It’s not good to be a goat. The goats are condemned because, as Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” These Words of Jesus seem to confirm what our minds have come to believe about heaven: you get in by being good. Or, how we have come to define goodness.
On the Last Day, the Son of Man will divide the sheep from the goats. The sheep are the righteous, the goats are the cursed. So, what today’s Gospel tells us is that if we just feed the poor, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, we’ll be counted as a righteous sheep, right? If we complete the checklist we must be righteous, and all those in hell are the ones who didn’t finish it. We like these kinds of ideas because we think back on the things we’ve done and tell ourselves that we’re good people. We flip through the check book log and see our donations to the church and other charities. We think about the school supplies we donated in August or the toys we’ll donate to the children’s hospital at Christmas. But we hear what Jesus says and realize that we could always up our good works a bit, so we make plans to help serve meals at Thanksgiving, to write a check to charities helping house those displaced by the Syrian refugee crisis, and maybe offer to visit some of the church’s homebound members at Christmastime. Then we can sit back and pat ourselves on the back because we finished the checklist. Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?
In a way, yes. Being a Christian does involve a life of charity. Jesus says “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” and “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” We learn from the Small Catechism that when the Fifth Commandment says “You shall not murder” what it means is “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
So, yes, being charitable is a part of the Christian life. It is a good work that flows from faith, something that is pleasing to God. But there are problems with thinking that being a Christian simply means being a “nice person.” If being a Christian just about being “nice,” then there is no reason to be a Christian. There are plenty of nice Jews, Muslims, and atheists who help people and give to charity. In fact, if our own works were enough to get into heaven, then there would be no reason for Simeon’s Baptism this morning; no reason for us to pray “forgive us our trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer.
Boiling Christianity down to simply doing nice things contradicts the overarching message about our works in the Word of God, that you can never do enough good things, and that the good things you do are like filthy rags in God’s eyes. Being good in the world’s eyes is not enough in the sight of God. You have to be better than good. You have to be perfect! You must perfectly obey the Law of God, both in letter and in spirit. Whoever keeps the whole Law, yet stumbles in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. No one is declared righteous by works of the Law.
So, if the standard for entrance into heaven is perfection, then I do not qualify. And I have bad news for you: God tells you that you don’t either. Not even close. Neither you nor I have done all that the Law requires. We have been envious of our neighbor’s goods and station in life; we haven’t been sexually pure; we have failed to always speak well of our neighbors; we haven’t taken to heart the Word of God; we haven’t prayed as we ought; we have never fully feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things.
So, how do the sheep end up being sheep? If everyone is sinful, if your works aren’t enough to get you into heaven, how can you have any hope? To understand that, you have to do a little bit of digging in the Scriptures. When Jesus speaks to those declared righteous, He says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” The word brethren is the keyword here. This isn’t Jesus talking about His family. In Matthew’s Gospel whenever Jesus uses the word brethren He is talking about His disciples. When Jesus rose from the dead He told the women at the tomb: “Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.” The brethren that the righteous treated well, then, are the Apostles, and today, Pastors, those who continue on in the Apostolic work of Baptizing, teaching the Words of Jesus, and making disciples of all nations.
What does that mean? Jesus told His Apostles: “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Lk. 10:16) Rejecting the messenger sent by Jesus is the same thing as rejecting God Himself. The people who are declared righteous are the people who hear and believe the Word of God preached to them. They treat the messengers of God with respect because they believe what Jesus says: they aren’t just listening to their Pastor, but they are listening to Christ who sent them. They heed the call to repentance, they rejoice in the declaration of forgiveness by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, forgiveness which gives you the perfection God demands. The goats, the unrighteous, despise preaching and the Word, they refuse to attend the Divine Service and would rather come to God on their own terms.
This doesn’t mean that Pastors are anything special in and of themselves. I’m nobody. The long line of faithful men who have stood in this pulpit before me are nobodies. The branch is nothing apart from the Vine. We are only worth listening to because of the God whose Word we speak. We stand in the stead of Christ, by His command, acting on His behalf, as He has authorized us to do, to speak His Word, to forgive and retain sins, to give His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper. That means that, though you saw me Baptize Simeon, I didn’t really do it. Jesus did. All that the mortal eye beholds is water as we pour it, but the eye of faith sees the hand of Jesus blessing and pouring the water, God Himself receiving Simeon as His own child.
Today God gave Simeon new birth by water and the Holy Spirit. Today Jesus gives to all who commune at this Altar His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins. When I pour the water, when I distribute the bread and wine, I am nothing. But Jesus says that when you receive what I give, you receive Jesus. It’s He who Baptizes, He who forgives, He who feeds you, He who saves you. And at the Last Day it will be Jesus who raises your body from the earth and speaks comforting words to you when He comes to judge the quick and the dead.
So to sum it all up, today’s Gospel is not a lesson about doing works of charity. All that being said, we must do good to our neighbors; faith delights in feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and visiting the lonely. Faith loves the neighbor as itself. What today is all about is what is required on the Day of Judgment, and that is faith in Jesus, who gives you His Gifts in Word and Sacrament. It’s all about Jesus who gives you forgiveness. So come receive Him in repentant joy, and wait for those happy words that will be spoken to you at the Last Day: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).