When Joe asked me to preach this afternoon I asked him what his favorite text for ministry was. He responded by sending me that text I just read to you. The one about the sheep and the goats, and Jesus separating them from one another. The one about the sheep going to inherit the kingdom of God, and the goats going to a not very nice place at all.
I was a little worried.
Whenever I hear about people being judged by God, I start to get nervous. Mostly because I’m not really sure which way it’s going to go for me. I have my sheep moments, and I have my goat moments, and most of the time I’m somewhere in the middle. And I’d guess it’s like that for a lot of us.
But when I asked Joe to tell me more about why he picked this passage, I started to look at it in a new way. I started to think about it less about the life that is to come, one, by the way, where I believe Christ’s grace will shine brighter than any judgement, but the life that we live now.
Christ tells us that this is how he will know we are his:
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
And Christ tells us that we’ll ask, “when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison”? And that’s when he’ll tell us, “if you did it for any of my brothers and sisters, even the least among them, you did it for me.”
Christ’s words say so much about how we should judge the life we are already living, both as individuals and the church. Because they tell us exactly what Christ expects of us in this life. But more importantly, they tell us why we should do these things. And it’s not because we want to inherit the kingdom in the next life. It’s because can love Christ enough to create the kingdom in this one.
But this isn’t just about you and I or any other person. This is about who we are as the church. And it’s about whether we want to be a church of goats. Or a church of sheep. It’s about whether we want to be the kind of church that Christ would come to and already know us, or the sort of place where Jesus would look around and say, “Who are you people? I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
And that’s where Joe comes into the picture. Because I know Joe knows Jesus. I know that because I know Joe has been trying to live his life by this verse for a long time now.
I found something about about Joe last night that I didn’t know before. I found out that when he was a young man in high school, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Now when you think about it, a young, white, teenager from Massachusetts might have said, “this isn’t my fight” and had every reason not to get involved in the Civil Rights movement. Except, for Joe, he couldn’t look at the faces of those who were being denied their rights as children of God and do nothing. Because for him, looking into their faces was like looking into the face of Christ.
I know Joe started going into prisons to do ministry around the same time, and I know he kept reaching out to the people society has called “the least of these” through the years after that. I know that every day in his other calling, and it is a calling, of working with people in recovery he sees the face of Christ. And I know that he sees it when he looks in the faces of all of you.
That’s how I know Joe knows Jesus. But that doesn’t make Joe a saint. That makes him a Christian. And that’s good news for you. Because Joe is your pastor now.
Now, there’s something that I think is always important to note when a new pastor is installed. We have a tendency to say, “that church hired a new pastor”. But I want you to remember, you didn’t hire Joe. You called him. You prayed and talked and discerned that Joe was the person God had already prepared to be your pastor.
That’s good news for you. It’s good news because it means you are already listening for God’s word in your life together. And it means that together you felt that God was asking you to call this man. This pastor who believes ministry is defined by how well you love Christ by loving your neighbor. It means that you already have some idea of what you want this pastorate to look like, and what kind of a church you want to be. You want to be the kind of church that Christ could come into on a Sunday morning and feel right at home.
And that’s huge. Because you have probably heard the talk about churches. You have probably heard people say that churches are dying. You’ve heard that we have less people in the pews, less money in the plates, less of a place at the public table than ever before.
But all those things have nothing to do with whether or not the church, the body of Christ, is living. None of those things matter one way or another if you don’t go back to this passage and use this as yardstick against which you judge the life of your church. Are you feeding the hungry? Giving drink to the thirsty? Visiting the prisoner? Clothing the naked? Housing the homeless? Maybe even comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? That’s the measure of your life as a church. And that’s the clearest indication of who you can be.
I know Joe is ready to meet Jesus with you. I know he’s ready to meet Jesus when he comes through the doors of this church. And I know he’s ready to meet him when you go outside into the community. You might not recognize him when you see him, but rest assured…Jesus lives in Brattleboro. And he’s waiting to see you all.
In the coming weeks and months and years, remember the reasons you called Joe here. Remember what God was calling you to do. And hold Joe to the passage just as much as he holds you to it. Because as much as I believe anything about the church, I believe this: the church that tries to see Christ in everyone they meet is the one that will be the most blessed by Christ in all they do.
But don’t take my word for it. Don’t even take Joe’s. Take Christ’s. Because he’s ready to show the kingdom to sheep, goats, and the rest of us. Amen.