“The Faces of Jesus”
Matthew 25:31-46; excerpt by Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel
My friend Debbie Clark
Watching John Lewis’s funeral on Thursday brought me to tears as well as stirred memories within me. It has been over 11 years since a dear friend of mine from Philadelphia lost her battle with Cancer. Debbie Clark was an amazing individual by all accounts. I was asked to fly back east to participate in a tribute and provide meaning to the passing of someone who spent her entire life focused on others. Debbie had a servant’s heart—she would exude compassion and empathy for every person on the planet—even those she disagreed with. We spent hours upon hours discussing how to change the world both systemically and one person at a time. Those were good times.
I admit, I sometimes became frustrated with Debbie’s unwavering commitment to peaceful resolutions when sometimes the more expedient action would be to “make some good trouble” as John Lewis used to say. But Debbie didn’t like trouble. She was a quiet, steady, force for good. She was a prayer warrior and would get up every morning at 5:00 a.m. just to pray. And most importantly, she would spend her entire day figuring out ways to answer those prayers. Debbie Clark was a modern-day saint. One of the things that still inspires me to this day is that even though she was a conservative by most measures—she was the most open-minded conservative I have ever met. In many ways, we were miles apart in our theology and deeply held beliefs —but I never once felt judged by her.
On Becoming a Matthew 25 Congregation
Debbie would have hated this ultra-partisan world that we live in now. John Lewis hated it too. And so did Jesus. Our spiritual theme this month is “On Becoming a Matthew 25 congregation.” We will use the next month to discuss what that means and our plan to focus on vitality, racism, and poverty as a congregation in the coming year. Let me give a bit of an introduction today.
Matthew 25 was the last story that Jesus ever told, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is clearly trying to prepare his followers to continue on without him. You might conclude that it is a summary of his teaching. It’s about judgment day. All the nations of the world are there. Jesus is the judge: he’s separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep are the righteous ones: they inherit the kingdom, the reign of God. The goats, on the other hand, are treated harshly—“depart from me,” they are told. The point here is not the symbolic imagery of eternal fire but what is actually happening. There is a judgment. Human beings are accountable to God for the way they live their lives.
It is a very different scene from the popular notion of judgment day. Notice the total absence of the moralisms or beliefs that many of us were taught were the things God really cared about. There are no lifestyle issues here.
- The evangelicals of my childhood would be disappointed that Jesus doesn’t say anything about smoking or drinking or shopping on Sunday.
- Contemporary evangelicals would be disappointed that he doesn’t say a single word about sex.
- Conservatives would be disappointed that he doesn’t say a word about right doctrine, creeds, baptism, and church membership. No one says anything about conversion.
- And progressives would be disappointed that there isn’t a word here about the environment or Earth Day and our responsibility for it.
Jesus’ stunningly simple criteria is that we are held accountable for our treatment of the least of these. Jesus teaches here that your theology, your creed, what you believe… are not going to get you into heaven.
So when did Christianity become synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs? Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, tackles the issue in a book, Beyond Belief. Pagels argues that, from the beginning, what attracted people to Christianity and to the church was the presence of caring love. Those in need could find support anywhere they turned in Christian circles. Christians contributed vast amounts of money for orphans and criminals alike and were the first ones to give to and even risk their lives for the benefit of others. Sociologist Rodney Stark, observes that when the plague struck “the only response was to run away, even from members of your own family. But Christians shocked their pagan neighbors by staying to care for the sick and dying.”
Early Jews and Christians knew that God—the creator of humankind—loved the human race and calls each of us NOT TO BELIEVE certain dogmas BUT TO love one another and offer help to whomever we can—especially the neediest among us. This is at the core of the gospel message. Jesus taught this. Debbie Clark taught this. John Lewis taught this.
The Face of Jesus
This last story Jesus told actually does more than require a new way of relating to the least of us. It redefines God. God is not a remote monarch, off somewhere in the universe watching human history passively. Instead, God is here. God is present in the depths of the human condition. God is here in human struggles, in our strivings, in our loving, our living, and our dying. God is here. God is here.
In this last story of Jesus, Jesus also redefines righteousness: not as the accumulation of all the wrong you have avoided, but, quite simply, the love and compassion you have given. Jesus redefines the very heart of our faith: Jesus is present, in fact, wherever and whenever there is human need. We see the face of Jesus in the face of everyone who needs us. We see the face of Jesus in the face of the those who are homeless and poor waiting in line at food banks or facing the threat of eviction or losing their unemployment check; we see the face of Jesus in the abandoned or hungry child, in the lonely and elderly, the sick, the frightened; we see the face of Jesus closer than that even, in the one who needs your love today—your own child, your own parent, your own spouse, partner, friend. The face of Jesus is all around us—Matthew 25!
And I promise you this my friends, that face—the face of Jesus—does not give a fig about what you believe or don’t believe—it cares only what you have done for them! My good friend Debbie Clark taught me that. She helped me to realize that being a Christian was more about doing than thinking or believing. And I know that John Lewis spent his whole life—his entire illustrious 40-year career—seeing the face of Jesus in those who were considered by most as the least deserving. So I close with the last words of John Lewis—published for the first time on Thursday, July 30 in the NY Times—his last words to us:
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
Yes, now it is our turn to take the Matthew 25 pledge—to see the faces of Christ among us—especially in the least of these.