Atlanta is a city known for several things. It has the Braves, heritage from Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in my opinion, the absolute worst traffic jams in America.
It’s a great city, and one I’ve enjoyed visiting from time to time. Atlanta has been on my mind this week. Not because I’m wishing to sit in traffic james on Interstate 85. Instead, it is because of a mission trip experience there that still impacts me today.
In 2007, I was a youth counselor for a middle school mission trip to Atlanta. My role was to chaperone and drive one of the vans. We were scheduled to be in Atlanta for a week. When we arrived, we were separated into smaller teams and assigned certain ministry areas. My team had two projects. Our first two days were spent at a home doing painting and general cleaning. The final two days were spent at an adult day center that focused on mentally handicapped patients. At this facility, we did several activities, from helping with a talent show to simply visiting with the residents.
When we talked with the residents, we would enter this cafeteria-like room. The residents were spread out all over the room, and it was where they spent a lot of their recreational time. Their activities would range from reading to putting together puzzles. In some case, the residents just sat alone.
Our group went around and spent time with many of the residents. However, the kids who were with me only really talked to one person. It’s not because we didn’t want to meet people. We did. We were lost in conversation with this one person.
I can’t remember his name, so we will call him “John.” When we met John, he was sitting alone. I can’t really remember what he was doing, but I do remember that he was full of life and loved to talk. On both days we met with him, he wore a lanyard that was decorated with footballs. He loved to talk about football. We spent a decent amount of our time just talking about football. At one point, he wanted me to get him an autograph from Rich Rodriguez. (I always have a way of bringing up West Virginia University in a conversation.)
The time we spent with John was special. It wasn’t because of anything we did. We just talked. I’m convinced that John had more of an impact on us than we did on him. He gave us memories that are still precious. My time with John was some of the most meaningful I experienced during the trip.
At the time, I didn’t understand why. I thought it was because we had an enjoyable experience with John. He made us laugh. He made us smile. That’s not why it was memorable. I firmly believe we met Christ in those two days with John. We weren’t talking to a resident of an adult day care center. We were talking to the Risen Lord and the King of Kings.
We were serving Christ when we talked to John.
Now, I have a feeling I know what you are thinking. Either you are thinking I am not making any sense, or you are praising God I am going away for a few days of rest. I can’t be making any sense, right? How were you serving Christ, Shannon? Christ is in Heaven, he’s not on earth, right?
Hear me, today, when I say Christ was surely there. In our conversations with John, Christ was sitting right there. We were talking with Christ. As we see in our Scripture passage for today, Christ our King is served when we minister to the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the prisoner, and anyone society would call “the least of these.” We meet Christ when we serve the needy in our communities. These are very important statements, and we need to unpack them. Our passage for today helps us to understand what it means for a community of Christ to be in community with Christ and the world.
If you haven’t already, I want to invite you to turn to Matthew 25. Let’s walk through this passage and see where Christ may be calling us today.
This is the final parable in Matthew’s gospel. Meaning this is the last teaching moment Jesus has his disciples before being arrested. That alone should tell us this is an important passage.
In verses 31 and 32, Jesus begins by saying the Son of Man, Christ, will come and sit on his glorious throne. When that day comes, there will be a separation of the sheep and goats. The sheep will be placed on the right side, while the goats will be on the left. When the day of judgment comes, Jesus will sit on his throne as King. He will have all the authority in heaven to make judgments based on our actions. Everyone will be gathered around Jesus. He will separate the people. Some will put on his right, and some will be on his left.
There is a symbolism here. Being placed at someone’s right hand would be to give them a place of honor. This is what we see in Mark 16:19. At the Ascension, Jesus rose to heaven and took his place at the right hand of God. From there, Christ will judge everyone based on how they responded to his call to faith.
People known as sheep were given the place of honor, and the goats were not. Why? Why would Christ separate them? There was something about their response to God that required their separation.
In verse 34, Jesus applauds the sheep for their actions. Almost like our passage last week, Jesus says the sheep did something that is worth adding to our own faith journey. When Christ was hungry, they fed him. When he was thirsty, they gave him water. When he was lonely, they gave him community. The sheep served Christ by reaching out to the least of God’s children, those society says to “leave behind.” Instead of leaving them behind, the sheep welcomed society’s outcasts with hospitality and love.
