November 17, 2019
The day of judgment is coming when Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead. We confess this every time we say the creed. So, as Christians we are not surprised that Jesus tells us about the final judgment, even if the world laughs at such a notion, because they do not fear God. Yet, what you might find surprising is how Jesus appears to reward and condemn based on works. Those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven do so, because they showed mercy to the least of Jesus’ brethren, while those who are sent away to eternal punishment are condemned, because they failed to show mercy.
But I thought that we are justified by faith apart from our works and that salvation is a free gift from God. Romans 3:28 states, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” And Romans 8:1 states, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” And Jesus Christ says in John 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.”
This is indeed the consistent teaching of Scripture, that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. To be saved by grace means to be saved apart from your works (Romans 11:6). To be saved through faith means that you are saved when you believe that Jesus Christ saved you by dying on the cross for your sins, so that there remains no charge or guilt against you. Neither grace nor faith depend on your works, but solely on the merits of Christ Jesus and God’s unfailing love and justice.
So, what is Jesus doing here? Is he giving another way to salvation, one that depends on your mercy? Some claim this, that Jesus here teaches that those who do not have faith in Jesus, but who show love to Jesus by being merciful to their neighbors, then they are saved by their works. Yet, this is not true. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And although unbelievers can do outwardly good works, it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6). In fact, Scriptures goes so far to say that whatever is done without faith is sin (Romans 14:22).
Neither is Jesus teaching that people will be saved by their works in addition to their faith. Rather, he teaches that those on the right will inherit a kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world! That is grace, apart from their works. God chose them and prepared a kingdom for them before they were even born.
So, why does Jesus tell these righteous to enter paradise, because they ministered to him when he was in need? Because, although our works do not contribute to our salvation, God delights greatly in our works of love both now and in eternity. Perhaps the most popular Bible passages used to prove that we are saved by grace apart from our works is Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You can’t get much clearer than that! Yet, listen to the very next verse, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
God saved you by grace so that you would live before Christ in righteousness both now and forever. Good works are the fruit of faith. God glories in the good works that are produced by his Christians. In this vision of the final judgment we see our heavenly king present his harvest before the angels of heaven and say, “See what great seed I used. Look at my crop! How beautiful is my fruit!” His seed is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The fruit is the love which his Christians show to each other.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”, said our Lord Jesus to his disciples on the night when he was betrayed. Love is the fruit of faith that will continue to produce and increase even when we live in heaven. Love is the most wonderful fruit of faith, because it reflects the great love God has shown us by sending his Son into the world to save us. We love, because he first loved us. For this reason, we pray earnestly every time we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which were given and shed out of great love for our human race, that by receiving this meal, it would increase our faith toward God and our fervent love toward one another.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”, we will ask our gracious King on that great day. And he will answer us, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Who are these least of Jesus’ brothers? They are those with whom Christ identifies himself; those whom Christ has joined himself to so intimately that when you feed, clothe, or visit them, you have fed, clothed, and visited Christ himself.
The least of these Jesus’ brothers are all Christians. Christians ought to identify Christ in other Christians. Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” When you receive another Christian, you receive Christ. So, also when you mistreat a Christian, you mistreat Christ Jesus. This is why Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was persecuting Christians, against whom he breathed murderous threats, bound, and took to prison. Yet, Jesus said to Saul, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
So, if you treat a fellow Christian well, you treat Christ Jesus well. And if you mistreat another Christian, you are mistreating Christ Jesus. So, how ought we behave toward one another? We should love one another! We should look out for one another’s best interest, make sure that others are clothed and fed. When Christians are persecuted for practicing their Christian faith, we should pray for them and speak up for them. When Christians join our congregation, no matter their background, whether they are life-long Lutherans or recent converts, whether they look like you or not, whether they are from this country or not, whether they are rich or poor, whether you know them or they are strangers, you should be kind to them and love them.
