On January 1, 1519, Ulrich Zwingli, the new priest at Zurich’s Grossmunster (Great Minister), the church that is the focal point of the city, made his way up the stone steps to the high pulpit and began his sermon with the announcement that he would not talk about just anything as the priests tended to do, but would preach from the Bible, starting with the Gospel according to Matthew and lead the people through each chapter.
Not only did that announcement mark him as Switzerland’s voice joining Germany’s Martin Luther in the movement to restore the Church at Rome to the leadership of Jesus Christ, but, for the first time, the Swiss would hear the Bible addressed to them in words they could understand.
The news filled the Grossmunster to overflowing; even the city officials did not want to miss a sermon.
In the three-year cycle of the church year, we have been reading our way through the same Gospel and today we come to the last story on this last Sunday when we think about last things, the last breath of life and the last Judgment.
A scary prospect that can ignite fear when standing by a loved one who is dying, and find ourselves asking, “Is he or she ‘saved’?”
We need to know our loved one has accepted Christ as his or her Savior to avoid being rejected by God.
And when thinking of our own death, can we be sure we have done what needs to be done to escape being sentenced by God to eternal punishment? Are we saved? How can we be sure?
Today we hear Jesus announcing as the king who will come “in all his glory” to judge “all nations.”
All nations, everyone, who, as N.T. Wright reminds us, “The likely meaning of [this] scene ... is that those who have not followed Jesus ... will be judged in terms of how they treated the people whom he counts as his family.”
The “sheep” and the “goats” are all who are not followers of Jesus, not Christians. (Quoted from “Proclamation” for the Last Sunday in Pentecost) They are the ones Jesus, the Shepherd-King-Judge will “separate” – sheep on the favored side where they will hear, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Then Jesus listed what the sheep had done to qualify: everyday things for everyday people who had an everyday need.
It’s not about being “saved” from God’s judgment by some confession that must to be made, but by responding to others’ needs, simply because they were in need; one human to another human, knowing that all are of one blood, all when hurt bleed red.
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables Bishop Welcome, the name he is given because of the compassion he shows, finds that his elaborate palace is next door to a tiny, cramped, single-story hospital. When he sees that, he says, "...There are thirty-six of you, in five or six small rooms. There are three of us here, and we have room for sixty. There is some mistake, I tell you; have my house; …and I will live in yours." (Adapted)
The switch is made; the bishop’s palace becomes a hospital for God's sick sheep. A spontaneous act of love, and when that love is shown, Christ is present, just as He was in His earthly ministry when He was at home with those the rich dismissed, those of rank shunned, and the educated judged to be useless, but Jesus welcomed and served, and loved, and they loved Him, and, in turn, loved those around them.
Something the goats couldn’t do; they were too busy living a self-serving life; too busy checking off the laws they were keeping and how many more they had to go to get to the full count of 613; they were so obsessed with the question, “What must I do to be saved?” that they never saw how Jesus dismissed that question with His, “Come to me, all you who labor, and I will give you rest.”
They never let His love be their pardon and their peace, freeing them to love God by loving all God’s children.
And so, it is they who are dismissed into darkness; they are removed from the earth; only the sheep remain to be the first rays of the dawning of God’s new day; the little colony of heaven on earth.
A word-picture that runs all the way through the Gospel according to Matthew and exposes the misreading which has been turned into films and TV series that show the earth and its people melting away, and the dramatic 12 books under the title “Left Behind.” All filled with drama and pathos that picture the reverse of the Gospel answer to, “Who’s left behind?”
“Who’s left behind?” according to Jesus’ stories, it is the person sleeping, the woman at the wheel grinding, the ones investing wisely to give generously, the bridesmaids waiting for the wedding feast for the whole village;
all earthly scenes of life in God’s world that carries the Creator’s echo, “It was good. Indeed, it was very good,”
“Who’s left behind?” The answer comes as a dismissal – with regrets to end time films that show a scorched earth crumbling into nothing and a book series showing driver-less cars crashing, disappearing spouses and empty houses. The Gospel answer is a reversal of all those scenes, dismissed with the answer to “Who’s left behind?”
The sheep, gathered around the Shepherd Jesus Who has stepped down from His kingly throne to be among them, to cradle them, to lead them, to love them; and they, in turn love Him by loving one another, and tending this earth home till – as the last book in the Bible pictures, God comes to be wedded to all people; heaven comes down to earth and God restores all creation to echo God’s original exclamation, “It was good, very good!”
An elderly couple returned to an abandoned orchard where the once full-flowing spring had watered the trees that produced an abundant harvest. Now, the spring was dry and the trees were dead. They worked at cleaning out the debris and overgrowth around the spring; slowly, steadily water began to flow again. They fertilized the soil and planted fruit trees, knowing they would not live to see a harvest; that would come to those who lived after them.
A image of the “left behind” ones who tend God’s earth and one another; God’s kingdom already begun, here and now.
No wonder the people jammed the Grossmunster to hear this Gospel story, the same story we hear today. AMEN.