The sheep recognized that when they ventured into the world, there was a potential of seeing Christ. Even more, the sheep were willing to follow Christ’s teachings about loving God and loving their neighbor and applied it to everyone. The sheep saw those in need as their neighbor and someone God called them to serve. Chrysostom, an early father of the church, says the sheep were able to see that they were welcoming Christ. For this, Jesus says, they will receive their inheritance of an eternal life with God.
The sheep do not receive this inheritance because they do “good things.” This is not the way to God. We cannot earn our salvation based on what we do. Our good deeds flow out of our faith in Jesus Christ. Service to the needy in our community is a fruit of our relationship with Christ. Those called “sheep” understood this.
Something else stands out with the sheep in their acceptance. To understand this, we have to understand why the goats were not accepted.
Goats are prized animals. If you’re a farmer, you would rather have a goat than a sheep. There is more money available for their meat and milk products. In a way, this plays out in our parable. Goats represent the community’s “righteous” members. They believed their righteousness, or their way of understanding faith, was important and secured their salvation. Because of their membership in a church, or their good name, they believe it ensured them a place in heaven. They were not concerned with becoming more like Christ. Instead, they wanted to be more like themselves.
In a way, what we see is Christ saying he did not know the goats. You can imagine their shock when they find out they did not receive the inheritance of a life with God. They questioned the King by asking when they had the opportunity to serve him. I almost wonder if what they really wanted to say was “Don’t you know who we are? Don’t you know what we have done for the church? How dare you keep us from heaven! We earned this!”
Jesus says the goats never did what he asked. They were never concerned about the needs of others. Goats were only concerned about their own needs and their own righteousness. For this reason, Jesus says they will have no part of God’s kingdom. They would not receive the promised inheritance of a life in heaven. Their self-focused attitude prevented them from experiencing the fullness of a life in Christ.
It’s hard to hear these words from Jesus. We want parables to have a happy ending. Scripture doesn’t always give us the “sitcom ending,” where everyone is happy at the end of the story. Scripture challenges our basic ideas and thoughts about life. It does this so we might all grow in what it means to be followers of Christ in our communities and our personal lives.
More than that, it’s hard to hear these words from Jesus, because we might be more like goats than sheep. When we see Christ’s call to care for the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, we might have paused for a moment and thought about the opportunities we have missed in serving someone else. Those might have been a missed opportunity to serve Christ. All of us have been guilty of missing a chance of caring for the poor and needy.
I could say a few words about caring for people. I could remind all of us how we’ve been blessed beyond our wildest imaginations and how we are called to give to others as Christ has given to us. These would be good and well-intended thoughts, and we need to be reminded of them today. But they would miss a greater point. Why does it matter if we serve others?
Ministry to others gets a key aspect of Jesus’ words from Matthew 22. He says we are called to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. These two ideas must be held together. We cannot separate them. They cannot act on their own. We cannot say “Well, I only need to love God, so I don’t need to care for the world.” At the same time, we cannot say “Well, if I change the world then God will love me.” Both are goat-like statements that put us in the role of determining the course of ministry to others and ignore God’s desires. If we truly seek to serve Christ, we must hold loving God and loving our neighbor together. We cannot do one without the other. We must love God and love our neighbor as a community and in our personal lives.
True mission and ministry to others comes in community. As followers of Christ, we are not called to a faith of isolation. Our faith is not just a personal faith, though it certainly has personal implications. Faith calls us to community with God and with each other. As we are in community with God and other believers, we are called to be in community with the world. In our Christian communities, Acts 2:44-45 calls us to care for the needs of each other in Christian love. Our call to love God and love our neighbor is our calling to take the principles of Acts 2:44-45 and apply them to our communities and world. By our relationships, by our service, and by our witness, we are called to serve others and, most importantly, serve Christ.
Faith calls us to unconditionally love others, because God unconditionally loves us first. We are called to grow in our relationship with Christ, both personally and as a community. We are called to go out from these walls and serve our neighbor and make a difference in the lives of others. We must do this in service and worship of God.
This is not about us. It is not about seeking our own fulfillment. It is about seeking an opportunity to serve Christ. When we gather food at the first of every month, we are serving Christ as a community out of our relationship with God. This is a great ministry that is making a difference in the lives of those who are hungry in our community.
Our faith must challenge us to meet Christ in our communities, and we must do so as a community. We must love God and love our neighbor. We cannot do anything else and expect to receive our inheritance as children of God.