“A Wellness Check”

Matthew 25:31-46

Dr. Robert J. Anderson

November 23, 2014

 

 

This story in Matthew’s gospel is familiar to us.  It is a story of the last judgment.  When the Son of Man comes, all the nations will be gathered before him.  The sheep on one side and the goats on the other side.  Next there is a list of things the sheep did:  fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the prisoners.  Because they did this, they are welcomed into the eternal kingdom.  The sheep are baffled, for they don’t remember ever doing this to the Son of Man.  The answer is that whenever they responded to human need, they did it to him.

 

Then the Son of Man turns to the goats and tells them to hit the bricks!  Why?  Because they saw human need and didn’t respond to it.  Just like in the first case, they didn’t do it to the Son of Man when they saw a need and didn’t take action.  There was no food for the hungry, no drink for the thirsty, they didn’t answer the knock at the door, give clothes to the naked, take care of the sick, or visit the prisoners.

 

It is a fitting passage for this Christ the King Sunday.  The Sunday that marks the end of the Christian liturgical year.  The calendar starts with Advent followed by Christmas.  Then comes Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and Lent.  Palm/Passion Sunday begins Holy week and culminate with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.  Pentecost is next celebrating the birth of the church with the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Christ the King Sunday focuses on the return of Christ and ends the liturgical year.  Each year we go through the sacred history and grow as we remember the God who acts in history – past and unfolding now.

 

But, rather than focus on the Kingship of Christ, I want to look at what we learn about God in these verses.  In the story, Jesus says, “What you do and for the least of these--sick, hungry, homeless, oppressed, imprisoned--you do to me.  Here we find three important ideas.

 

The first thing we learn is about God.  Jesus’ God, the God of the Bible, is right here, right now in the thick of things.  God isn’t in some far off place interacting with creation with a remote control!  God is right here in the messiness of life where people are hungry, thirst, naked, sick, in prison, and lonely.  God isn’t here generally, but God is here in the specifics of your neighbor, the person you work with, the checkout person, whoever needs you.

 

We often say we see God all around us.  Diane goes to work before the sun rises and often calls to say look at the eastern sky.  It’s beautiful!  Some of you travel to north Georgia or New England and elsewhere to see the fall colors and see God’s handiwork.  But, you don’t have to go far to see God.  Look into the faces of the weak, the least, and vulnerable.  God is in the face of the hungry woman on the street with small children.  See God in the face of the family living in a car.  Look for God in the face of the shoplifter sent to jail, the missionary in a foreign prison, the man guilty of DUI manslaughter.  See his face in the person that doesn’t wear the latest or the cleanest or the most coordinated clothes.  God’s face is in the women and men sitting day after day in nursing homes with no visitors.  God is right here, right now getting his hands dirty.

 

The next thing we learn is about the practice of religion.  You can’t read or see the news without being concerned with the role that religion plays in life.  There are people committing terrible atrocities while shouting “God is great!”  This true of all religions; not just Muslims and others.  Sadly, it’s true of Christians too!  Think of the churches picketing the funerals of service personnel with hateful signs.  There is clergy abuse.  There are lists of things that enumerate all the ways to keep people out of religious communities – both because of behavior different from those on the inside or with whom they disagree over some theological point.  Religious leaders condemn each other and whose doctrine is true.  These things don’t even make it on Jesus’ list.  But, what he does say is that whatever you did to the least of these you did it to me.

 

This is the only description of the last judgment.  There is nothing here about church practices.  There is nothing mentioned about creeds, theology, or orthodoxies.  The only criterion is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the faces of people in need and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in the name of Jesus.

 

The next thing we learn isn’t about social, political, economic, or religious reality; it is about the personal.  God wants a new world modeled after Jesus.  And, God wants us--each of us.  God is a God of love who wants to save our souls.  God wants to give us the gift of life.  A life that is true, deep, and authentic: a truly human life.  God wants to save us by touching our lives with love.  God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other people who need us.  God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves and to forget about ourselves and think of others.  God’s secret truth is that to love is to live.

 

Each year we go to the doctors for an annual physical.  It’s called a wellness check.  It is not something we look forward to, but go anyway.  It is not comfortable, but we go anyway.  If heart disease runs in your family, you go whether you want to or not.  If your LDL is up you alter your diet and exercise.  If a lump is found, you follow up with another doctor.  What you learn can save your life and your insurance company thinks it is such a good idea, they pay the bill.

 

Matthew’s last judgment is a wellness check.  It is not to condemn or scare but provide an overall assessment of your faith health.  It is a check on your overall health, development, learning, and growth in your faith – development of habits that lead to life.  Our doctor wants us to live healthy lives.  Jesus, the Son of Man, wants us to live healthy and productive lives too.

 

The main thrust of this passage isn’t as much about the judgment as it is in keeping with the parables that preceded it.  It is a passage about what you and I are to be doing when the Son of Man returns.  We are to be doing the right things.  We are to respond to human need where and when we see it.  Cynicism and cooling love blind us to seeing the face of Jesus in the faces of those in need around us.  Cynicism morphs into a feeling that there are no consequences to what we do or do not do.  Cynicism makes us ripe to relying on past love and care for people.  The story of the sheep and goats is to diagnose our cynicism and root out self-centered living.

 

How we spend our time and who we actively love or don’t actively love is the diagnostic image of our overall spiritual health.  God created the world and all that is in it out of abundance of love, and God’s love continues to bubble up like a fountain.  God gives himself in creation, sends Jesus and the Holy Spirit to repeatedly fill the world with his love.  Each of us is created in the image of the freely giving God, and this means we are to freely share, because this is what it means to be created in God’s image.  We love those who can’t give back.  We love not earn God’s love or anyone else’s love, or curry favor, or be considered righteous; we give as an expression of the love that is inside us bubbling up and flowing out.  The King is looking for a natural overflow of love from us on to others.  This is the kind of love Jesus came to show.  Those who calculate to please will find themselves on the outside look in!

 

A physical wellness check--measuring weight and blood pressure.  A spiritual wellness check--measuring freely flowing love.  Welcoming strangers.  Visiting prisoners.  Feeding the hungry.  Giving drink to the thirsty.  Clothing the naked.  Healing the sick.  All of this is a key diagnostic tool to assess our spiritual health.  If we cannot share freely and fully or make ourselves available to do so, we are not spiritually healthy.  Our relationship with God is not healthy.  Our relationship with the people in the world is not healthy.  We are not taking advantage of the healthy and whole life Jesus makes available because of his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead!

 

We may not like wellness checks but they give us a chance to readjust.  We can attune our lives to the love we have in Jesus Christ that is to spill over on others.  We can look at where we are and what we are doing in our Christian faith and spiritual life that we should tend to just like we do our physical health.  Go home and read this passage again and again and let it be a wellness check for your spiritual life.