A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Christ the King – November 20, 2005
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
At first glance, today’s gospel seems all about judgment. There is the cosmic courtroom: Christ the Judge seated on the throne, with all the nations standing before him awaiting his decision. The angels wait to carry out his orders, and in the end some are set free and others are sent to punishment. Judgment, plain and simple.
But look deeper, and you’ll see that the heart of this lesson is love. Jesus the Heavenly King isn’t overly concerned with judging – but we can see the depth of his concern for love in that he holds court to separate sheep from goats. The yardstick he uses to measure them is their love for his family, for all his brothers and sisters, and especially the least lovable among them.
It’s fair to ask what it means to love the least of these. Books can – and have – been written about the Christian understanding of love, and the pulpit is not a very helpful place to dive impulsively into such a huge topic. Still, I believe I can offer three meditations that will help us see what Jesus means when he calls for us to act in love toward our neighbors:
Love is never anonymous.
It’s the basic rule of love – love is never anonymous.
With love, there’s always a real, concrete person who is loved. New lovers often forget this, of course. Don’t we sometimes accuse them of being in love with the mere idea of being in love? In those first few days and weeks of love, love comes quite easily for them. They walk hand in hand; they spend most of their days either together or waiting to be together; they know for certain that no other creature has ever been as marvelous as their beloved. It’s bliss.
These feelings are natural, and they’re a blessing…but these new lovers have not discovered the realest love, not yet. They’re still caught up in a dream of each other, you see. In that first giddy rush of endorphins, it’s hard to see your beloved for who she is. Being in love is a strange lens that both magnifies and shrinks all at once – magnifies even the tiniest asset into the most remarkably wonderful thing ever, while shrinking even very large faults down to nothingness. Looking through that in-love lens, the lovers don’t see clearly. Their view of each other is distorted with all this shrinking and enlarging. Their love is still anonymous – it’s not rooted in the reality of the person they love yet.
There comes a moment in all relationships when our sight clears up and we begin to see our beloved for who she is. We recognize the flaws that were there all along, and no longer make too much out of the real gifts she still has. The nuances of her come out. And we are surprised to discover that we love her – not an idea of her, or a dream of her, but her, in all of her amazing humanness.
This moment is captured beautifully in a favorite movie of mine, “When Harry Met Sally…”. Harry Burns and Sally Albright have spent years swinging back and forth between loving and hating each other; between friendship, fighting, and even a pass or two at romance. And sometime along the way, Harry has learned to see Sally for who she is, warts and all: She is no longer anonymous to him, and he loves her. Moments before New Year’s ball drops, he manages to put it into words.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking,” Harry tells her. “And the thing is, I love you. ... I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night.”
Real love is never anonymous. It is never directed at a dream – love sees its beloved clearly, with eyes wide open, and loves even more.
It’s not about who they are. It’s about who we are.
That seems strange to say, having just talked about how love sees is object clearly and honestly. But love is a complicated thing, and like all complicated things, there are contradictions to it. Here we find one.
What I mean to say is that whether we love or not has very little to do with the person we’re loving. That’s easier to understand when you turn it around – whether or not someone loves you has very little to do with you. We all understand this inherently; it’s impossible to cause someone to love you if they don’t. Whether they love or don’t love has to do with who they are, with what’s inside of them.
All this was driven home hard for me the morning of September 11. I had watched the towers fall, seen the destruction unfold live on TV, felt my stomach clench in a not as I watched in horrified wonder. And then I retreated to my room; sat on my bed; and prayed.
I began, of course, in prayer for those who had died, for those who had lost someone, for those whose lives were in danger at this very moment, and for those who would not want to continue living after this moment. But as I prayed, a very strange thing happened to me – a thing I can’t explain. I became aware that I must also pray for the very people who had caused such terrible pain today. It revolted me. “Love your enemies!” Jesus commanded me. “Pray for those who persecute you!” If ever I’ve felt as though he were speaking directly to my heart, it was in that instant.
