Good morning and welcome to this celebration of the Holy Eucharist for Sunday, November 22. We’re glad you’re here! Our services will begin at 9:30am and 11:15am.
Download the liturgy and pray along with us here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lQgMfyB-6TB1LccnnpfoCbK3GYBff7Eo/view
St Paul’s, 9:30am:
St John’s, 11:15am:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Beloved, today is the last Sunday in the church year, the feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. It is fitting, I think, that here at the end of the year we are met with this image of Christ as king and judge, seated upon the throne the nations having been summoned before him. Fitting because this is our end, to come before Jesus Christ along with each and every human being to be judged and, we pray, to enter into the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
Our gospel reading this morning is a familiar passage for many of us: the separation of the sheep at Christ’s right hand and the goats at his left: “and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” And as Jesus tells it the basis for this judgement is the treatment of “the least of these” with whom Jesus identifies himself. Striking. As such, this passage is commonly interpreted as an encouragement for Christians to care for the poor. And while it is indeed our duty as Christians to care for the poor I want to suggest that’s not primarily what this passage is about.
There are a few reasons for thinking this all of which can be found in the text itself but I’ll highlight just one reason this morning and that is the language of “the least of these my brothers” as we have it in the Greek or as our English translation puts it “the least of these who are members of my family.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus only ever uses the language of “brothers” and “sisters” with respect to his disciples, those who do God’s will by following him. For example, earlier in Matthew Jesus puts it this way: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” (12:48-50).
In Matthew, therefore, the “least of these my brothers” are not the poor in some general sense but the followers of Jesus and the nations who are summoned before the throne of the Son of Man will be judged based on how they treat them, or rather how they treat Jesus in them. One of the things that is so striking here is the extent to which Jesus identifies himself with his followers.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus sent the disciples out on their first mission he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” (10:40). And in the book of Acts a Pharisee named Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, is brutally persecuting the early Christians until he is confronted by the risen Jesus who says to him not, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute my followers?” but rather, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4).
Jesus isn’t speaking metaphorically here. Rather, he is naming a reality that we could spend the better part of the rest of our lives contemplating: Jesus unites his followers to himself to such an extent that Paul can say we are Christ’s body. Beloved, that’s what God has done in baptism. He has taken you and joined you to his Son in a decisive way that not even death itself can undo. He lives in you and you in him so that whether you live or whether you die you are his. Truly.
However, if the “least of these” are Christians then I think we need to add an important qualification because by all accounts Christians in the West today are mostly safe, wealthy, and comfortable and that presents a challenge to any straightforward self-identification with “the least.” That might be a bit presumptuous. Instead, as a friend and brother priest suggested this week, we may want to ask ourselves: “Are we serving in costly ways, extending God’s redeeming love into the world?” And what’s the posture of the church toward the world? Do we go as those who are strong with lots of resources to help the weak or do we go in weakness and humility ready to receive from others?
Because that’s how Jesus comes, isn’t it? Who hungered, if not he? Who thirsted, if not he? Who was a stranger and naked, if not he? The Son of Man, the ruler of the nations, became the very least of these. So then, if you follow Jesus you risk opening yourself up to this same lot.
We naturally want to see ourselves in the role of the powerful hero who helps the poor and receives the reward. But what if, instead, Jesus is inviting us to be the powerless in need of help? To hunger and thirst and be imprisoned with him? That’s what we risk by following Jesus. Think of the witness of the saints throughout history like Paul the Apostle, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Calcutta, and persecuted Christians around the world today all of whom joyfully sacrificed worldly comfort and security for the sake of knowing Jesus. When we suffer for the gospel we are suffering with Jesus and he with us. But if we hold fast we will be raised with him and enter into his eternal joy.