‘Each year I visit the doctor for my annual physical, and for no apparent reason. That is, I make an appointment, pay for parking, sit in the waiting room, and then have a complete physical examination. This is done all in order for a team of medical professionals to measure my wellness.
It is not entirely a comfortable experience. And I confess that I often want to avoid it. However, heart disease runs in my family.’ (1) And so the medical tends to focus on the coronary aspects of my physiology — blood pressure is scrutinized and cholesterol levels are monitored. And when I’m done, I have a picture — a snap shot — of my overall health. If medications or therapies have to be employed, I comply, to ensure my long-term wellness. The check-up, after all, could save my life.
These apocalyptic stories in the bible about the end times give an answer to an age old question: How can I be saved? How can I get to heaven?
In this Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46), an answer is given, to be sure. But it’s given as a wellness check. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare, but to provide a snapshot of our overall health. Its purpose is to lead us to new habits and ways of life. After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.
So, how are we saved? “All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:32). The text opens with a vision of glory: Christ the King sits enthroned above all people on earth, to be their judge.
And yet, we cannot ignore where the rest of this passage goes. That is, discovering God in exactly the unexpected, opposite places from where a God would normally be found.
Not in glory, but in humility. Not enthroned, but enslaved and imprisoned. Not in the mighty and spectacular, but in the meek and gentle.
Moreover, God is discovered. God is not attained, by all our toiling in good works to “find God” in our self-centred projects. In fact, the sheep — ‘the good guys’ (i.e. the righteous ones) — are surprised to hear they had indeed cared for the King of Creation.
They were not aware, in their sharing of love to the disadvantaged and poor, that they were serving Christ. They just shared who they were with what little they had, freely and without expectation nor calculation.
It is clear, from this Gospel text that in God’s Reign, Jesus is looking for people naturally sharing their love with others — a free outflow of love — rather than calculated efforts designed to achieve a pre-determined result or image. This is not management-by-objective. Nor is it ‘the ends justify the means’.
I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.
Being religious, if we are not aware of it, can easily be co-oped by prevailing cultural norms — such as: dividing people into different groups, operating according to a tit-for-tat, either-or perspectives. It’s funny, when I think about it, what image first comes to mind in this Gospel story about the final judgement — and has endured from the first time I learned it as a child — is this image of dividing the sheep from the goats. That’s the dominant image, not clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. No, it’s all about ‘dividing and conquering’. It’s about winners and losers. Am I in? Or, am I out?
Religious history can be tracked by seeing how much ways of thinking employed to solve certain problems have only exacerbated them over time. Because the same frame of mind was used. Indeed, it is always easier to come up with solutions ‘designed’ to help others but are really only motivated by our own needs instead of a self-less orientation to working with and loving others.
Today, it seems hard to imagine that Muslims, Jews, and Christians can ever find peace on earth with one another. And yet, in Canada anyway, I believe we have an opportunity to witness to the world how it can be done. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus — and all manner of religious expressions — can work together to love one another and those who are disadvantaged and underprivileged.
In Canada, at least, we live in a multi-cultural, diverse society; different world religions are not going away! They are here to stay! The challenge is co-existence, not eradication of difference, nor coercion towards ‘same-mindedness’. The solution is not to just exercise more power over our opponent. Be better, stronger, faster, louder. And have a competition, a religious ‘food-fight’.
Matthew 24:10-14 is another passage that describes the ‘end time’; it reads: “Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another, and … the love of many will grow cold.” This suggests that growing antagonism and cooling love are among the most dangerous cancers of the heart facing followers of Christ. This involves ‘distancing’ ourselves from others who are different from us.
But it is possible to work together. The vision from Matthew 25 is concrete, not other-worldly. It involves clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and providing for basic needs. That’s where we start. In the case of providing and advocating for affordable housing, for example, people of faith today, in Ottawa, can collaborate and cooperate — despite our differing creeds and doctrines — to fulfill Jesus’ vision.
Could it be, that the glory of Jesus includes you, who may be a loser in the eyes of the world? Could it be, that the kingdom — the glorious reign of Christ — includes you, too — the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized and the underprivileged?
We may not like warnings or wellness checks; after all, they ask us to recalibrate our lives. However, they do provide a critical wellness overview that we are wise to tend, Particularly because ‘heart trouble’ plagues us all.
I believe we can show the world how it can be done! That all nations, and all classes of people, can indeed gather together, live together, stand together and serve together before the throne of grace. This is a win-win scenario. Let’s work together for the Reign of love in Christ Jesus!
And leave the rest to God.
(1) Many thanks to Lindsay Armstrong for the opening illustration about the medical exam as an image for preaching this Gospel text, in “Feasting on the Word” eds Bartlett and Taylor, Year A Volume 4 WJK Press, Kentucky, 2011, p.333-337