I was convicted. I hated them, those monsters who had done this, and yet my Lord demanded my prayers for my enemies. If ever I had an enemy, it was them. And so I offered up: “Lord, I can’t do it. I can’t pray for those S.O.B.s yet. I can’t pray for them the way you want me to. So you do it, Lord. You pray for me; let your words be mine for now, until I can learn to pray them myself. Somehow, Lord, you love them. Make me to love the ones I hate the way you love them, and to pray for them the way you would. Amen.”
We are commanded to love the ones who are most horrible to us. Not only the hungry and thirsty, the naked and the sick, the stranger and the prisoner, but even our worst enemies. This is because our love must not be about who they are; it is about who we are. And who we are is children of God, who have been turned around from death and destruction through the power of his love. That’s why we love our enemies. That’s why we pray for them. If it were about who they are, al Qaeda would bear the weight of the most awful curses I could cast at them. But I am God’s child, and I’m under command to love even the most unlovable…even my mortal enemy. And so I pray.
True love is really divine love on a pilgrimage.
These are wise words. When we experience true love, it’s actually God’s own love here on a pilgrimage. That’s the thread that ties my first two stories together.
1 John 4:7-8 teaches us that God is love. “Everyone who loves,” says the scripture, “is born of God and knows God.” So everywhere we see even the tiniest glimmer of love lighting up a darkened corner of this world, we know that it is God’s own love passing by on pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage. That’s a word that’s taken on new meaning for me since this summer. A pilgrim is someone on a holy journey. When the word was first coined, the pilgrim’s path passed by necessity through some pretty ugly places. It was hazardous to walk the pilgrim road; the way was wild and full of danger. And yet the pilgrim sets forth, because of the heavenly joy set before him. Through the way may be foul, the goal is the greatest blessing.
God’s love has no easier time of it on pilgrimage here among us. We dirty it and twist it whenever we get our hands on it. We’re a wild and dangerous people for something like God’s love. Even when we do get it, when it comes to the greatest fruition in our lives, it’s still only a passing reminder of the greatness of God’s love. It’s pilgrimage love, not the love of journey’s end.
And yet that pilgrimage love has its way with us. Since our love for one another is God’s love on pilgrimage, it causes us to love our neighbors with eyes wide open, to love them despite their flaws and their sins. It keeps us from loving them anonymously. Why? Because God’s love for us is anything but anonymous. He knows us inside and out, sees all the ugliness – and the beauty, too – and loves us with complete realism. His love for us is not the love of a dream or an idea, but absolute, concrete love, without blinders.
And if our love is simply God’s love on pilgrimage, then of course it’s not about who the people we love are – it’s about who we are. Because that’s the way God’s love works: God’s love for us is not about who we are, but about who he himself is. There is nothing in the world that could make God love you, but brothers and sisters, there is nothing in the world that will keep God from loving you, either. God loves us clearly, yes, but his love for us is a reflection of who he is – a God whose very essence is that of a great heart – rather than who we are.
In fact, our sins – the ones that make the pilgrimage of God’s love so dangerous – have also made us God’s enemies. But if he commands us to love our enemies and to pray for them, how much more do you think he does the same himself? Infinitely. Infinitely more. God loves you, his enemy, to the point of saving you through Jesus Christ, turning you around, making you somehow into not just a friend, but his very own child.
Whatever glimpses of love we see here on earth, they are certainly peeks at God’s love on pilgrimage among us, journeying toward the heavenly goal. God’s love for us is clear and honest, and so our love for each other must never be anonymous, but must be for the real, specific, concrete human beings we are. And as God’s love for us comes from who he is and not from what we are, our love for each other – even for our worst enemies – springs from our salvation in Christ, and not from whatever they have done.
God’s love is on pilgrimage among us, and because our love is God’s pilgrimage love, we are also journeying toward the goal. One day, when Christ sits enthroned and surrounded by angels, his love will be perfect among us, and our love will no longer be his pilgrimage love, but his full and complete love. Until that day, let us keep on loving, for our God is love. Amen.