Reflection: "Love Draws Near"
In the last few weeks, we’ve looked at the parables of the 10 bridesmaids and of the 3 servants with talents.
This week we’re looking at a story featuring the King who comes to us, draws near and shows us how to offer practical love to the needy folk around us.
One of the privileges of being a Pastor is that I get to go to a lot of funerals.
It’s an honour and a pleasure to assist the family in giving thanks for the life of the loved one whom they have lost.
It means that I get to hear a lot of people speaking about what they thought was important in the life of the person who died.
It probably won’t surprise you that the tribute payers never speak about how much money the person made, how flashy their house was, or how many possessions they had accumulated. Instead, it’s almost exclusively about relationships – especially about their relationships with family, and whether they have been able to do some good for others in the world.
That is how our loved ones will sum up our life at its end.
In today’s parable, Jesus raises the question of how God will judge our life at its conclusion, and guess what, God also looks at our lives in terms of relationships.
God dearly wants to be in a loving relationship with us and Jesus says the way God knows we are responding to his love is to look at how we pass on that love to others.
You can’t repay God’s grace – you can only pay it forward.
Jesus says that God especially wants to know whether, like him, we are trying to love the imperfect, the struggling, the ones no one else seems to love – the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, etc. It’s a tough task.
I imagine that if Jesus came into our church on Sunday morning and asked for the sheep to be on one side and the goats on the other, most of us would be standing in the centre aisle.
Yes, we’ve tried to love and care for the poor, the hungry or the refugees, but we’ve also had plenty of selfish and self-centred moments.
We need to remember just who is telling this story – Jesus, the one who shows us that God loves us despite our failures, not because of our good deeds.
The more we open ourselves to that grace, the more we can pass on that grace to those who need it most.
I know it’s tragic, but I’m a fan of the book and TV show The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, by the late Douglas Adams.
For those who haven’t come across it yet, it’s a comic science fiction novel about the end of the world, other intelligent life in the universe, and ultimate answers.
One of the chapters in the book actually provides, thanks to the universe's most powerful computer, called Deep Thought, the “Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”.
After seven and a half million years of calculation, Deep Thought reveals that the answer is 42.
And then, to those baffled folks wondering what they can possibly do with that answer, Deep Thought suggests that maybe the problem is that they've never really thought through what the ultimate question actually is.
So, when we come to this climactic passage from the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew, should the question be “how do we gain everlasting life, or go to Heaven, when we die?”
Or should it be “what are we supposed to be doing right now?”
When we're seeking Ultimate Answers, how we understand the question matters quite a bit.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is seen separating sheep and goats and is described as a king on his throne, rewarding his subjects according to their adherence to his great ethical commandment of compassion.
The passage comes in the last great teaching discourse in Matthew, a long section about the end of the world and the time of completion, it follows numerous parables about being ready for whatever is coming, whenever it gets here.
A thief in the night.
A slave and a master.
Foolish bridesmaids who are unprepared.
Slaves given trust over things while the master is away.
Apocalyptic stories about judgment and being prepared.
So what’s the question?
Is this passage about believing in God, so that you’ll go to Heaven when you die?
The Bible's central message is not about believing in God so that you’ll go to Heaven when you die.In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, belief in and of itself, is not sufficient for the disciples of Jesus.
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers.
And in the Great Commission, Jesus doesn't ask them to form disciples who believe that he is the Messiah, instead, he says
“teach them to observe every ethical teaching I have commanded of you.”
If you think the question is “am I going to Heaven?”, “will I be saved?”, or “am I a sheep or a goat?”, then Matthew suggests you’ve missed the point.
What you're seeking, is not actually pie in the sky, but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “pie in the here and now”.
A jolt from a spiritual cattle prod - that will help you struggle up the path that awaits you this week, month, year.
So maybe the question we should ask is not what happens at the end of things, but more like what am I supposed to be doing right now?
What does Jesus want me to do?
How will my life be different if Christ is King and his love draws near to me?
The conflict over who is Lord, is acted out in our lives today and every day.
The world still wants us to worship all that is “not-God”, and our culture even rewards us when we do.
But this conflict between the two Kingdoms, one of this world and one of the divine realm, becomes clearly delineated in the life of Christ.
Jesus tells us that the usual things people elevate as gods – like power, wealth, celebrity and fame - are replaced in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community. Life in God's Kingdom is not about self-aggrandisement, but about self-denial.
It's not about big words, it's about powerful actions.
Life in God's Kingdom is not about what you have, or who you are, it's about what you do.It's not about what the world values, but what God values.
Some years ago, I was asking God to let me know what he wanted me to do with my life.
I prayed hard, asked often, and the result, was this: a friend got up at church and talked about a new ministry he was involved in, called the Kairos prison ministry.
I realised immediately that this was right for me.
The main bible verse they use is one that we read today, Matthew 25:36
“I was in prison and you visited me”.
So, instead of listening to the world, which says "believe in me, and act like a goat", the message should be this:
“if you love God, if your values are God-values instead of the world's values, if Christ actually is your King, then you will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives.If your values are God-values, you can't help but live as Christ taught.” So how are things going to end?
What happens after we die?
I don't know - and I suspect that you don’t, either.
But we do know the shape of the story a loving God is writing for us:
If Christ is King, we know that Jesus will be waiting for us at the end of our story, that he will see us and know us and that if we’ve done what he taught us, he’ll claim us as his own.His love will draw very near to us.
And, I have to say, that question and answer are enough for me.