Every Sunday we say the Creed together. This statement of belief is our common bond; these are the words of the faith we share.
And every week, at the end of the middle section of the Creed, that section about Jesus, we say these words: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
We believe this, these words of the Christian faith. Jesus will come again to judge.
But what will this coming again, this judgment, look like?
Our culture’s imagination has been captivated by this question.
A generation ago popular Christian imagination produced the film A Thief in the Night in which the main character, Patty Dunning, awakens one morning to find that her husband, along with millions of other people, has vanished during the night seemingly without a trace. Where did they all go? How did it happen?
More recently the very popular book series Left Behind has hit the bestselling Christian scene, just released in fact as a major(ly bad) motion picture starring Nicolas Cage.
Apocalypse scenarios are everywhere in pop culture too—scenarios not so Christian in focus but nevertheless addressing questions about the end of the world as we know it: movies like Mad Max and Knowing; TV shows like The Walking Dead; radio broadcasts, books, comics, video games, music; even attempts more literary in nature, works like C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
What’s gonna happen to us?
Today’s Gospel passage gives us a picture of this final judgment too.
And it looks a lot like some of these apocalyptic scenarios. Sheep and goats walking together approach a Great Shepherd. When they stand before this Great Shepherd, he separates them: the sheep are directed to his right; the goats to his left. And on his right—where the sheep go—is paradise and everlasting bliss. But on his left—where the goats end up—is endless, eternal punishment.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a goat! I don’t want to be left behind. If some kind of thief in the night comes and take souls off to everlasting paradise, then that’s where I want to be! How do I sign up?
Here’s what I mean. I read today’s passage about sheep and goats coming forward to be separated by the Great Shepherd, and of course I want to identify with the sheep.
This identification is only natural, I should think. The sheep are the ones who pass on to the Great Shepherd’s right-hand side, the ones who are told, “Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, and enter the great inheritance he has promised you.”
Of course these words are directed at me, right? I’ve been baptized. I prayed to receive Christ on April 1st, 1985. I attend church faithfully. I pledge. I serve. Of course I’m a Christian! Of course I’m saved! Of course I’m one of the sheep, not one of the goats!
But then I get to the difficult part of the passage; that part where the Great Shepherd addresses the goats—who act surprised by being excluded.
They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you naked, hungry, sick, or in prison and not help you?”
The implication here is that they did in fact help others. And so the goats actually express surprise at being directed to the Great Shepherd’s left-hand side—as if they didn’t really know they were goats in the first place!
Then the Great Shepherd answers them: “Whenever you saw the least of my people naked, hungry, sick, or in prison and did not help, well, then you did not help me.”
And I think of all the many times I have failed to help a needy soul.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are times I’ve seen someone cold and given her blankets, or hungry and given him food; there are times I’ve visited the sick or someone in prison. Sure! And I’d like to think that whenever I did these things I was doing it for the less fortunate in Christ. And in this sense, if I’m a sheep, it’s all fine and well; because I’m actually doing it for Christ himself.
But what about all those times I’ve passed someone by? What about that time I walked right on by that homeless woman who asked me for a handout in front of Walmart? Or what about that time—to bring it closer to home—when my son was in bed with a fever and I grumpily refused to bring him a cup of water?
Well, according to this passage, I can’t really be sure if I’m a sheep or a goat. If I am a sheep, fine. All those times I didn’t do something for someone are forgiven, erased. But what if it’s the other way around? What if I’ve been deceiving myself? Then, if I’m a goat, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done for needy people. Instead, it’s all about whatever I’ve neglected to do. Whatever I did not do for anyone, even the least person in Christ, I did not do for the Great Shepherd.
And so I think, I want to be a sheep, not a goat! How can I make sure I end up a sheep and not a goat?
I want assurance of my salvation.
Okay, stop! Whoa! Back up!
Like with the apocalyptic scenarios at the beginning of this sermon, my imagination is running away with me. I’ve asked the wrong question; and I’ve followed it down a lengthy trail into a place that doesn’t even exist—into a pretend den of apocalyptic zombie-rabbits.
For the last few minutes, wrestling over assurance of my own salvation, I’ve actually been looking at the second coming from the perspective of works. I’ve been thinking that salvation from the Great Shepherd’s judgment is all about what I do or don’t do. I’ve been looking at this as if my works are going to save me.
But this idea—that works save—is not the message of the Bible. Salvation is not about works; it’s about grace.
So let’s back up.
The question to ask is not, “What if I’m a goat?” or even, “How do I become a sheep?” That’s not Jesus’s point. No one who hears this story wants to be a goat; and everyone’s already identifying with the sheep anyway. Rather, then, let’s look at how the Great Shepherd interacts with the sheep.
“Come, you that are blessed,” he says, “and enter into this place of eternal paradise. For you clothed, fed, tended, and visited me when I was naked, hungry, sick, and in prison.”
And do you remember the sheep’s response? “When did we do this?” they ask. It’s as if they say, “What? We did?”
And the Great Shepherd answers, “Of course you did! You did it whenever you helped the least of persons. Whenever you help the least, you help me.”
So they’re saved at the last day. But they’re saved not because of anything they’ve done. Nevertheless, a kind of subconscious mindset governs their actions: they do good acts, but they do them without even being aware of it.
This is the point: salvation is nothing we achieve; but comes when we least expect it.
It seems that the best questions to ask ourselves, then, are, “What is this subconscious mindset?” and, “How do I acquire it?”
As to what it is, that seems fairly obvious to me. There are two great commandments Jesus teaches us: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor. Clothing, feeding, tending, visiting—aren’t these just various expressions of godly love for a neighbor, for another human being created in God’s own image?
But the answer to the second question is not so obvious: How do we acquire a mindset of service—a mindset that clothes, feeds, tends, and visits?
It starts with those closest to us, right? We see our own family members—our own brothers and sisters, our mom and dad, our children, our spouses—everyday. Day in and day out! And, yes, to live in close proximity with each other we have to look out for each other. But we tend to take those we’re closest to for granted.
We all do this. We put on a public persona at work or school where we’re kind to others, we put others’ needs before our own, we consciously try to live out Christ’s teachings; but when we get home, we change our public personas for private ones, like changing clothes. And these private personas are different. It’s easier to let our guards down in front of family. They know us. They know our weaknesses. And they love us anyway. So we take them for granted.
Perhaps this is what Jesus means by least. Whatever you do for the least of these—whatever you do for your very family members—you do for me.
So, a challenge for this week: look for ways to serve your own family members. And it doesn’t have to be big. Take out the trash for your brother. Do the dishes for your sister. Cook your wife a hot breakfast. Do something to show family members you love them.
But don’t stop with just this week. Do it next week too. And the week after that; and the week after that; and so on, and so on; until it becomes so second-nature that you barely even realize you’re doing it anymore—until it becomes a habit.
This is the picture that the sheep paint for us in today’s Gospel. And in practicing such habitual love, our own salvation will come from nothing we achieve; but when we least expect it.