Do you ever wonder what it was like to be Jesus? What did he care about, with whom did he associate? New research shows that there is a growing group of people who “love Jesus but not the church.” Where is the disconnect? In what ways can the church, as the Body of Christ, look and act like Jesus?
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Our scripture this morning invites us to imagine a time when Jesus returns and the final judgment is made. Most Presbyterians don’t tend to talk about this a whole lot. And I’m generally inclined to stay away from it as well.
You see, we can only conjecture and guess at what is to come. And we could spend a lifetime wondering about it; some people do. But I’m of the belief that there is so much to be done now, so much to work for and make right right before us, that’d I’d rather expend my energy focusing on the people before me, rather than in guessing at a mystery that will always elude me.
These scripture verses from Matthew, however, although they speak of a time to come, enlighten for us how we might be living our lives today.
Dennis Duling, a New Testament scholar says, “The criteria [that is the criteria for who is welcomed to inherit God’s Kingdom verses those who are sent away] are whether a person has performed works of mercy to those in great need in the present world.”
Your actions, not your beliefs or your good intentions or your ‘thoughts and prayers’, but your actions are what get you welcomed by God.
Now, that is held in tension with our Reformed belief that states that we are saved by grace alone and faith alone. They are held in tension, but not in opposition. Because, you see, we are saved by God’s grace alone, but because we respond in faith, our actions will then follow. Our actions do not save us, but they are proof of a faith that resides within us.
Jesus says, “You shall know them by their fruits,” (Matthew 7:16). And our response, our compassion and love and acts of mercy for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison, and a stranger (which can also be translated as an immigrant, by the way), those are the fruits of our faith. And this is what Jesus was all about.
The Gospels each tell us a slightly different version of this person called Jesus who was also the Son of God. Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and others have done some great work on the “Historical Jesus,” that is the person of Jesus, separate from the Christian narratives, but who he may have been as a person in history, reconstructing the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth using critical, historical methods. And the church’s confessions, our creeds, our statements of faith, they also tell us of who this Jesus was. Some of them more so than others.
In your bulletin package this morning, you have several inserts. One of them is a piece of paper with two confessions on them: A Brief Statement of Faith written in 1982 and The Apostles’ Creed with roots and pieces of it tracing all the way back to the first apostles.
These two creeds both talk about Jesus, but in very different ways.
The Apostles’ Creed talks about the nature of Jesus, focusing more on his divinity.
The sum of his life’s ministry, is held in a comma.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…
So we go from Jesus’ birth to his death, and all that happened in between is held in a comma.
“A Brief Statement of Faith,” however, takes a slightly different approach.
And I would invite you now, to please rise in body or in spirit, and say together what we believe using the words from “A Brief Statement of Faith.”
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.
We trust in Jesus Christ,
Fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children,
healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.
You may be seated.
This is what we as a church profess to believe.
“A Brief Statement of Faith” takes the time to flesh out Jesus’ ministry, to name what he was about when he walked this earth. And it does so because the writers of this statement of faith believed that we, as the church, are called to be like Christ, to do the things he did when he was among us.
We, the church, are the Body of Christ. And if we are to be Jesus in the world today, we need to know what Jesus was all about.
These different portrayals of Jesus, the gospels, the confessions, the historical criticisms, they all show us more fully who he was. But here are some fundamental ways that they all agree: Jesus was a brown-skinned, middle-eastern man, a Palestinian Jew, living under Roman occupation. He challenged the current religion of his day, pushing for reform, pushing to love people more than laws; seeking to include and stand with those who were on the margins, those who were ostracized and silenced.
And he also challenged the current politics of his day. The way of Pax Romana was violence. The Roman Empire was vast, and it found what it called “peace” through conquest, through violence, and through fear. And to that Jesus said, “no.” Where there is no justice there is no peace. And although he could’ve taken up arms and fought back to save his own life, Jesus instead tells Peter to “put away his sword.”
Violence would not be his way. Love would be his way. But not a sentimental, romantic love. Rather a deep, agape love that transforms lives and systems so that all may have life and have it abundantly.
I said this two weeks ago, and I’ll say it again, quoting Cornell West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
The kind of love Jesus shared was a public love, a love that demanded justice for the least of these. That kind of love is dangerous.
Walter Brueggemann says this, “The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.”
So the question for us is: How much of that dangerous idea, that dangerous love can we perform and live out in our own lives? How much of that can we embody as the Body of Christ, the church?
There has been some research by The Barna Group that shows there is an increasing number of people who identify as those who “Love Jesus but Not the Church.” These are different from the “Spiritual but not religious” group because they actually identify as Christian, believe really orthodox things about their faith, they’d even say they are religious and follow Christ religiously. But they do not attend a church. In fact, they are “de-churched” – that is they have attended church in the past, but no longer do so.
Here’s what the studies show, “They still love Jesus, still believe in Scripture and most of the tenets of their Christian faith. But they have lost faith in the church.” (https://www.barna.com/research/meet-love-jesus-not-church)
Somehow, for this group of people, their understanding of Jesus whom they love is not reflected in the church that is supposed to be the Body of Christ.
Now, I’m sure that for some of these folks, they’re just not looking hard enough. There are plenty of churches being Jesus in the world. But the fault does not solely lie in those who have lost faith in the church. The church carries some of this blame, too.
All too often, the church is not on the forefront of justice, but drags its feet, asking those who are the most threatened or on the margins to wait. Wait until the church is ready. Wait until a more convenient time. Wait. Wait, and we will eventually be on the side of justice. But please, just wait.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once wrote from a jail cell, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” So how long will we wait?
Friends, we are the Body of Christ. We have heard and learned and read what this Christ was like here on earth. We are called to go and do likewise.
But here’s what really gets me from this scripture passage. In it, Jesus doesn’t identify with the ones who help those in need. Instead, Jesus says, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these, you did to me.’”
Jesus isn’t the one who feeds the hungry; Jesus is the one who is hungry. Jesus isn’t the one who gives drink to the thirsty; Jesus is the one who is thirsty. Jesus isn’t the one welcomes the stranger or immigrant; Jesus is the stranger and the immigrant.
We are missing Jesus if we do not go and serve him in the world.
That’s what gets me. That’s who Jesus is. And that is a total reversal of my thinking.
And yet, on this day, the first Sunday of the month, here at Calvary, Jesus does indeed invite us to be served by him. Because he is the host at the Lord’s Table, too. Because, quite frankly, we need that. We need to be nourished and served and welcomed unequivocally.
And that’s what happens when we come and dine at the Lord’s Table.
Jesus was homeless when he walked this earth, so he was always the guest.
In the homes of Martha, Mary, Peter and Jairus, Joanna and Susanna, tax collectors and Pharisees, he was always the guest.
At the meal tables of the wealthy where he pleaded the cause of the poor; Upsetting polite company; befriending the lost and the lonely, practicing radical hospitality.
But here, at this table, he is the host.
Those who wish to serve him must first be served by him.
Those who want to follow him, must first be fed by him.
Those who would wash his feet must first let him make them clean.
For this is the table where God intends us to be nourished; this is the meal where our eyes are opened and we recognize the Risen Lord.
So come, you who hunger and thirst for a deeper faith and a fairer world. Jesus, who sat at our tables, invites us to be guests at his.