[This message was shared during worship services with the people and the friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
The gospel lesson for this Christ the King Sunday is a passage that can be and often is misunderstood. In it, Jesus talks about the great judgment that He, the King, will bring to all the people on the Day of His return.
Many think that Jesus calls people righteous and worthy of HIs kingdom in this parable because they saw Jesus in people in need and did good things for them.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying.
He’s not saying that you and I have to prove to Him what wonderful Christians to get into heaven.
Jesus is not saying that your good deeds will make you righteous.
The Bible tells us that we are all unrighteous (Romans 3:10). God’s Word also tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). If we’re going to enter God’s eternal kingdom, it won’t because our good deeds outweigh our sin.
So what is Jesus telling us this morning?
A very telling passage starts at verse 37. It recounts that words of those King Jesus has accounted righteous. Now, if they were acceptable to God because of the good they’d done, you might expect them to say, “Thank You, Lord, for recognizing all the good things we’ve done.”
But it’s evidently a characteristic of people who follow Jesus that they’re not aware of the good they do. They don't even recognize the good things they had done.
They don’t see themselves as better than others.
They’re too busy seeing Jesus in other people to think about how God sees them.
The righteous in Jesus’ parable say: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
Jesus tells them: “Truly, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”
The people fit for Jesus’ Kingdom aren’t those who set out to become righteous by what they do; they do what they do because they have already been made righteous by God.
They simply and trustingly believe in Jesus.
They're the people who know that Jesus bore all of our sins, making it possible for all who trust in His righteousness and not their own to enter eternity with God.
Of course, there’s another group of people in our parable. They’re the people who think of themselves as good people. Jesus says that they’re goats, not lambs.
The “goats” are surprised when the King Jesus tells them that they are “cursed,” unworthy of His Kingdom and then sends them to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41). He says that, unlike the “lambs,” they had neglected to serve Him when He was hungry, when He was thirsty, when He was in jail, when He was sick.
In verse 44, the goats ask when they ever saw the King in these conditions.
The King answers, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
These people apparently knew about Jesus but failed to trust in Jesus and so, were spiritually dead.
Their spiritual deadness led them in turn to be blind to the Jesus that we can see every day if we will just look.
In the tired department store clerk or restaurant server, if we look, we will see a weary Jesus in need of our service.
In the co-worker weighed down by personal problems, the classmate being bullied, the homeless man at Saint Vincent’s, the friend grieving a recent loss, a family member with whom we have disagreements: In them all, if will look, we can see Jesus. In every person.
We will see that they all bear God’s image.
We will see that they all bear the weight of human sin, including the sin that has been committed against them.
When we believe in Jesus, when we lay our sins at the cross and receive the forgiveness that God confers on those who humbly trust in Christ, God will help us to see Jesus everywhere we go.
And, grateful for His grace, we will, without self-consciousness or conceit, self-promotion or human prompting, be the faithful subjects of Christ our King.
We do the work of God when we let God work in us and on us and through us. It isn’t our work that saves us or makes us right with God; it's the One at work in us, remaking those who trust in Jesus over in Jesus’ image, Who saves us.
The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:8-9: “I consider everything a loss [everything that this world has to offer] because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
The righteousness that comes from faith! That's what the people welcomed by Jesus into His Kingdom possessed.
So, by faith, take Jesus again today in His Word and in the Sacrament.
Trust His promise to meet You in these things.
Trust that He is with you always, just as He has promised.
Let Him live in you. Don’t try to prove what a wonderful Christian you are!
Just follow Jesus. He will take care of the rest. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]