Members of the same congregation should not be at enmity with one another; they shouldn’t hold grudges; they shouldn’t speak ill or try to cause any harm to one another. Rather, they should forgive one another as God in Christ forgave them. Each of us needs to swallow his own pride and try to get along with each person in this congregation and in the Church as a whole, recognizing Christ Jesus himself in each person.
The least of Jesus’ brothers are faithful pastors. Christians ought to identify Christ Jesus in their pastor. Jesus says to his disciples, whom he sends out to proclaim the Gospel, “Whoever receives you receives me.” and further he says, “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” Christians should recognize Christ Jesus in their pastors, because pastors proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, which has the power to save, and because pastors speak with God’s own authority to rebuke, reprove, teach, and forgive sins.
Christians should love their pastors, because they love Jesus. This was demonstrated by the saints in Scripture who provided for the needs of the Apostles, literally gave them food, drink, and clothing, bandaged their wounds, and visited them in prison. This is why Christians welcome strangers as their pastors, show love to them, and care for them: because they come speaking the words of Christ, which alone give eternal life. For Christ’s sake, they show such love.
Of course, Christians sin against each other. Pastors are sinners too. And sins hurt other people. Jesus of course never sinned against anyone, but only did good. So, it might seem difficult to identify Christ Jesus in your fellow Christian and in your pastor, when they are sinners! You certainly would give a cup of cold water to Jesus, you’d give him the shirt off your back, you wouldn’t just visit him in prison, you’d go to prison for him! But for these so-called Christians? For a pastor who is just as bad or worse of a sinner than you are? That’s a big pill to swallow.
Yet, Christ does not expect you to treat your fellow Christians and your pastor as you would treat Christ himself, because they themselves are sinless. No, Jesus expects you to treat your fellow Christians and your pastor as you would treat him, because Jesus has joined himself to your fellow Christians and to your pastor, he has taken all their sins away and clothed them with his own righteousness. Jesus has joined himself to your fellow Christians and pastor so closely that when God the Father looks at them, he does not see their sins which you so clearly perceive, but he sees holy lambs washed clean in the blood of Christ. And so, it is important for you to recognize who are the least of these brothers of Jesus.
The least of these Jesus’ brothers is you. In faith and through Baptism you became a child of God through Jesus Christ. You were born a child of God not according to the flesh or by the will of man, but by the will of God and through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As God’s own child, you are Jesus’ brother or sister. Jesus identifies himself in you, as St. Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Christ has taken possession of all your sins and weaknesses. He bore them and died for them. Christ has clothed you in his righteousness by pure grace and so, God does not see your sins, but he recognizes Christ Jesus in you.
So, when you see your fellow Christians, don’t see their sins. Don’t judge and condemn; don’t refuse your mercy, because they don’t deserve it. Because, you do not deserve God’s mercy, yet he gives it to you willingly for Christ’s sake. Rather, when you see the failings in your fellow Christians, see how much mercy God has shown on you by forgiving you and giving you Christ! Likewise, when you see the failings in your pastor, do not use that as an excuse to hate or reject him, but remember the Gospel he preaches, that Christ came to forgive sinners and to overcome our failures. Yes, if your brother or sister in Christ is caught in a transgression you should restore them in a spirit of gentleness, not to glory over your brother or sister, because they sinned, but to glory in Christ, who forgives all sins.
You are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, who made satisfaction to God for all your sins through his bitter suffering and death. This salvation is secured for you apart from any good work you’ve done. My son Stephen, who has been baptized into Christ Jesus this morning, and who is incapable of performing an act of mercy, received full salvation in his Baptism. He is a child of God and Christ Jesus dwells in him. Yet, God has prepared good works of love for him and all who are saved by grace to walk in them. Although we sin, God will not count our sins against us for Christ sake. We will not come into judgment. But God will boast in the good works he causes to be done through us. He will rejoice in the love we show to one another. And that love will never end, even as the Father’s love for us in Christ Jesus will never end. Amen.