, they flow from our Christ-likeness, from what’s in our hearts. Asking the question: "Who are Christ’s least brothers and sisters?" on the other hand is like trying to fulfill the minimum requirement. It’s like asking the professor: "Is this going to be on the exam?"

If our attitude in general is that to be Christ-like, however, then we don’t need to ask what am I supposed to do, because the love of God in our hearts will put us in a position where we find ourselves feeding those who are hungry, clothing those who are naked, and visiting those who are sick.

Let us in this new year of 2002 adopt an attitude of kindness and compassion toward others.  Let us strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and if we really do, then there will be fresh hope in this world--a hope for a future with less hunger, homelessness, oppression and human despair.  Let us be little Christs, which is what the term "Christian" means.  Happy 2002 everybody!