Love, The Final Word

 Love, the Final WordPreached November 26, 2017 at the English Speaking Congregation of Iglesia Cristiana Congregacional de Mazatlán;  by Pastor Rebecca Ellenson

Today is the last Sunday in the church year. Next week we begin another Advent season. So, I guess it is fitting on this last Sunday in the church year that we read our gospel from what is called the last discourse in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ teachings are grouped into 5 major sections in Matthews gospel, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount and ending with this last one which comes right before Jesus is taken away to be killed. It contains his last teachings and centers on the last days, the final judgment.  

The placement of something in the scripture often signals its importance. As the last part of the last group of teachings, this reading we heard today stands on an equal footing with the Beatitudes in importance, the first teaching in the first section. What we heard today is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching, as Matthew records it.

If we had read the whole of the Last Discourse we would have discovered image after image of the expected end. In those chapters we find the stock features of apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic writing is a style of writing that is found in many cultures. We can find similar images in the writings of an Oglala Sioux visionary named Black Elk, or in African American Spirituals, or in sections of the Old Testament—like the book of Daniel.

It is a style of writing that emerges at times of great persecution and presents a message of hope for people who expect the end of the world to occur. In Matthew 24 and 25 we find those expected features of apocalyptic writing– we have tribulation, the desolating sacrilege, false prophets with lying oracles that play on people’s fear, crude idolatries, apostasy, the end of all history– complete with trumpeting angels and screaming eagles, the earth shaking, stars falling, silence for the final judgment and then the fires and bliss of eternity. We find similar features in the book of Revelation, also in isolated places within other writings, like the 13th chapter of Mark.  It is the kind of material that popular preachers of all times have used to scare people with.

This kind of writing was irrepressible during the late first century, when Matthew’s gospel was written. The Jews and Christians of that time felt the foundations shaking under their feet. Their temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Jerusalem, as the religious center, was breaking down. Persecutions were occurring. Matthew’s community was curious about the end that they expected to occur at any time. They wondered about the signs of the end, the ticking of the clock.

What might be most important about this final teaching of Jesus can be found, at least in part, in what is not said. Jesus does not just repeat the tradition related to the end times. He does not insist on the accuracy of the details nor does he reveal new details. He does not give a timetable. In fact, he makes it clear that he is not interested in, nor should we be interested in, the details or the timetable.

As the final word about the end of time we do not get either a grand and glorious picture of heaven nor a frightening vision of hell. There are no streets of gold or pearly gates mentioned here. There are no shining visions or lofty ideals of truth, no high honors to the miracle workers or prophets.

We simply are given this parable of the separation of the sheep and goats complete with its strong identification with the world’s outcasts. Our text stands in the whole of Matthew’s gospel right before the narrative of Jesus’ own betrayal, arrest, torture and execution. So, as this teaching ends, everything stands ready for the Passion Narrative to begin. The Son of God deliberately and voluntarily stands in the shoes of the powerless, the weak, the defenseless, the hated. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the literary artistry of Matthew’s gospel. It is in this gospel that we learn of the infant Jesus who began as a refugee from Herod’s killing spree. Now, this same figure ends as a condemned criminal. Matthew calls us to pay attention to that.

The question lies behind the story. When it comes to thoughts of the end of time, what is it that really matters? What endures? Love does. This message about serving “the least of these,” is the new version of the old commandment to love. Compassion and care for the needy is the most splendid and only truly durable work of human community. Love is the final word.

Matthew’s gospel stretches the traditional apocalyptic rhetoric to the limit and makes it carry the message of everlasting love to the least ones. This final word of Jesus in this gospel is similar to the final word in John’s gospel too. If we look at the last discourse in that gospel, chapters 13-16 we find there, too, repeated words about abiding in love, keeping the command to love, about Jesus’ return and the nature of our waiting– waiting marked by love and community.

This final word is reminiscent of the love chapter in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth– if we speak in angelic tongues, if we have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge but have not love we are nothing, we have nothing, and we can do nothing. Without love we are only noise and boasting, but love never ends. Now we see as in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part then we will know fully even as we have been fully known, and now faith hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.

Many people have been frightened by their images and ideas of the last judgment. But, when we really grasp that we are saved by God’s grace, our fear vanishes. We have been redeemed. We are not to be concerned about judgment. We are not to live with one eye on some heavenly computer where all our actions will be recorded and filed.

Look at the reactions of the blessed in this judgment scene in Matthew’s gospel. They weren’t even aware that they were doing anything all that special, anything worth mentioning on judgment day. “Lord when did we see you thirsty and give you drink?” They were simply going about the business of showing love and concern for others. They had been doing what Christians are supposed to do, loving others.

After 2 chapters of apocalyptic rhetoric and speculation Matthew concludes this last discourse with a scene of judgment and Christ’s second coming that directs our attention away from the horizon and toward what is closely and present. Christ returns alright– every day. Judgment happens alright– constantly, in every decision we make.

In the church we’re so used to thinking about how we can do good in Jesus name, how we can help the least of these, that we forget to consider that perhaps, sometimes, we too might just be the least of these. I experienced that last year, right on the Malecon, right by the fisherman’s monument. I told the story last spring, but I feel I have to tell it again.

I had been fighting a chest cold and an asthma flare up. It was Sunday afternoon of Carnival week and I probably should have stayed home with a cup of hot tea. But after some coaxing, Steve agreed that we could take a short walk and see a bit of the parade preparations. When we left our apartment it was hot. Before long as we wound up standing in front of a vendor selling naked lady cups and glasses, it had cooled off. I convinced Steve that I could stay for just a few minutes before we headed back to the apartment.

If you’ve been here for Carnaval you can imagine the crowds. We were standing behind rows of chairs, just in front of the vendor. It could have been easy for me to feel privileged in comparison to him. He was missing most of his teeth, and his clothes, though clean and neat were old and worn. His wares were set up on the concrete bench along the edge of the sidewalk. The man heard me coughing, and saw that I wasn’t feeling well. He looked at Steve with a look that communicated volumes: “What are you doing? You should be taking better care of her.” His words were, “Senora, Esta Inferma. Neccesite mas ropa.” “ Maam, you’re sick. You should have more clothes on.” “Estoy Bien, gracias.” I responded, dismissively, and went back to watching the start of the parade.
Before long, he switched to English, “Lady, Here. Take this.” I turned to see what he meant. He had removed his outer shirt, and held it out to me, “Here—put it on, it’s clean, you will feel better.” He wouldn’t be refused. He saw in me a need that he could meet. He insisted we take the shirt, and blessed us on our way. I’ve never had anyone literally give met me shirt off his back before. I was humbled and overwhelmed by grace. In his toothless face I saw the love of Christ. I wonder what he saw in me.

This week the words of a song have been running through my mind:

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road? We are here to help each other, go the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ light for you, in the shadow of your fear; I will hold my hand out to your, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve know together, of Christ’s love and agony.

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats challenges us to face up to our choices. When we come across someone in need we can help or we can walk away. Judgment happens when we meet Christ. Judgment is choice after all—we make choices, we judge, we decide, everyday.

Martin Luther once said, “There are those who seek to penetrate the immensities and to see God. One ought rather to sink into the depths and seek to find God among the suffering, erring, and the downtrodden. Then the heart is free from pride and able to see God.”

John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

Let’s pray—show us your face in the every face we meet, O Jesus. In all places, in all people. Show us your face and teach us to do good by all the means we can. Amen.